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John Hennessy: The Hardwired Vision of Stanford’s High-Tech President

An interview with the Silicon millionaire just took charge of the West Coast’s leading university

John Hennessy

John Hennessy

Noah Berger/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For many universities, the first phase of the high-tech education revolution — hardwiring campuses with high-speed data networks — is over, and they have moved on to the next stage: trying to get a piece of the action. More and more academic institutions are partnering with the computer industry to generate lucrative software and patents. But those that get into this game are facing questions about their future independence and integrity — indeed, about whether they may be selling their souls for short-term gain.

Perhaps no university president is more acutely aware of the seductions and limitations of technology than John Hennessy, who became Stanford’s new president in September. In many ways, Stanford’s research-friendly environment was the incubator for Silicon Valley, and Hennessy claims his own rightful place in the history of computers: He developed the RISC chip architecture that has become an industry standard. In 1992, Hennessy and his partners sold their start-up, MIPS Computer Systems, to Silicon Graphics for $333 million. In 1999, when Hennessy was Stanford provost, his former colleague, Netscape founder Jim Clark, donated $150 million to Stanford through him. “He’s quite a guru within the computer industry,” says Dinesh Bahal, Sun Microsystems’ director of higher-education research.

From his vantage point at the high-tech epicenter, Hennessy expresses deep faith in the Web’s capacity to enhance learning, especially for struggling students or those in huge, impersonal lecture courses. “Using alternative technologies is very valuable, because we have a much better understanding of how students learn,” he says. “Students learn the material in different ways.”

The most popular new teaching tool is multimedia “courseware.” Though no studies have yet been done, professors such as Greg Bothun, of the University of Oregon physics department, are reporting that online education is helping students. In 1993, Bothun was the first professor to begin supplementing his lectures with virtual experiments, graphic visualizations and online coursework. In his introductory-physics classes, he says, test scores have improved by twenty percent thanks to this approach.

Despite these successes, Bothun and Hennessy are concerned about the potential for misuse of online tools. Bothun fears that just as some professors lean too much on their textbooks, others may become dependent on course-management software that provides a preset curriculum and generates assignments and quizzes. “There are a lot of flashy ways to use technology — whether they have any impact on learning is the harder question,” says Hennessy.

If boosters like Bothun and Hennessy express caution, others in academia are ringing alarm bells. “Few students realize that their computer-based courses are often thinly veiled field trials for product and market development,” writes York University professor David F. Noble in Digital Diploma Mills, a manifesto against online education. “In Canada, for example, universities have been given royalty-free licenses to Virtual U. software in return for providing data on its use to vendors.”

Clifford Stoll, a computer-security expert and author of High-Tech Heretic, asks, “What does the wired campus do to the meaning of attending college? Consider the deadening effects of thousands of students veering off into cyberspace rather than being engaged in campus activities!” And Alan Marcus, a history-of-technology professor at Iowa State University, laments, “I used to have office hours; now, after a lecture, my students would rather e-mail me than come up and ask me their questions.”

But Hennessy is optimistic that the Internet and online education will prove beneficial. “To expect that the Internet instantly becomes an equal competitor to libraries where millions of dollars and hundreds of years have been invested is just too much to ask,” he says. “But I have no doubt that the Internet will become a great research library.”

But first, the lethargic culture of academia will have to change. “Universities are slow to react, compared to the pace at which companies work,” says Hennessy. Software developers, for example, have been very quick to seek control over the curriculum of successful courses. The heavy price paid, says Bothun, is that “de facto universities have given content creation to the commercial world with its own agenda.”

In coming years, a die-hard art-history professor might still prefer to show a fuzzy slide of the Sistine Chapel to illustrate an ecstatic lecture on the Italian Renaissance. But his colleagues might prefer Space Age teaching aids, like virtual-reality helmets that invade the senses with a 3-D holographic rendition of Michelangelo’s masterpiece.

The push for high-tech education comes not only from software developers but also from university administrators. “We’ve got swelling college populations, a need to educate people cost-effectively,” says Hennessy, “and I don’t think we’ll be able to hire enough college-level instructors to deal with what will probably be a growth in demand. Therefore, I think we will be forced to consider alternative means of reaching students.” As online education becomes more pervasive, the question will be: Will administrators use cutting-edge educational technology to make students smarter, or will their first priority be the bottom line? 

In This Article: Coverwall, John Hennessy

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