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Stanford adds social learning component to free online course

Social Network for Class of 400,000
June 19, 2012

Stanford University began sharing recordings of events and faculty presentations on iTunes U in 2005, and since then it has steadily increased its online offerings. With the launch of the updated iTunes U app in January, Stanford began to offer supplemental materials, such as assessments, quizzes and exams, with its 13 courses.

And this summer, for the first time, Stanford is adding another component to one of its online courses -- interaction with other students.

Brent Izutsu, senior program manager for Stanford on iTunes U, said the updated app, which allows universities to post supplemental materials along with lecture videos, allowed the university to present a much fuller course experience, but not a complete one: “What was missing from that -- and it still is kind of missing from that from the Apple point of view -- is social interaction,” he said. “We think that’s a really important part of the learning experience.”

So Stanford is partnering with Piazza, a free program that allows students to interact with professors, teaching assistants and other students in real time, to allow online subscribers to one of its computer programming courses the opportunity to ask questions and discuss the material.

The course, iPad and iPhone Application Development, is the most popular of Stanford’s 13 iTunes U offerings, with more than 400,000 subscribers to the fall 2011 set of videos. The course, taught by Stanford Professor Paul Hegarty, already uses Piazza for its on-campus students, Izutsu said. The course is one of Stanford's many experimental MOOCs (massively open online courses), he said. Stanford also offers courses through Coursera, a company which provides MOOCs internationally. 

“It would be a good fit and an interesting experiment to see how that would translate to the broader online audience,” he said. “What we’re kind of interested in is to see if there really is an interest to take the course with a cohort of their peers and see how much richer that experience could be.” Izutsu said he expected to see additional interest in the program with the addition of the social learning component.

He said Stanford has offered the course on iTunes U for a few years and has seen ad hoc groups, such as Google groups, surface for students to connect. “Now we’re providing a more central place where they can do that, along with getting the assistance from course facilitators to provide additional interaction.” Izutsu said the course organizers are not planning on splitting the massive amount of students into subgroups, but the option has not been ruled out if they end up seeing a need for smaller discussion groups. 

Course facilitators -- essentially teaching assistants -- will moderate discussion on Piazza and answer students’ general questions. Izutsu said students will be encouraged to use those general answers to figure out assignments, but they can pose more specific questions to their peers as well. He said Hegerty will not participate in the online course’s Piazza discussions.

Pooja Sankar, founder and CEO of Piazza, said the program has been engineered to handle classes of 100,000 students. Class sizes for the online programming course might be much larger than that, as enrollment for the last iteration of the course exceeded 400,000 students. But Sankar remained confident that the system will be able to maintain its normal functions with such a potentially large amount of users: "We're really confident that the way we have architectured the system, we can maintain that dynamic real time aspect of Piazza for even very, very large classes."

This summer will mark the first time an institution has included a social learning component in an iTunes U course offering.

Sankar said she’s excited about the opportunities that will follow from introducing Piazza to the growing market for online courses: “Why I think this one pilot with Stanford and iTunes U is very promising and very powerful is it’s an indicator of what can happen when you think of taking all that content that is available,” she said, adding that she thinks interest in using Piazza will increase after the pilot program. “This will be an indicator to many other institutions and professors that they can do the same thing now with their class materials.”

Depending on the success of the pilot program, Stanford will look at adding more courses to iTunes U that use social learning. “We’ve already been in talks with some other faculty who are very interested in perhaps doing this down the road,” Izutsu said. “We’re trying to see how this works over the summer and then reevaluate it afterwards -- right now, we are kind of in an experimental phase.”

But one option that Stanford is not yet ready to offer is certification for its iTunes U courses.

“On iTunes U, one of the big hurdles is how do you verify that the person who enrolled in the course is the person actually taking the course? How do we authenticate that?” Izutsu said. “If we have any big inroads to that, maybe we’ll do it with iTunes U, but right now that’s still a big question that we haven’t found a good answer for.”

 

 

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