A day at Stanford

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Of the many things you can be jealous of in a university, hardly any are missing at Stanford. Campus architecture is a matter of taste, but Stanford’s way of quoting the full history of architecture up from the middle ages is attractive nonetheless. Next to thta, they have got great people. We do as well of course, but well … they have got more. And then of course, there is the brand name and the big endowment. To quote on of the persons we met: life for a university becomes a heck of a lot easier if you have those two.

We first paid a visit to Wendy Ju at the D-School. The D-School was one of the inspirations for our DesignLab in Twente, and Wendy has meant a lot to us in the past as an advisor. We are very happy to still have her on board at the Lab. Walking around the original here at Stanford is inspiring. We get a lot more understanding of what Vanessa Evers and the others have in mind for Twente.

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Next, we met with Paul Marca, director of the Stanford Centre for Professional Development in the School of Engineering. Building upon Stanford’s history (‘If you want to be an engineer, go to MIT - if you want to be an entrepreneur, go to Stanford’ - we immediately had the Dutch analogy), Paul gave us his vision on the future of the university and the role online learning could play in that future. He makes a clear distinction between publishing free mooc’s, offering paid online programs to professionals, and enriching regular degree programs with online content.

The regular degree programs “create and validate the academic community”. It is where much of the content for both professional programs and free mooc’s is actually developed. A case can be made for using this content in professional programs, as they can generate revenue for the instution that in he end benefits the regular programs. For the mooc’s however, the benefit they can offer to the degree programs on which they leech is minimal at best. Building reputation would be the only argument to invest in mooc’s, but then there should be a clear business case on how this reputation is going to bring revenue back to the core activity of the university. In Paul’s view, that would be primarily through attracting student for paid professional course rather than for regular degree courses.

In our discussion, we conclude that, as this may be true for a university like Stanford, our situation is quite different in the sense that we don’t have an extensive professional learning market in Europe, outside the management programs. Paul admits that in professional Engineering training IEEE is probably a bigger competitor than other universities are.

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Discussing what online learning can do for the regular programs, Paul makes the interesting point that to his experience, especially in the Engineering department, online learning has put teaching methods as such on the agenda. Tech savvy teachers and leaders are suddenly developing an interest for the methodology of teaching and stepping out of the business-as-usual mode. This shake up is good for the overall quality of teaching, even if in the end nothing digital is introduced. Today’s quote must be: failing sucks, but it instructs.

Stanford has appointed a vice-provost for online learning some two years ago. He could not make it to our appointment, because the president called him away. But we had an interesting presentation and discussion with some of the people on his team (resources at vpol.stanford.edu). They run a seeding fund for faculty to develop online material for their courses. It was interesting to see how they follow a rather strict production protocol, in which faculty clearly define the learning objectives for the production and relate the student experience they seek to these objectives. Next, the so-called “spaces” are designed in which this experience can be delivered, and finally a constant process of assessing, iterating and improving is followed. This is quite a lot more rigorous than the approach to regular teaching is. The team even consists of storytellers and production technicians who are recruited from Hollywood.

Some interesting tools that are used in these productions are feedback systems for the teacher, that tell what part of a video are watched most, paused most often, etc. These tools are also available for online text, where they show for example which pieces are highlighted by students, how much reading time it took, and at what time and date they have been read or annotated. The teacher can even connect this data to individual students.

Discussing these options over lunch with team leader Mitchell Stevens in Stanford’s faculty club, we see how some approaches and tools may be relevant for our situation. At the same time, however, the culture of teaching at a for-profit US elite-institution is quite far from what we can do, and more importantly, from what we want to do in Twente.

Bruce Vincent is the Senior Technology Strategist for IT-Services at Stanford. He introduces us to the way in which Stanford handles the demands these new educational technologies (which to please our rector we have now dubbed Ed Tech) put on the soft- and hardware on campus, and which parts are pushed into the cloud. It is interesting to see that Stanford is not pushing for standardization very hard, as more and more tools are available for free online. At the same time, securing data and privacy of faculty and students is a rising concern, especially as more and more third parties are becoming interested in snooping in.

Further challenges to hardware are posed by the ever-increasing amount of devices students bring on campus. Where only some years ago, a student would only bring mum or dad’s old laptop, today he or she will have 6 or 7 brand new high-end devices.

Our last stop for the day is the new Lathrop library, where we meet with the amiable Robert Emery Smith. He shows us a few astounding cases of technology enhanced learning rooms. One is an acoustical technology that enables any speaker anywhere in a large hall to talk at a normal volume and still be heard in every corner, through an intricate system of microphones and speakers. With the switch of a button, this system goes into the exact opposite mode and makes it possible for groups of student to talk to each other without being distracted by the group at the next table. The room is specifically build for flipped teaching, where student groups are expected to regularly switch between plenary and local discussion. The room is also equipped with a number of screens that can be captured from any device (through cheap of-the-shelf airplay technology) so student can collaboratively work on a group-screen or present to the whole class on the big screen.

A next example is a oblong room with a video wall along the longest side, that also allows for any device in the room to connect at the same time. It has the option to zoom each device-window on the wall independently. The furniture in the room is also flexible, so that any layout of floor and screen is possible. The room can look like mission control one moment, and be a movie theatre the next.

We discuss the possible uses of these technologies, which also yet have to be discovered by Bob, as they have only been in use for two weeks. In our discussion, we also touch upon the issue of student with impairments. Here, Bob sees mostly benefits. These systems are easily connected to hearing aids, video’s can easily be close captioned and the transcripts can be automatically fed to braille readers. And, with all the resources online, immobile students can be a lot more flexible in their planning. We conclude he’s right and that great universities are as American as is optimism and always seeing chances.

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Go to the next report from 24 September