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The Skeptic: Stanford’s John Hennessy

Stanford’s president questions whether online learning can match traditional instruction in motivating students.

Stanford president John Hennessy has a background that would make it tempting to regard him as the online-education insurgents’ best friend. He joined Stanford in 1977 as a professor of electrical engineering. He has founded his own computer company and continues a high-level involvement in Silicon Valley, where he serves as a Google director.

Hennessy turns out to be surprisingly cautious, though, about online education in general and massive open online courses (MOOCs) in particular. Traditional teaching has some hard-to-imitate strengths, he pointed out in an interview with MIT Technology Review contributing editor George Anders. Among them: classroom instructors’ ability to inspire students and to gauge how well they have mastered the material.

How do you think online learning compares with traditional methods?
The advantage is the disadvantage. MOOCs let you reach a very large audience that’s highly distributed in terms of its ability to master the material. That’s an inherent property of a course that’s meant to be massive and open. And therein lies the difficulty. If the students are all over the map, then a large fraction of them will feel everything is going too fast. Many will feel it’s too slow. That’s quite different from a traditional classroom at Stanford.

Two of the best-known MOOC platforms, Coursera and Udacity, were started by Stanford computer science professors in 2012. What advice did you give them?
I encouraged them to try, because I believed several things could only be learned by moving the technology out to the market quickly. First, what kind of investment would be necessary to create a high-quality platform. Second, where the market would emerge. Indeed, lots of the market turns out to involve professional training. That’s outside the traditional space that universities serve. You can aim a company in that direction. It’s harder for a university to move in a direction that’s not coherent with its core goals and mission.

What’s your perspective on blending online tools and face-to-face teaching? We’re hearing a lot these days about the “flipped classroom,” in which students listen to lectures online and then use class time for problem solving.
We need a lot more experiments. We need people to try out things and measure them. There’s one really good experiment involving an online statistics class from Carnegie Mellon. It showed quite clearly that a flipped classroom can lead to comparable performance versus traditional instruction, in less time. If you could reduce the time that students need to learn the material—and be sure that students aren’t learning less—then we would have something valuable.

Distance learning has been around for a long time. How have we moved beyond some very clunky beginnings?
Active learning. The truth is, looking at a talking video for an hour is absolutely no more motivating—perhaps even less motivating—than sitting in a large lecture hall for an hour. You need a more interactive experience that requires you to pay attention and answer a quiz before going on to the next section. That gives the students some confidence.

Professors at top-tier universities are ambitious souls. Has MOOC creation become a badge of glory in some disciplines?
For us, it’s more about some contribution to the public good. I mean, there’s some brand building going on, but it’s mostly just a way of sharing content with people who wouldn’t have access to it otherwise.

How could online learning methods become more useful?
We’re trying to build analytics so that we can give feedback to faculty. In a traditional, large science or engineering class, you don’t know until the midterm or the final whether there’s some topic that’s a disaster in terms of the students not getting it. Online, you can get feedback much sooner. You might even be able to get it before the lecture is over, so that you can fix it while the class is still going on. We’d like to fold that in, so that we can develop teaching that gets progressively better.

Can we gauge whether online students have truly mastered the material?
We’re still stumbling around, finding the right mix of automated grading, peer grading, and some role for graduate students or other trained evaluators. There are just some things that can’t be graded automatically. And in high-stakes situations, peer grading makes everybody nervous. Motivation and personal contact are critical issues. I just don’t think that beaming a MOOC into somebody’s bedroom is going to create the kind of engaging experience they’re going to need to succeed in school. The technology will get better, but it will take some time.

How do you like what’s in the marketplace now?
There are a wide variety of issues that have to be solved. For-profit or nonprofit; consortiums or institutions going in alone. Who actually does the instruction? Who provides the certification? They’re still playing out in real time.

Did you ever try any MOOCs yourself, as a student?
I started this American poetry class from Penn. The material was well presented. For the self-motivated individual, this stuff works well. The MOOC creates a learning community that’s really the modern version of a book club. I don’t know how much you could charge for it—but it’s an interesting learning environment.

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