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New Council to Develop Standards, Best Practices for Online Learning

Carnegie Mellon University is convening a high-powered consortium of educators, researchers, and technology-company executives that will spearhead efforts to develop standards and promote best practices in online education.

The Global Learning Council—to be led by Carnegie Mellon’s president, Subra Suresh—will also look for ways to leverage education-technology resources and disseminate data in an education landscape that some think is being turned on its head.

“In the last few years there has been a lot of discussion thanks to the development of technology about the delivery of education in a scalable way to large numbers of students across national borders,” Mr. Suresh says. “The missing piece is how much are students learning amid all this technology? The other piece is what are the metrics, best practices, and eventually standards, if you will, that are collectively developed and acceptable for those who engage?”

The council is being assembled in parallel with the Simon Initiative, a new push at Carnegie Mellon to accelerate research on technology-aided learning. Named in honor of the late Carnegie Mellon professor and artificial-intelligence pioneer Herbert A. Simon, it will elevate and provide additional money for learning-science research on the campus, Mr. Suresh says.

In addition, in the coming months the university will make public years’ worth of educational-technology data collected at the LearnLab, a joint Carnegie Mellon-University of Pittsburgh research center. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the center uses cognitive theory and modeling to pinpoint instructional conditions that best facilitate learning.

The Global Learning Council will look to research from Carnegie Mellon and other sources to address broad questions, such as what would be good standards in online learning, what metrics to use, and what methods are most effective. What documents the council might produce has yet to be determined.

In addition to Mr. Suresh, other founding members of the council include Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities; M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities; and Carl E. Wieman, a Stanford University professor, Nobel laureate in physics, and expert in science instruction. Two MOOC heavyweights—Anant Agarwal, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who is president of edX, and Daphne Koller, a Stanford professor who is a founder of Coursera—are also on the council. It could be expanded in the future, members say.

Mr. Rawlings describes the effort as a “very serious venture.”

“Online education is now taking on an extremely prominent role internationally,” Mr. Rawlings says. “Yet even as online education expands rapidly and on an enormous scale, there is very little good research on the best forms of online learning, and, I might add, there are no good studies on what constitutes bad online pedagogy, of which there is a fair amount.”

The council includes a mix of online-learning practitioners and observers and critics, Mr. Rawlings says. He acknowledges continuing skepticism about online education, adding that he himself is skeptical about some pedagogies being promoted by some colleges. What he is not skeptical about is the ability of institutions to improve their product, and the long-term value of having a strong online component in higher education.

“All of this is at a very early stage,” Mr. Rawlings says. “I think too many people are trying to deliver final judgment on the quality of online education, on the value of online education. It is just much too early in my mind to give any kind of final judgment. Let’s give this some time, and some real scrutiny. I think that is what the Global Learning Council will be trying to do.”

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