By Jennifer Widom, the Frederick Emmons Terman Dean of the School of Engineering and the Fletcher Jones Professor in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at Stanford University
In 2011, I was fortunate to participate in what turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional career. I was then a professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science at Stanford University’s School of Engineering, where I am now Dean. I’d created one of the world’s first massive open online courses — or “MOOCs” as they came to be known — one of three MOOCs offered by Stanford that fall.
In a matter of just weeks, thousands of students from around the world were engaged actively in my course, “Databases.” Online, they attended class, worked on assignments, took exams, and used the tools of social media to communicate and collaborate with one another — all remotely and all at no cost to them.
The MOOC is still available and thousands a year are still taking it. Many students write to tell me that the experience transformed their careers — and in some cases their lives. Their gratitude never fails to inspire me. Over the years, the MOOC has been a tale full of lessons about the value of education in the modern world—especially in its farthest reaches. Students around the world were eager to learn, and I continue to be eager to teach them.
Technology was indispensable in enabling me to reach students across the globe via the MOOC, and we saw its benefits again during the pandemic. As UNESCO’s 2023 Global Education Monitoring Report conveys: The benefit of technology in education was borne out in the pandemic, as millions of young students transitioned online full–time. But too-heavy reliance on technology as a cure-all in education has left many promises unmet. Education in-person has irreplicable benefits.
My MOOC was great fun to shape, and I loved that thousands of students were consuming content from one of the most-storied computer science programs in the world, for free. While many students stuck with it and performed quite well, online courses are well-known to have very low retention rates. And as someone who has always had a thirst for travel — even taking a year off from the university to travel around the world with my family — I wondered about the possibility of teaching remote students in person where they live.
And so it came to be that, in 2016, I was preparing for another year of travel: a sabbatical in which I hoped to recreate some of that MOOC magic with a more direct impact on students across the globe. I’d been inspired by a talk I’d given to a thousand or so local college students in southern India, many of whom had taken my MOOC. Energized by that experience, I decided to take my teaching on the road, delivering free short courses focusing on data science in little-traveled places around the globe where there are plenty of students eager to learn, but a lack of resources and experienced instructors. Where once I’d helped pioneer the MOOC, now I was pioneering the MOIC — the Massive Open In-Person Course.
Students in Nigeria
The first location was Sri Lanka in September 2016. Over the course of the first six months of that sabbatical year, I would visit 16 other countries — including Colombia, Bhutan, India, Indonesia, Peru, Namibia, and Kyrgyzstan among others. Plans were in place for many more over the subsequent months, but fate interceded when I was asked to become Dean, putting a slowdown (but not a complete halt) on what I now call my “Instructional Odyssey.” I now try to find time to visit a few countries each year — except for during the pandemic when I offered virtual short courses for a couple of universities I’d previously visited (reminding me again of the advantages of in-person over online). In 2023 alone I made trips to Mongolia, Bhutan (again), South Africa, and Rwanda, and I plan to continue in the coming years.
I’ve gathered a few lessons about the value of teaching data science to underrepresented and under–resourced people wherever they may live. I keep the prerequisite knowledge modest to welcome as many students as possible — attendees need only have the most basic coding experience to join. However, I make no such accommodations in the content of the coursework. The agenda is packed and the curriculum is not the least bit watered-down. In a typical three-to-four-day program, I can cover the equivalent of about half of a Stanford course.
Participants are usually made up of university students, complemented by a handful of high school students and working professionals. Mongolia produced a pleasant surprise: of the 160 students in the class, two-thirds were women. That was a first for me, and a welcome sight. Putting these valuable skills in the hands of more women will have an empowering and, hopefully, a liberating effect.
In all my many experiences around the globe, I can attest to a growing parity of technological knowledge among all nations of the world, even in the most under-resourced ones. Wherever I go, I find young people who are eager to learn and who are quickly catching up with the rest of the world in infrastructure, skills, and know-how. Bringing my “instructional odyssey” to these dedicated and capable students is a privilege and a delight.