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Since long before the advent of massive open online courses, Candace Thille's project to fuse learning science with open educational delivery, developed at Carnegie Mellon University, has been heralded as one of higher education's most significant and promising developments.

Friday, Thille essentially launched stage two of her research-based effort to expand the reach and improve the quality of technology-enabled education, with word that she (and at least part of her Open Learning Initiative) would move to Stanford University.

Thille and Stanford officials alike believe that by merging her experience in building high-quality, data-driven, open online courses with Stanford's expertise in research on teaching and learning – notably its focus on how different types of students learn in differing environments – the university can become a center of research and practice in the efficacy of digital education.

“The opportunity to get someone like Candace is just thrilling to us,” says Claude Steele, dean of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, where Thille will have her first-ever faculty appointment. “She will complement the strengths we have in studying the effect of context in learning and research on the role of technology in education, and can tie a lot of these things together. She can help us transform what would otherwise be independent, somewhat fragmented efforts into systematic improvement of this kind of pedagogy.”

Some aspects of Thille’s West Coast move remain unclear. Still to be fully resolved are which members of the Open Learning Initiative team, and which of its grants, will remain at Carnegie Mellon and which will shift with her to Stanford. Negotiations are continuing, and officials at the two institutions say they will collaborate and complement each other more than compete.

“It’s kind of like when you graduate a Ph.D. student who you’ve watched develop – you have to be okay with letting them go,” says Mark Kamlet, provost at Carnegie Mellon. “We view her as an emissary of our view of the importance of science of learning, about thinking how to improve education, and we view this as another institution making a statement about the importance of that way of looking at things. And not just any other institution, but Stanford.”

Heading Home

Stanford was not just another institution to Thille, either; for her it is quite literally home. She was born in Stanford Hospital, and she has largely commuted to Pittsburgh for the last decade, keeping the Bay Area as her family’s primary residence.

The Open Learning Initiative that she has built at Carnegie Mellon since 2002 is one of higher education’s grandest experiments. The effort’s original goal was to make courses freely available to non-enrolled learners, and it designed software that would adapt to the individual needs of students. But as researchers exposed traditional Carnegie Mellon students to the courses, they found that those who used the open-learning program scored just as well as those who attended the three weekly lectures and lab period.

That put the Open Learning Initiative on new paths, funded by numerous major foundation and federal grants. In recent years, it has used its existing open courses to help liberal arts colleges better educate academically underprepared students or free up classroom time for other purposes, and is developing a set of courses specifically for use by community colleges – an effort, Thille says, to deal with the cost and attainment conundrum with which policy makers and public higher education leaders are wrestling.

Although Thille and the Open Learning Initiative’s courses have been praised widely, they have been largely eclipsed in the last year or two by the explosion of interest (and hype) in massive open online courses (the new breed of which has been largely spawned by professors with Stanford ties).

While continuing to support the Open Learning Initiative and several other research efforts focused on student learning in K-12 and higher education, particularly through affiliates like Carnegie Learning and LearnLab, Carnegie Mellon itself has broadened its efforts recently to include several for-profit subsidiaries that provide services that help colleges develop their online academic programs.

Stanford's Ambitions

Stanford, meanwhile, has become what Steele, the education dean, calls “ground zero in online learning” – a status that he says the university both “enjoys and suffers from.”

By that he means that while Stanford has gained significant visibility from the fact that MOOC providers Coursera and Udacity were started by current and former Stanford professors, that visibility has gained it a reputation in some quarters as an unqualified booster of technology-based education -- an image at least partially at odds with an institutional ethos based on sound research-based practices.

The university has a long history of research in learning science, particularly at the K-12 level, led by scholars such as Carol Dweck, Roy Pea, and Steele, the education dean.   

Last year, it created a new position, vice provost for online learning, signaling the university’s recognition that digitally delivered instruction is going to be part of higher education’s future and its desire to ensure that online learning efforts – for Stanford’s own students and those elsewhere – are research-based and effective, says John Mitchell, the computer scientist who was named to the new post.

"One of the most important issues here is that whatever we do, it has to be grounded in substantial and informative educational practice," Mitchell says.

Thille, who notes that she is seen as a "MOOC skeptic" because of their emphasis on scale rather than on "how people learn, and how to support learners who don't look like me and you," began informal discussions with Stanford officials nearly a year ago about her possible move to the university.

Thille says she was attracted by the prospect of focusing as much on the “context” in which learning takes place – a specialty of Stanford scholars such as Steele, who studies “stereotype threat” – as she has on data-driven cognitive science during her time at Carnegie Mellon.

Policy makers are increasingly looking to digital forms of education to deal with the “dual challenge of cost and attainment,” Thille says: “How do we get more and more learners to achieve some kind of higher ed credential of value, while pushing down the cost of achieving that credential in a context in which states are cutting their support?”

The more that’s the case, Thille says, the more important it is that scholars understand how students with different educational backgrounds and learning styles and cultural perspectives fare in digital environments – a research problem that Stanford is singularly positioned to attack, Thille says.

Thille’s new colleagues at Stanford see boundless possibilities in her potential contributions to the university, given the collaborative nature of how Stanford operates and Thille’s energy and enthusiasm. “Our big struggle may be not to overwhelm her with all the people who will want to work with her,” says Steele.

In addition to adding her research expertise to Stanford’s team of scholars studying pedagogy, the university also envisions incorporating the Open Learning Initiative’s technology software into its own platform development work – which is in the process of being integrated with those at edX, the MOOC provider based at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Exactly how that happens is one of the many details still to be worked out as Thille, Stanford and Carnegie Mellon nail down how they will work together in the future. But building OLI’s principles of making courses and data freely available to students and to researchers will be one important element of whatever comes later, says Mitchell Stevens, director of digital research at Stanford.

“There is an open question about how the science of learning will be organized, and how much that science will be built as a public good,” Stevens says. Some of that research – and data – will undoubtedly be done and kept in the private domain, as companies like Knewton and Coursera and for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix experiment.

But research institutions like Stanford, Stevens says, “have a responsibility to build this science as a public good,” and the university is “very serious about building this knowledge in the public domain.”

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