Stanford Online Courselets: Leveling the Learning Field, On- and Off-Campus

January 17, 2002

The Stanford Center for Professional Development (SCPD), working with School of Engineering faculty, has launched another innovation in online learning for both on-campus and distance students taking Stanford graduate engineering, science and engineering management courses. SCPD will develop a comprehensive portfolio of online courselets — self-contained, integrated sets of Web-based learning materials and tools to support online graduate courses. The two-year project is supported by a $400,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation with additional resources from Stanford University.

“Tools which enhance learning for distance students have the potential to help our on-campus students as well,” says Jim Plummer, Dean of the School of Engineering, and the project’s principal investigator. “A portfolio of easily accessible online courselets is just the sort of innovation that is the ideal at Stanford — one that can equally benefit all engineering and science students, regardless of location.”

The two project managers are Andy DiPaolo, Executive Director of the SCPD and Senior Associate Dean of the School of Engineering, and Dale Harris, SCPD’s Director of Experimental E-Learning. The innovative courselet program builds upon Stanford Online, SCPD’s Internet delivery method. In 1995, a grant from the Sloan Foundation facilitated the development of Stanford Online. It has become the primary mode of delivery for an annual 10,000 new hours of instruction for SCPD’s portfolio of more than 200 Stanford graduate engineering and professional education courses.

As asynchronous online learning has grown, two issues of concern have emerged throughout the field: an inconsistency in the levels of prerequisite knowledge among distance learners, and the incrementally increasing time demands on faculty offering courses for asynchronous delivery. Furthermore, Stanford’s campus and industry-based students often want concrete examples of practical application, putting theory into actual practice. Given the diversity of professional as well as academic background of students, faculty cannot always deal with such issues in their presentations or in individual contact in as much depth as they would like.

“Now that the popularity of online learning is clearly established,” explains Frank Mayadas, Program Officer for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, “creative interest has shifted from increasing the number of courses offered to enhancing their effectiveness and increasing the productivity of the faculty who develop and teach them. The Stanford courselets project specifically addresses these two areas.”

Each courselet will cover a specifically targeted “chunk” of material supporting an existing course or courses — material that would consume one to three hours of learner time. Furthermore, courselets will include self-assessment tools and be indexed, guiding students to study only the areas they need.

“Stanford’s distance education students hold down full-time jobs in industry,” says DiPaolo, “and many have not taken courses in several years. Even if they have the prerequisite knowledge, often they need and want to review the material. They also want relevance in coursework and ask for examples of practical application. Well-designed courselets will offer Stanford learners — both at a distance and on-campus — the material they need, while releasing faculty time.”

Industry-based students are often isolated from the academic environment and cannot easily acquire material to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. Courselets will place needed information at learners’ fingertips 24/7, covering prerequisite material for specific courses, groups of courses, and even interdisciplinary programs. Students will be able to complete relevant courselets independently, at their convenience.

“Developing courselets that expand course curriculum is an important part of the project,” stresses Harris. “It is part of our goal to develop bundles of courselets that cover not only fundamental engineering theory and skill sets, but also courselets that offer industry-specific practical application — courselets that may have value beyond just the Stanford curriculum. We will work with faculty and leaders in industry to develop avenues to expand courselet accessibility for use in other universities and in industry training.”

“When you develop an educational tool that can enhance learning and release faculty time,” concludes Plummer, “everyone wins: faculty, learners and industry. Courselets will accomplish both goals.”

For details on Stanford University’s courselet project, read the “Courselets at a Glance” fact sheet at:, or contact Andy DiPaolo, or Dale Harris,

For more information on the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Learning Outside the Classroom program, go to:–asynchronous.shtml.