Stanford Learning: Worldwide Availability On-Demand at Stanford Online
The changing dynamics of todays workplace put employee time at a premium and create pressure on educational institutions to respond to the educational demands of a rapidly evolving international business environment. The Stanford Center for Professional Development (SCPD), located at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., is responding to this demand with more than 250 continuing education courses in engineering and computer science. Stanford has one of the largest distance learning programs in the world, each year reaching more than 6,000 professionals who want to pursue an advanced degree, or need to enhance their technical knowledge, while maintaining career momentum.
In 1995, SCPD set out to advance its lead in continuing education by launching Stanford Online, a delivery program that provides graduate engineering and computer science courses on-demand over the Internet or corporate intranets. The nationally recognized program (Stanford Online was awarded "Most Significant Advancement in Distance Learning for 1997" by the U.S. Distance Learning Association) delivers courses via streaming video to students. In addition to delivering full-length university courses, Stanford online offers a video-on-demand sequence of non-credit courses and lectures made available to a worldwide audience in a pay-per-view model. While the students window into the system is an Internet browser, a technology infrastructure that includes products from well-known high-tech companies including Microsoft, Compaq and Quantum provide instruction to the student.
Making On-Demand Learning a Reality
Until now, the growth of online education has been hampered in part because video (and other types of content) consumes so much bandwidth. This problem has kept many educational institutions from expanding beyond the more traditional distance learning delivery methods such as videotapes and satellite broadcasts. However, Stanford Online has made live and on-demand distance learning a practical reality by using video compression technology running on Compaq hardware and Microsofts Media Server (formerly Microsoft NetShow) to stream video, audio, text and graphics over the Internet to a variety of computer platforms.
Stanford Online courses are streamed directly to the students computer at home, at work or while traveling and are viewed via an Internet browser. Lectures and seminars are broadcast live on the Internet, or are made available within one or two hours of each class. When students log on to the Internet to view courses, they see a video window on their computer screen, inside of a standard Internet browser. Adjacent to the video window, the Web page houses a larger window displaying complementary graphics and text. This includes course outlines, notes, slides, simulations and other presentation materials used in each lecture. When a student chooses a specific topic in the table of contents, the appropriate video segment and supporting graphics are presented. In addition to delivering courseware live or on-demand, Stanford Online offers a variety of services that allow, for example, students to receive tutoring by live interaction over the Internet with professors or teaching assistants.
A Data-Intensive Process
While Stanford Online uses powerful compression technology to allow for the deployment of video over the Internet and corporate intranets, dealing with video remains an extremely data-intensive task. With an ever-expanding 85 gigabytes of digitized video and other data such as course outlines and slides, Stanford Online requires a robust solution for storing and managing huge volumes of information. To back up its video servers, back-end systems and growing library of video and multimedia content, the Stanford Online program uses a high-performance Quantum DLT 7000 half-inch cartridge tape drive. In addition to conducting incremental backups nightly and full backups weekly, Stanford Online uses the tape drive to archive courseware. Course lectures remain online for the duration of the quarter and many for the entire academic year, giving students more control over their own viewing patterns. Courseware slated for re-use at a later date is archived longer-term to the Quantum drive.
Convenience is critical to the success of Stanford Online. Students around the world need access to the system at all times of the day and night. As a result, the school must perform rapid backups to avoid long delays in delivering courseware to students. Stanford Online considered using a DAT drive for backup, but the Quantum tape drive offers a faster solution with higher capacity. With hundreds of large video files being integrated into the network each day, DATs two gigabyte per cartridge data limitations didnt have the capacity to meet Stanford Onlines expanding storage needs.
Extending Education to the World
By using state-of-the-art server technology, software for streaming video and DLT backup and archiving, Stanford Online can deliver education on-demand in a reliable, timely fashion. This new delivery technology is particularly exciting, because it literally enables us to extend Stanford to the world. It opens up new educational markets and enables us to reach beyond our historical distance learning base, much of which is in Silicon Valley. Now, Stanford Online can offer courses to talented students who are also professionals in industry wherever they are located, while adhering to the same rigorous coursework and admission standards that apply to students on campus. And with the convenience of Internet delivery, Stanford Online can also attract students who normally might be too busy to take a class.
To get more information about Stanford Online and to see a demo, please visit http://stanford-online.stanford.edu.
This article originally appeared in the 12/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.