Stanford Experiment Opens Classes to the Internet

Stanford Experiment Opens Classes to the Internet

Remotely accessible course materials could set new higher education precedents

When you think of online education, your mind probably goes to those ubiquitous ads for online courses from places like Phoenix University or other for-profit schools that take your hard-earned cash in exchange for an essentially useless degree. A bachelor's earned from an e-learning school might not be proof of a solid education--but a certificate of completion from Stanford just might. 

A new experiment conducted by professors at Stanford University seeks to change the way we think about and seek education. Last fall, the renowned Silicon Valley institution made three of its computer science classes freely available to anyone around the world with a connection to the internet. Remotely registered students could watch videos of lectures and read materials online. They could even complete assignments and take exams, which would then be auto-graded. A passing grade at the end of the semester would award them an official statement of accomplishment. The statement might not carry any real academic credit, but coming from Stanford, it could mean a lot to potential employers seeking to validate applicants' computer skills.

It's hard to get special attention in a class of 160,000 students, of course, but for the throngs that signed up for the program all around the world, a generalized replica of the student experience was all they needed. They had access to lectures, readings, homework. Instead of in-person study groups, they congregated on online message boards to discuss assignments and keep on track for midterms. All aspects of a traditional classroom experience were available, just remotely.

The benefits of remote learning on a personal level may be obvious to anyone who maintains an academic curiosity, but Professor Sebastian Thrun even went so far as to reward those who excelled his Intro to Artificial Intelligence class with a leg up in the professional sphere. He emailed his top 1,000 students asking for resumes, promising to forward them along to prospective employers. He couldn't promise that said employers would be impressed by performance in one class alone, but coming out on top of a Stanford computer science class is nothing to scoff at--no matter the means by which you participate. 

Could this model of remote teaching set a new standard for online learning? It seems other top-rated schools, like MIT, are interested in opening up their classrooms for interested viewers. Publishing course materials publicly comes at little extra cost or effort to instructors. They simply need an assistant to film, edit, and publish lectures. Assignments and exams grade themselves and no extra attention from TAs is required for online students. It's certainly possible that we may see more and more of the world's best-taught courses available to anyone who wishes to pursue them.