Symposium™ Helps Stanford University Broaden Its Curriculum

March 5, 2002

For the past 30 years, computer-based multimedia courses have been a key component of Stanford University’s Education Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY). Recognized around the world for its innovative programs, EPGY teaches advanced students at the kindergarten to university level, a variety of subjects including mathematics, physics and expository writing.

With students dispersed throughout more than a dozen countries, one of EPGY’s major goals is to use technology to provide a real classroom experience via the Web. They’re meeting that goal today with Symposium, a comprehensive Java-based distance-learning application that lets EPGY deliver live, instructor-led classes to the desktops of its students. Within the next year, EPGY plans to have over 1,600 students taking classes with Symposium.

Developed by Centra Software, Symposium uses the Internet and intranets to deliver enterprise-wide learning encompassing live classroom training, self-paced materials and asynchronous learning.

“For the last two years, we’ve been looking for a real-time, collaborative environment that can handle both voice and graphics,” explains Ravaglia. “We used to distribute course material exclusively on CD-ROM and students and teachers interacted by phone and email, which is very constraining. The phone is expensive and hard to coordinate and email is limited as a teaching method. So, when I saw Symposium I was really excited. It meets all our requirements for real-time, interactive training.”

Symposium’s first challenge at Stanford was to deliver expository writing classes to fourth and fifth grade students via the Internet. English classes, explains Conrad Scott-Curtis, coordinator of English education, are the most teacher-intensive because they require individualized tutorial. Symposium’s real-time communications capability and multi-user collaborative tools enable Scott-Curtis to provide his students with a real classroom experience.

Comprehensive Functionality Simulates The Classroom Experience

“I like the breadth of tools that Symposium offers,” says Scott-Curtis. “I can hold a group discussion, write on the whiteboard and send students into smaller discussion groups. I can create a Web page with course specific content, and using Symposium’s Web Safari feature, direct students to access the Web page during group discussion. And, Symposium includes the structure I need to keep a classroom organized and running smoothly, such as asking yes/no questions and having kids raise their hands and give feedback.”

For Scott-Curtis the shared whiteboard is the most important tool for real-time conferencing. “I can put a paragraph on the whiteboard, open a group discussion and ask students to circle specific information on the whiteboard,” he explains. “Students take turns working on the whiteboard just as they would in a real classroom.”

Scott-Curtis also uses the whiteboard to give students an opportunity to display their writing and discuss it with fellow students in real time. “This is an indispensable part of a writing course. Students learn about their own writing by looking at and analyzing other students’ writing.”

Group discussions are facilitated by Symposium’s integrated multi-way audio conferencing. The instructor manages discussions by passing the microphone from student to student. “It’s very important for younger kids to talk out loud about the kinds of things they are going to put in writing,” explains Scott-Curtis. “Symposium allows them to talk through the process of planning an essay, translating those plans into draft form and revising their work. This is a critical process and it needs the quick interaction and question-asking that can only take place in real time.”

Stanford complements this instruction with CD-ROMs and self-paced materials. Students complete a basic level of instruction on their own so when they come together as a class, the conceptual level of discussions is higher and the instructor can focus on the material the group as a whole needs.

EPGY students are formally registered at Stanford University and receive academic credit through the Continuing Studies Program. At the start of each class, Symposium displays a list of all registered students. “We want to make sure only registered students take the class,” explains Ravaglia. “We don’t want students wandering in and out disrupting the teaching process.”

Easy-To-Use Course Development Tools

Expand Class Availability

“From a practical perspective, Symposium allows us to expand the number of courses we offer,” says Ravaglia. “Using Symposium Course Builder™, we can develop new classes more cost-effectively and get them out the door quicker.”

EPGY’s course development process used to take months. They designed a prototype CD-ROM, tested the course with a small number of students and then edited the CD. “The cost to produce and edit CD-ROMs in this way is prohibitive,” declares Ravaglia, “especially when you’re only dealing with a small number of students per course.”

“With Symposium we skip that entire first round. Any material with any Web component falls naturally into Symposium,” says Ravaglia. “For new courses, instructors can use existing course notes, produce presentation materials using Powerpoint and then go into a classroom and teach.”

Instructors Reach More Students More Efficiently

Stanford envisions expanding its use of Symposium beyond classroom training to make instructors more broadly accessible to geographically dispersed students, Ravaglia explains. “To prepare students for advanced placement exams, we’ll hold review sections with Symposium. The sessions will start at a specific time and run for three hours, just like traditional University reviews. We see 30-40 students wandering in and out, asking specific questions and leaving. This makes instructors extremely accessible.”

Another important use of Symposium for EPGY is to hold office hours. Students know a teacher is available online for a specific period of time to answer questions and provide individualized help. “Anyone who’s taught mathematics has had a similar experience. A student comes to your office for help. As you watch them work a problem on the board, you can see immediately where their confusion lies simply by the way they are going about solving the problem. That’s a learning experience we haven’t been able to get with email or telephone. With Symposium it is here today.”

“Symposium adds a dimension to what can be successfully done with distance learning. It takes the possibilities of computer-based instruction to the next level.”