Stanford Report, February 9, 2000.
By JAMES ROBINSON
The atmosphere at last week's Faculty Senate meeting seemed fairly subdued,
given such ominous remarks as "The day of standing up and being a brilliant
lecturer is gone."
That comment, from Jerry Porras, professor at the Graduate School of
Business, came during a discussion on the impact of new technologies on
"I really think that our industry as it has been in the past is dead in the
future," Porras continued. Professors still may be brilliant lecturers, he
quickly added, but they will have to supplement their lectures with instant
access to online databases, for example, in order to respond to students'
Porras' comments came after President Gerhard Casper said he fears that the
faculty in general is not worrying enough about the rapid changes
technology will bring to the classroom.
"I'm not sure that we as a university . . . that you all have enough angst
about this," Casper said. "So far, this has been the concern of relatively
small groups of faculty administrators in a couple of schools, but it has
not been widespread throughout the university. . . . So in a way, I would
like all of you to be more worried than you are. Because on the whole
everybody is pretty complacent."
The discussion kicked off with a presentation by Geoff Cox, who fills the
newly created position of vice provost for institutional planning, learning
technologies and extended education. Cox acknowledged the work of the
Commission on Technology in Teaching and Learning, which was established in
1994 and spawned a variety of projects, and the Stanford Learning Lab,
which has been researching the use of new technologies in the classroom.
But now more than ever, Cox said, universities are being evaluated in part
on their technological prowess.
"As each generation of students comes with having spent more of their
education or time already using technology, their expectations for being
able to use technology in the classrooms at Stanford increases and their
facilities with various kinds of technology also increases," he said. "So
there is a market side push to what we're about here, I think - that
increasingly universities are being judged on the adequacy of the
technology they provide to their students and faculty."
His comments were echoed by Provost John Hennessy, who said, "There is a
generation of students emerging for which the web would be their primary
means of communication." He noted that while the online courses provided by
the Stanford Center for Professional Development are still somewhat
"primitive," there already are faculty who don't want their courses
available online for fear students won't show up at their lectures.
"We already see students opting not to go to class in order to watch the
class on their computer in their dorm room," Hennessy said. "I think it's
an indication that there's a generation of students out there for which the
tradeoff between being able to take the course when they want, where they
want, is greater than the physical presence of being in a classroom. And as
the technology gets better, I think we'll see more and more of that."
Therefore, he said, it is to Stanford's "distinct advantage" to begin
experimenting right away with new technologies and teaching methods "so
that when the time comes we can be nimble and we can adjust as the world
Cox said universities are moving in many different directions but that much
of the focus of online courses is on "lifelong learning" -- whether it be
for people who need to learn new technologies or for those who simply
desire intellectual stimulation. Schools such as New York University and
the University of Maryland are setting up for-profit subsidiaries to try to
exploit these new markets, he said. Williams, Amherst, Brown and Cornell
are taking part in the General Education Network. Stanford, meanwhile, is
cooperating with Columbia and the University of Chicago in UNext.com.
"There's a bit of a sense out there that everybody's going to choose up
teams," Cox said.
He described Stanford's participation in UNext as "fairly low risk" with
potentially large rewards. Stanford does not yet offer any courses through
UNext, and no university credit will be attached to the courses. UNext,
initially in the business school, will engage faculty members (and
compensate them) to help design online courses. "And even 'course,' I
think, should be used in a very broad way," he said. "The faculty member
becomes the sort of intellectual driver or spirit of the development of
UNext will provide the technical production capacity required to make the
course happen "and then, once it's offered out to the world, it is branded,
as they like to say, as a UNext product developed at Stanford University or
something like that," Cox said.
One faculty member asked if UNext is primarily a money-making venture for
"I think the emphasis here is on experimentation," Casper said. He said he
did not want to Stanford to be left behind, and that the virtue of UNext is
that "there are very easy exit provisions for us. So we are not tied in any
form or shape to anything there for any great length of time." Producing
such online courses -- at least those that are not just "talking heads" --
is likely to be expensive, Casper added.
He said there are likely to be delicate issues involved with online courses
-- "about degrees, values and what have you" -- but that "before we can
face those issues we must know whether we are capable of doing something
like this with reasonable amounts of investment, because we don't have any
extra cash lying around."
Brad Efron, statistics, said he hopes the new technologies will not
complicate tasks that are now relatively straightforward and simple. His
course preparations are currently a "one-person activity. I don't have to
gear up for a movie production or something like that. I hope we won't make
the teaching of a course a production that involves many people." Cox said
that was a fair statement.
"Technology has to be used where it's appropriate and where it's helpful.
It could very easily get in the way," he said. SR
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