Stanford, Silicon Valley, and Online Education

In a lengthy piece by Ken Auletta, The New Yorker asks this week: “Is Stanford Too Close to Silicon Valley?”

It’s an interesting back story of how Stanford University became the academic hub of the technology world, and the deep connections that remain. The school’s president John Hennessy is on the board of directors for Google and Cisco, faculty invest in start-ups that often originated from the school, and the school’s endowment is a major beneficiary of those investments. Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs are a constant presence on the campus, The New Yorker reports, volunteering time, teaching courses, and advising students.

As a result, there is concern that Silicon Valley’s influence over the school is limiting the types of students it turns out. One quarter of Stanford undergraduates and half of graduate students are engineering majors, the article notes. Should a top university be focused only on producing start-up founders with dreams of lofty valuations, or well-rounded students, the story asks?

One interesting approach Stanford takes to creating “inter-discplinary” students is its Institute of Design. It’s within the mechanical engineering department, but it teams students from different disciplines to tackle four topics: the developing world, sustainability, health and wellness, and, interestingly, K-12 education. Students focusing on K-12 education work with nearby schools to develop curriculum and innovation initiatives that focus on integrating design principles into instruction.

All of this is, of course, collaborative work (laptops aren’t allowed in classrooms at the design school), which in Auletta’s article is placed in contrast to another Stanford initiative, its free online course offerings. In the fall, nearly 200,000 people signed up for an engineering course Stanford offered free online. The class works the same as a normal Stanford course, except non-enrolled students don’t get a credit. Since, the professor, Sebastian Thrun, left to co-found Udacity, which will offer free online courses on a wider scale.

But what the online offerings mean for Stanford is what many K-12 policymakers are weighing about online education in their own sphere. Take a look at this excerpt from Auletta’s article and see if it looks familiar to the debates over K-12 online schooling.

Since so much of an undergraduate education consists of living on campus and interacting with other students, for those who can afford it–or who benefit from the generous scholarships offered by such institutions as Stanford–it’s difficult to imagine that an online education is comparable. Nor can an online education duplicate the collaborative, multidisciplinary classes at Stanford’s, or the personal contact with professors that graduate students have as they inch toward a Ph.D.
… Stanford has been aligned with Silicon Valley and its culture of disruption. Now Hennessy and Stanford have to seriously contemplate whether more efficiency is synonymous with a better education.

K-12 policymakers and leaders aren’t waiting idly. Just this week, the school system in Carroll County, Va., became the first in the state to operate an independent virtual school; the House of Representatives in Michigan narrowly passed a law to expand virtual school enrollment.

What do you all think? Can online schools capture the same education experience as brick-and-mortars? Can a school innovate too fast?

2 thoughts on “Stanford, Silicon Valley, and Online Education

  1. I’m not sure we should trouble ourselves with the question of "can online schools capture the same education experience as brick-and-mortars?" I think we know the answer to that already. An online experience is very different than a face-to-face experience.

    Perhaps the question should be: can online schools successfully educate students at similar levels, or better, than brick-and-mortars?

    Just a thought…

  2. Of course online schools can’t capture the same educational experience as face-to-face schools. Any thinking person knows that. Be wary of politicians like those in Michigan getting involved, because this decision is ultimately a financial one, and the losers will be ones who are already losing. The rich will get richer and poor will get poorer.

    In the New Yorker article, we see millionaire and Standford president John Hennessy contemplating expandsion into online education. The question as to whether the move will be good for Stanford is the wrong question. Elite students will continue to have elite Face-to-Face educations at elite schools. In their elite classrooms they will have intimate conversations with their elite professors, discussing whether or not online education is a good thing for all the non-elites out there.

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