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June 29, 2011

Stanford faculty collaborate to improve online education

Professors are building new software to simplify lecture recording, host course material online, spark discussion among students and teachers and share Stanford courses. Others are testing these new tools in the classroom.

By Melissae Fellet

Computer science Professor Daphne Koller experimented with CourseWare and ClassX during a sophomore-level programming class. (Photo by Steve Fyffe / Stanford News Service) 

Several Stanford faculty members are working together to improve online education at the university by developing new software and testing it in the classroom.

The collaboration unites three experimental online education efforts: ClassX, a video processing platform that facilitates lecture recording; CourseWare, an online course hosting site with social networking features; and Open Classroom, a web platform designed to share Stanford lectures freely with the world.

The researchers are combining the three programs into one. The unified system should be available to the Stanford community by the fall quarter, said computer science associate professor Andrew Ng, creator of Open Classroom. The software will eventually be available to other universities as well, he said.

"We've known for many years what we wanted to do for online education," Ng said. "We just needed to build the software to make it work."

Traditionally, a professor delivers one long lecture each class session. In large classes with hundreds of students, there’s often little back-and-forth questioning between students and the teacher.

Online courses increase information availability for students. Prerecorded lectures can free up class time for more interaction between students and teachers. Students help each other in discussions similar to a comment thread on a social networking site. And supplemental interactive lessons can help reduce disparity among students with different educational backgrounds.

Stanford computer science Professor Daphne Koller tested CourseWare and ClassX during a sophomore-level programming class. She posted recorded lectures online and used class time to cover problems, host guest lecturers from the tech industry and review material her students found difficult.

Students watched each lecture in 10- to 15-minute "chunks." A multiple-choice question followed each chunk to help reinforce the concepts. Koller posted weekly quizzes online as well. The short tests require students to think about the material, rather than listening passively to a lecture. Studies have shown information retrieval enhances learning.

Koller made attendance at scheduled class time optional, but students came. She said the audience for these sessions was higher than typical televised courses she’s taught, where the lecture was presented in one 75-minute video.

After polling her students when the course was over, Koller said about two-thirds of them told her they preferred the new format compared to a traditional in-person lecture.  Nearly all found the video quizzes "very helpful."

Recording lectures

Koller recorded her classes by videotaping a lecture or drawing on-screen with an  LCD tablet while she narrated an explanation.

Software developed by electrical engineering professor Bernd Girod and students simplifies lecture recording. A commercial camcorder captures the lecture. The professor uploads the video to the ClassX server, which processes the video for interactive streaming during playback. The viewer needs only a web browser to zoom and pan around the room while watching the video online. The ClassX team released the code as open source software in April.

Ng developed the tablet-recording program. It displays a slide from a presentation. Teachers draw on a graphics tablet, an electronic device used by digital artists, and the drawings appear on screen immediately as if they were writing on a chalkboard. They narrate the lecture using the computer’s microphone. A camera looking at the screen over the teacher’s shoulder records the video.

Ng also created some of the software for the interactive quizzes in the recorded lectures.

Facilitating discussion online

When Koller presented her idea for a new teaching method to her colleagues, computer science professor John Mitchell realized he had a web interface that could help her distribute videos to her class and encourage student discussion.

CourseWare is a public website that houses many Stanford courses. Professors control the visibility of any material placed on their course pages, restricting access to Stanford students or releasing it to the world. Many course management systems used at other universities limit any access to registered students.

CourseWare allows faculty to upload video and handouts, create interactive quizzes and track discussions among students and teachers.

In Koller’s class, students often helped each other when a classmate posted a question. The instructor or a teaching assistant confirmed or clarified the answers.

Mitchell had seen this student interaction early in the site’s development. "This was one of the biggest indications that we were on to something," he said.

CourseWare housed 10 courses in spring quarter, including computer science, political science, education, biochemistry and psychology.

Mitchell plans to make the site available to other universities over the web. He hopes faculty teaching similar courses at different universities will use the site to collaborate and share material.

Supplements for introductory courses

Professors around the university are beginning to adopt portions of this three-pronged technology in their classrooms, especially instructors in large introductory science, engineering and math courses. 

Cammy Huang-DeVoss, course coordinator for the large introductory biology courses, is using the tablet recording and interactive quiz technology to develop lessons that enhance the lectures. Before a lecture on DNA, for example, students will watch an online video about the chemical bonds in DNA. It’s a way for the instructors to cover extra material, reinforce concepts from other classes and help unite students with different science backgrounds.

The biology teachers plan to launch their new online supplements in the middle of the fall quarter. "We hope the use of this technology can help close the gap between students of different backgrounds, and perhaps reduce the dropout rate from these fields, especially for under-represented groups," Koller said.

Advantages of online education

Online lectures have some advantages over the traditional in-person instruction. They allow students to control the pacing of a lecture – they can speed it up or instantly replay the material.

A large library of online classes could allow students to personalize their education, Koller said. Students could combine many different lecture chunks to create courses tailored to their interests and abilities.

Analytical programs built into the course-hosting system could allow faculty to monitor a course in real time, tracking student progress and adjusting their teaching techniques to maximize effectiveness throughout the quarter.

Ng has found that his colleagues are receptive to these online teaching methods. "We try to deliver a better education. Every professor wants to do that," he said.

Melissae Fellet is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Office.



Daphne Koller, Computer Science: (650) 723-6598,

Andrew Ng, Computer Science: (650) 725-2593,

John Mitchell, Computer Science: (650) 723-8634,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,

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