Stanford School of Education course tackles challenges of digital learning

November 15, 2012

Amid all the hyperbolic proclamations that massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are poised to take over the educational universe, dispassionate and well-trained minds are needed to assess just exactly what is going on with digital and online learning and what we can reasonably expect.

Funny how the Stanford School of Education reached that same conclusion. Throughout this academic year, a 1-unit course called Education's Digital Future (EDF) is bringing together students, faculty and professionals from Stanford and its community to study how digital education works and which models work better.

Start with the graduate students of the School of Education, then add students from around campus, faculty and local K-12 teachers. Mix in software developers, venture capitalists, policy experts and anyone else who cares to walk in to join the Tuesday conversations in the CERAS building.

It's more than a course: It's a website, a hub, a potential movement. And it's way more than technology.

"We're at a moment of an epic shift in the political economy of higher education; how we measure it, fund it, govern it are all in flux," says Mitchell Stevens, one of the course's organizers. For one thing, he said, the progression from K-12 to college, with a high school diploma in between, does not necessarily reflect the true pace of human learning. "We need to rethink the relationship between college education and the life course and radically re-narrate the chronology."

Stevens, an associate professor of education, and Roy Pea, the David Jacks Professor of Education, are the organizers of EDF (Educ 403x), which combines the classroom experience with a speakers series and online forums on the Piazza platform for enrolled students. This quarter, 37 students are officially enrolled in the course. Dozens of nonstudents also take part; sometimes the room overflows.

The idea was to create a low-barrier town square where all relevant players could gather, talk, listen and sift out the substance from the hype. Stevens, who came to Stanford in 2009 from New York University, acknowledged that the whole thing is an experience unlike anything he has ever taken part in, "a pedagogical challenge I never envisioned having." But it's a challenge he has fully embraced.

"It's great," he said. "You say 'digital' and 'Stanford School of Education,' and everyone says 'yes.'"

The challenge of digital technology

Although many think the promised land is around the corner, the 403x speakers throughout fall quarter let their audience know that they're in for an uphill struggle, both conceptually and on the ground. Suddenly, it seems, all our preconceived notions of educational institutions are being challenged and even threatened by digital and online technologies. Will they work? Will they, to use Schumpeter's expression, be creatively destructive?

Stevens is quick to point out that though this may feel to some like a sudden dilemma, in fact, it's the culmination of a long process.

"This is not just a technical transformation," he said, "it's economic and political, and it has been turbo-charged by new business models. It's happening so quickly now because of larger changes that have been going on in U.S. education for 30 years."

Speakers at 403x have represented just about every sector relevant to its ambitious agenda. They included Adrian Sannier, senior vice president for product at Pearson, a leading education services company; Candace Thille, director of Carnegie Mellon University's famed Open Learning Initiative (OLI); Catherine Casserly, CEO of Creative Commons; Tom Vander Ark, formerly with the Gates Foundation and now a venture capitalist focused on education; Prasad Ram, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Ednovo; and Steve Midgley, a consultant with the U.S. Department of Education.

All, as well as Stevens and Pea, see a tension between two narratives that are not mutually exclusive: On the one hand, the possibilities are infinite. With new technology, education can be everywhere, flexible, responsive, better, cheap. On the other, we have to deal with resistant technologies, market rigidities, closed minds, anxious school districts, missing infrastructure, a shrinking tax base and politics.

But, Ednovo's Ram noted at the EDF panel held on Election Night, "everyone these days wants to be the Education President, so something is going right!"

Higher education

Class sessions explore both university-level MOOCs and hybrid learning in general, as well as K-12 learning, whose challenges are quite different. In her presentation, Carnegie Mellon's Thille, for example, addressed the twin missions of learning about learning and teaching those who otherwise would not have access to high-quality higher education.

OLI comprises hybrid, mostly core-curriculum courses created by multidisciplinary Carnegie Mellon teams and then made available to a wide range of colleges and universities. Students learn both in a real classroom and using CMU's videos, and instructors are able to gather valuable data about how students learn. In fact, Thille said, it is the research that is most compelling: "OLI is not just the technology; it is an approach, a research question. … We need a research agenda that goes way beyond the technology."

The urgency of K-12 reform

Beyond concerns about how MOOCs might upend higher education, many of those crowded into the auditorium are most worried about K-12 education. That was best illustrated in the Nov. 6 forum on digital curricula, delivered to an overflow crowd of several hundred, with dozens watching on a screen in the lobby.

Venture capitalist Vander Ark set the tone. "The shift we're going through now is the most important in the history of learning," he said. "It's one of the most important trends of the world," along with phenomena such as the spread of democracy and the rise of biotechnology. The shift in question is toward "personalized learning with new tools in new kinds of schools," with online learning being just one piece of the puzzle.

Ednovo CEO Ram similarly stressed the absurdity of arbitrarily deciding that six hours a day are for school, two hours are for homework "and the rest is not learning." Rather, he suggested, learning should be (and in fact is) pervasive. We learn every minute of every day. The challenge is to ensure that K-12 students have the means for making learning possible and gaining as much as they can from it.

But school districts and public school teachers were not front and center in the panel's presentations, a deficit that questioners immediately pointed to. They also wondered who or what is going to pay for all these innovations (schools? government? foundations? companies?) and how the new financial or fiscal infrastructure would be coordinated with existing school district structures.

The EDF website is nearly as busy as the classroom itself. Homework assignments and comments are posted on Piazza forums, most class readings are available to the world, course assistants post summaries of lectures and panels weekly, and video footage of most guest speakers can be viewed.

Looking ahead to the rest of the year, Stevens said 403x students will be working on team projects, with EDF functioning as an incubator of ideas. He would like to see more discussion about the digital revolution and equity and about the whole notion of diploma-laden education, which he believes has far more to do with statistical convenience than with measuring true learning.

Overall, he said, he is pleased with the experiment and with what he calls the "plural conversations" every week in the large and diverse 403x community. "The future is coming," he said. "We need to think about it."