In the 1980s, John L. Hennessy, then a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University, shook up the computer industry by taking the concepts of reduced instruction set computing (RISC) to the masses. Hennessy wrote papers, gave talks, designed chips, started companies, and even, literally, wrote the book (a textbook that’s still used today). The RISC architecture, which focused on simpler, lower-cost microprocessors, was then thought to be an academic exercise with little practical use; today it plays a major role in the industry.
Hennessy, now president of Stanford, is once again designing, testing, and advocating a new architecture, this time in the field of university education. He first began rethinking research at universities and recently began reimagining university education itself.
For these efforts, in June Hennessy will receive the 2012 IEEE Medal of Honor “for pioneering the RISC processor architecture and for leadership in computer engineering and higher education.”
IEEE Spectrum profiled Hennessy and his career as a computer architect and entrepreneur in “RISC Maker,” [November 2002]. This year, we checked in on Hennessy’s recent efforts to shake up higher education. Stanford has a long history in distance education, which in the 1990s moved from closed circuit TV to Internet delivery. More recently, the university explored offering online courses to a much larger audience with a programming class for iPhone applications, first available in 2009, that has been downloaded more than one million times. Since then, Stanford has been developing and testing tools for producing, distributing, and enabling social networking for online courses. This past fall, more than 100 000 students around the world took three engineering classes—Machine Learning, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, and Introduction to Databases. Hennessy says that’s just the beginning. In fact, in his vision of the future, the lecture hall—those ubiquitous tiers of seats with fold-down writing arms, curving around a professor at a podium—will play a much smaller role.
But not everyone has applauded these educational experiments. One Stanford student who took the online machine learning class and blogged about it afterward said it didn’t match the rigor of traditional courses. He also worried that a proliferation of online classes would reduce the value of a Stanford degree. Other critics take the opposite tack and wonder if the courses are too hard for the general public, noting that the vast majority of students who signed up for the online classes dropped out partway through.
Spectrum visited Hennessy at his office on Stanford’s historic quad and asked him about his educational vision. Here’s what he had to say:
I’m a believer in online technology in education. I think we have learned enough about this to understand that it will be transformative. It’s going to change the world, and it’s going to change the way we think about education. Institutions like Stanford should be willing to fund the experiments, to try different things, to think about different models. We can do what other institutions would be strained financially to do, and they can learn from our experience.
It’s going to filter down into high school, too, where we have an even more dramatic problem, considering the shortage of highly qualified high school teachers, particularly in science and math.
For us, it started a few years ago. One of my faculty colleagues, Daphne Koller, said, “You know, I don’t feel very useful when I stand in front of a classroom and give a set of lectures, 85 percent of which are the same as the year before. It’s not very rewarding for the student, and sitting in large lecture halls is not the way students want to learn, particularly this generation.” She pointed out that the large lecture hall is not a good learning environment, and it’s not a good use of her time. And she was right. I agree that physical presence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
But it’s not really about what I think. The students are rewriting the rules for us. That large lecture hall with nice banked seating and 300 people sitting with their attention focused on somebody standing in the front of the classroom is a model that lasted for many years, but the students have made it clear that that’s not a model they find particularly attractive anymore.
Instead, this generation is completely comfortable watching a video online; for them, it’s not markedly different than having a person up at the front of the classroom. They are happy using technology. They know how to hit the pause button; they know how to speed it up a little bit, to watch it 20 percent faster and make the process more efficient.