Stanford Creates Vice Provost For Online Learning To “Fundamentally Reshape Education”

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Stanford University announced the creation of an Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning today, appointing computer science professor John Mitchell as the office’s inaugural head.

In the past 20 years, Stanford has only established two Vice Provost offices, for undergraduate and graduate education, both of which “fundamentally reshaped education at Stanford.” University spokeswoman Lisa Lapin tells me the Vice Provost for Online Learning intends to do the same.

The University says around 15 courses, taught by Stanford faculty in engineering, mathematics, social science, entrepreneurship, and education, will be offered online in the fall quarter, with more coming in winter and spring. The deans of the schools of Medicine, Engineering and Business have selected faculty members to focus on online learning

Stanford has had classes on Coursera, founded by Stanford CS professors on leave, for the past year, attracting hundreds of thousands of students from around the world.

The press release also mentions Stanford-affiliated software platforms Class2Go and Venture Lab, but not one of the biggest names in online education, Sebastian Thrun’s Udacity.

The University released a number of fairly boilerplate quotes:

“Our primary mission is to teach Stanford students,” Provost John Etchemendy said, “but it is also the university’s mission to disseminate knowledge widely, through textbooks, scholarly publications and so forth. Technology provides ways to both improve our existing classes and to extend our reach. By using technology creatively, we can tap the tremendous teaching talent we have on campus to offer new learning opportunities to millions of people, both in the United States and around the world.”

“This is a very exciting time to be in education,” Mitchell said. “While technology provides many new possibilities, the fundamental question is how to improve teaching and learning with these tools. With Stanford’s tradition of innovation and academic excellence, we have the perfect environment for trying many new approaches across campus. Many faculty are enthusiastic about showing off their courses to the world, but our deepest interest is in improving the educational experience for our students. In the process, we can use technology to expand our student base and provide exciting learning opportunities worldwide.”

But some of the more interesting material comes from Stanford’s recent actions. The school has been experimenting with online education for over a year now. In a January meeting, Hennessy told Stanford’s Faculty Senate, “We want to get ahead of this wave. I want to be surfing the wave, not drowning in it.”

The January meeting was preceded by the University’s failed bid for a New York City engineering and applied sciences campus.

“Universities must evolve to meet the needs of today’s complex world,” Hennessy said in September 2011. “For example, technology is changing the face of higher education: how we teach as well as the ability to collaborate over distance…the country needs another major innovation center that would have some of the dynamism and capability and impact that Silicon Valley has had.”

Some of the biggest names in higher education, most notably Harvard, MIT and Stanford, have been looking to dynamically change the education system that has made their institutions’ degrees incredibly valuable and incredibly costly.

MIT and Harvard provide interactive courses from both schools online for free through edX, which UC Berkeley recently joined. Stanford has the aforementioned programs, some of which include other Universities, a curriculum redesign in the medical school to eliminate lectures and now has doubled down with the Vice Provost for Online Learning.

Photo via Linda Cicero, Stanford News Service.

Disclosure: I am also the editor in chief of The Stanford Daily, the student newspaper that is independent from the University. My reporting for this story was no different from the hundred other posts I’ve written for TechCrunch, but some readers may want to know about my role at The Daily.