Stanford is the latest in a slew of famous and well-heeled colleges and universities to embrace the world of online education. Typically known for being hard to get into, as well as its brainy graduates, Stanford has a reputation as one of the top brick-and-mortar schools in the country. If you say you went to Stanford, people rarely ask what you majored in because, let’s face it, you went to Stanford—enough said.

So how come Stanford suddenly feels the need to offer some form of online education to its on-campus student body? Stanford associate professor of computer science, Andrew Ng, sums it up best; “We’ve known for many years what we wanted to do [at Stanford] for online education. We just needed to build the software to make it work [for our specific educational needs].” With these needs in mind the faculty (and some hand-picked students) at Stanford developed an internal online education system designed to tailor course curriculum to individual students’ learning styles, so that students may use a variety of learning tools to gain the same knowledge.

The Trifecta

This online education model has three components: ClassX (a video system that records lectures), CourseWare (an internal social networking system that hosts online course materials), and Open Classroom (an internal video theatre that shares—with anyone, anywhere—lectures by Stanford faculty and guest speakers via the Web). All three parts were developed independently at Stanford, but now researchers there are working to combine them into one seamless system that supports online learning for Stanford’s students.

And it appears to be successful. Here’s how it works; a professor posts his or her lectures on ClassX. Students watch the assigned lecture before class and then use real class time (with the instructor) to tackle questions the students have about the material they watched. Many teachers even insert quizzes in the online lectures every few minutes, just so students can make sure they understand the material as it’s presented. When polled just about 100 percent of the students preferred the online learning format over traditional lecture hall learning.

What Makes This Model So Special?

Flexibility and seamlessness are the keys. Combining ClassX with CourseWare, for example, allows professors to post video lectures with handouts, assign reading, create interactive quizzes, and facilitate online class discussions. Students are free to actively participate in the teaching process by answering each other’s posted questions (via CourseWare). Instructors can then verify the student answers or add to them. This type of spontaneous interaction rarely happens in a traditional college lecture hall with hundreds of students, due to the fact that it would be rude for students to interrupt the teacher in such a crowded setting (and there just isn’t time for everyone to speak).

And finally, with Open Classroom as the third piece of this model, students are able to access lectures and guest speakers from past terms or other classes they haven’t even taken yet, thus opening up a whole new set of resources that didn’t previously exist.

A Possible Paradigm Shift in Education

Even though this is big news for online education, it’s only fair to point out that all aspects of this three-tier model already exist in some form at other schools, however, Stanford faculty appears to be the first to collaborate to combine multiple learning technologies into one online learning tool designed specifically for brick-and-mortar students. The model doesn’t eliminate classroom discussion or even debate, but rather takes the typically non-interactive, routine lecture portion of a course and transfers it to online video, thus saving important face-to-face time with an instructor for questions the lecture doesn’t answer. This makes the instructor’s time with the student inherently more valuable, so much so that even if professors make actual classroom time optional most students still show up.

Unlike most other brick-and-mortar universities, Stanford has found a way to combine the best of both educational worlds; online and classroom learning. When online learning first emerged there was the assumption that a student couldn’t learn as much from an online class, as from sitting in a classroom with an instructor. But now with high definition video, social media, and high speed Internet, the online classroom, in some cases, has a more powerful impact on students in terms of retaining knowledge. Why? Because with online education students can actually personalize their course curriculum to meet their learning styles. And in the end, it’s all about the learning, online or otherwise. It doesn’t take a degree from Stanford to figure that out.

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