Stanford finds ways to overcome obstacles associated with free online courseware
SEE program employs online communities to let students help each other
Published: Friday, October 10, 2008
Updated: Friday, October 10, 2008 02:10
While Tufts freshman Ammar Khaku sat listening to a lecture for an "Introduction to Robotics" course, he wasn't suffering from the typical in-class woes: He was reclining on his bed, relaxed and genuinely interested in what Stanford computer science Professor Oussama Khatib said.
What Khaku was viewing was a very small part of a much larger program at Stanford University's School of Engineering. Stanford Engineering Everywhere, or SEE, is a digital rendition of courses that the university provides to its enrolled students but also opens to the public free of charge. The videos are of actual lectures, and the available assignments are the same as those used in the Stanford classroom.
For Tufts, free and public access to course materials online exists within a program called OpenCourseWare (OCW), which contains tools including lecture notes, video tutorials and assignment sheets.
According to its Fall 2007-Winter 2008 report, Tufts' OCW site has surpassed one million unique visitors and continues to add courses to its growing repertoire.
But OCW does not provide the same amount of comprehensive course materials as do some other programs, like iTunes U, which allows students from participating universities to access such information in the same way they would music or movie libraries.
In fact, OCW is characterized by the warning posted at the bottom of each course page: "Please note that the course as presented here does not contain the full content of the course as taught at Tufts. The included content is based on material the Tufts faculty and instructors choose to include, as well as factors such as content preparation, software compatibility, and intellectual property and copyright restrictions."
Tufts' OCW attempts to mimic the experience of physically taking a class by providing students with virtual access to necessary information — but the program lacks the ability to provide an interactive forum in which students can ask questions.
Senior Matt Horner, a chemical engineering major, pointed out this vulnerability in online coursework and said it would deter him from utilizing the service.
"The ability to ask questions is gone," Horner said. "That could be a huge part of the course."
Stanford's SEE program, however, has found a way to combat this problem by providing online communities based on the various courses. David Orenstein, communications and public relations manager for the Stanford School of Engineering, compared the course communities to a social networking site.
Because SEE is offered free online, the anticipated user base is too large for professors to answer the questions of each individual user. This makes it more convenient to have users interact with each other and answer inquiries.
Orenstein explained that the SEE program operates under the Creative Commons License, which means that Stanford has taken steps to obtain permission for all material used in each class.
"[That license allows students to] take content and reuse it as long as they acknowledge Stanford," Orenstein said.
In addition to using the content however they want, students are able to access the material at any time — a keynote attribute of many online courses, according to Khaku.
"[It's nice to be able to] sit down in a relaxed place and watch the lecture at your own leisure," Khaku said.
But the users of SEE, like those of OCW, are not granted credit for the courses, as they are free to the public and all audiences.
"SEE is something meant for the public who are not currently enrolled. All courses are real Stanford for-credit courses," Orenstein said. "[A Stanford student] wouldn't get credit for taking a course through SEE."
Stanford is looking to stretch itself into the global educational community by providing free resources for use by students across the world.
"SEE is something we feel fortunate that we are able to do," Orenstein said. "We hope that people gain a better understanding of the subjects by using it."