Stanford’s Class2Go will enable the free online university of the future

Since the launch of the massive open online courseware (MOOC) phenomenon, universities not involved in one of the three main platforms have been trying to decide how they should respond. The concept of free online courses from some of the world’s most prestigious universities like Harvard, MIT, Stanford and others has certainly proved popular with the public with literally massive enrolments. 160,000 people enrolled in Stanford University’s first MOOC on artificial intelligence given by Professors Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun.

Despite the massive interest generated from the initial course offerings, progress has been limited by the speed at which the current platforms, like edX, Coursera and Udacity, can expand. For the moment, these groups are taking on partners very slowly or not at all despite 120 different universities having approached edX. Coursera has just taken 17 more universities on with 180 other universities having expressed interest.

The other issue is that once Coursera and edX start taking on other partners, the competition amongst candidates is likely to be fierce with only a small number of universities being added each time.

Another option is for universities to host their own MOOCs, either on their own or in small groups. This will now be a great deal easier thanks to a small group of engineers at Stanford University. They have released an open source platform called Class2Go which is being used by Stanford itself to host two upcoming MOOCs on Computer Networking and Solar Cells, Fuel Cells and Batteries.

Developed using open source databases and software itself, Class2Go also makes use of existing services like YouTube to host video, and piazza to host online exercises. The idea is that content becomes portable and not necessarily locked into the platform. This also has the advantage of dealing with the issue of scalability. A key problem facing anyone putting on an online course is scaling access if 160,000 people all decide to watch a lecture. Class2Go’s use of YouTube to host video makes the problem YouTube’s to deal with.

The Class2Go interface captures the essential approach to online courseware that is being distilled from Coursera and Stanford’s own prior experience: short-format videos of 5 to 10 minute duration, reading material and other content, online assessments and an online forum. A simple interface allows academics to edit content and decide when that content should go live.

Using a platform like Class2Go effectively reduces the barrier to establishing a MOOC from any university. This means that we could soon start seeing courses offered in languages other than English, tailored for local cultures and content. We could also see universities potentially collaborating to provide content for basic introductory courses that otherwise would be done separately by each university.

In addition to providing a Stanford experience to anyone around the world, a stated aim of Class2Go has been actually aimed at its own students. According to Jane Manning, Manager of Production and Platforms in the office of the Vice Provost of Online Learning at Stanford University, “the ultimate aim from a Stanford perspective is to improve the experience of our enrolled Stanford students. Having a platform that lets instructors easily "flip” their classrooms". In this way, students get the content for their courses from the online videos but use class time to do other activities.

The concern over differentiating an on-campus experience that is paid for, from an online course that is free, has been expressed by many when considering offering MOOCs. Although you can indeed “flip” a classroom, it is still dependent on the students attending. One of the dangers is that if it is made too easy for them to do the course entirely online, then that is what they will choose to do.

At that point, it may prove harder to justify charging the same fees unless the on-campus experience is significantly enhanced.

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