Stanford takes landmark step in online learning, appoints new vice provost

The creation of the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning – part of the larger Stanford Online initiative – signals both a restructuring of the university and its dedication to ensuring pedagogical agility and rigor in the face of global, economic and social transformations.

L.A. Cicero John Mitchell portrait

Computer scientist John Mitchell will serve as Stanford's first vice provost for online learning.

Stanford University today announced the creation of an Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning, a landmark step in its commitment to bring new teaching and learning methods to Stanford students – and to students around the world – in response to the requirements and potential of the 21st century.

The first vice provost of the office will be computer scientist John Mitchell, the Mary and Gordon Crary Family Professor in the School of Engineering. Earlier in the year he was named by President John Hennessy to be chair of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Technology in Higher Education.

"Stanford has been at the forefront of this game-changing, challenging initiative," Hennessy said in announcing Mitchell's appointment. "Our faculty have been working in online education for some time now, and their excitement is growing. This is a field that deserves increasing attention and investment, and the new Office of the Vice Provost is in keeping with Stanford's tradition of leadership in innovation and experimentation.

"I'm delighted that John Mitchell has agreed to accept this challenge and serve as our first vice provost."

The creation of the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning (VPOL) – part of the larger Stanford Online initiative – signals both a restructuring of the university and its dedication to ensuring pedagogical agility and rigor in the face of global, economic and social transformations.

Provost John Etchemendy, to whom Mitchell will report, pointed to the dual possibilities inherent in online learning. "Our primary mission is to teach Stanford students," he 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."

During the coming academic year, Stanford Online will focus on involving faculty in new teaching and learning methods; supporting course production and online delivery; and continuing a seed grant program that began last spring.

The underlying challenge is this: How can Stanford faculty best teach students, both those enrolled on campus and lifelong learners? VPOL will enable the university essentially to become a laboratory of learning for the benefit of teachers everywhere, by providing leadership and information as the online education movement develops.

Stanford Online comprises courses taught by Stanford faculty, software designed by and for Stanford faculty, a new website offering resources and community to those involved in online learning, and the seed grants. Mitchell also will oversee technical production and communications related to the online learning effort.

"This is a very exciting time to be in education," Mitchell said. "While technology provides many new possibilities, the fundamental question is how to improve teaching and learning with these tools. With Stanford's tradition of innovation and academic excellence, we have the perfect environment for trying many new approaches across campus. Many faculty are enthusiastic about showing off their courses to the world, but our deepest interest is in improving the educational experience for our students. In the process, we can use technology to expand our student base and provide exciting learning opportunities worldwide."

It is quite rare for Stanford to establish vice-provostial offices. Nearly 20 years ago the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education was created; and in 2007 the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education opened. Both fundamentally reshaped education at Stanford. VPOL intends to do the same.

Faculty members have stepped up to the challenge. Around 15 courses will be offered online in fall quarter by Stanford faculty, covering engineering, mathematics, social science, education and entrepreneurship, and many more are lined up for winter and spring. The deans of the schools of Medicine, Engineering and Business have appointed faculty members to spearhead online learning at their respective schools, and assigned resources to encourage experimentation among students and faculty.

"We've had exciting proposals for new courses and new online resources from humanities, sciences, engineering and the professional schools," Mitchell said. "We'll see some great learning material from the School of Medicine that can help improve health for everyone. While all the departments and schools have their own approaches, we're all one university working together to leverage web platforms, video technology, social networking, simulation and other tools to improve education for everyone."

Stanford classes on Coursera, a hosting company founded by Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, professors of computer science currently on leave from Stanford, have been extraordinarily successful over the past year, attracting hundreds of thousands of students around the globe.

Two other software platforms have arisen on campus in recent months: Class2Go, a nonprofit, open-source project designed by a team of engineers at the Department of Computer Science; and Venture Lab, designed by Amin Saberi, associate professor of management science and engineering.

All these platforms have unique features appealing to the needs and practices of professors in different fields. They can be adapted for massive open online courses (MOOCs), courses aimed only at Stanford students or a combination of the two.

The Stanford Online website, whose redesign will be launched Sept. 21, will enable students to find courses, faculty to find assistance and inspiration, and anyone interested in educational innovation to follow the developments.

The Presidential Advisory Committee on Technology in Higher Education, led by Mitchell, emphasized in its report that Stanford's primary educational mission is to its own students. Yet at the same time, it said in late July, the university is well poised to take a leading role to bring online educational opportunities to those unable to acquire them by other means. The report weighed strategies combining university-focused and externally focused courses, examined potential cost models and considered the development of homegrown platforms and those based off campus.

Lisa Lapin, University Communications: (650) 725-8396,