Stanford Creates New Post: Vice Provost for Online Learning

Stanford University has reaffirmed its commitment to advancing its online education initiatives by appointing computer science professor John Mitchell as the inaugural head of the new Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning. This is only the third Vice Provost office created in the past 20 years at Stanford, with the others being for undergraduate and graduate education. University spokeswoman Lisa Lapin said that those offices ‘fundamentally reshaped education at Stanford’ and that they intend for the Vice Provost for Online learning to do the same.

Billy Gallagher from Tech Crunch reports that this fall 15 courses across the engineering, mathematics, social science, entrepreneurship and education disciplines will be offered online with more courses offered in the coming winter and spring. Faculty members have already been selected from the schools of Medicine, Engineering and Business to focus on online learning.

“Our primary mission is to teach Stanford students,” Provost John Etchemendy said, “but it is also the university’s mission to disseminate knowledge widely, through textbooks, scholarly publications and so forth. Technology provides ways to both improve our existing classes and to extend our reach. By using technology creatively, we can tap the tremendous teaching talent we have on campus to offer new learning opportunities to millions of people, both in the United States and around the world.”

Stanford is already regarded as a worldwide leader in developing online education. Coursera, a free platform that offers ‘massive open online courses’ — or MOOCs — was founded by Stanford computer science professors on leave and has hosted Stanford classes online for the past year while serving hundreds of thousands of students across the globe. Class2Go and Venture Lab are also Stanford-affiliated software platforms, and Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun is a former Stanford professor who has helped demonstrate the viability and utility of the MOOC model.

President John Hennessy recently told Stanford’s Faculty Senate that online learning was a wave that they needed to be surfing — not drowning in.

“Universities must evolve to meet the needs of today’s complex world,” Hennessy said in September 2011. “For example, technology is changing the face of higher education: how we teach as well as the ability to collaborate over distance…the country needs another major innovation center that would have some of the dynamism and capability and impact that Silicon Valley has had.”

MIT and Harvard’s edX program, recently joined by UC Berkeley, shows the eagerness of even the most distinguished traditional universities to get on board with online education. With initial doubts that online education may just be a fad with a short half-life, along with the risk that online education may entirely supplant some brick and mortar universities, it is little surprise that Hennessy wants Stanford to be carried forward by the wave of online instead of having it wash away some of its student base.

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