John Hennessy is the president of Stanford University.  PDP11 fans everywhere will also know him as the inventor of RISC.  He was talking about the 21st century university, extolling the virtues of collaboration and mixing cultures, supported by modern communications. 

Hennessy saw four drivers for change in universities:

  • Globalisation: the need to appreciate the culture and views of others.  Students should spend time abroad and should learn how to do cross-border collaboration
  • The growing importance of science and technology: the absence of real understanding risks a bias to conservatism, so the key question is, what should all students understand about scientific principles and their possibilities?
    • How has the world become so ignorant about science and technology?
      • by ignoring the importance of science and technology in, for example, the teaching of history in schools [by which I assume he was looking for more of a Guns, Germs and Steel approach]
      • by downplaying its importance, which leads to lack of interest, which leads to people not following scientific careers
  • The need for a broader range of skills and knowledge, and for new skills and knowledge over time:  quoting Alvin Toffler’s line that ‘the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those
    who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and
    relearn’.  Continuing education and life-long learning then become central, and the notion of being a full time student doesn’t make much sense.
  • Universities should do transformational innovation:  universities excel at technology transfer, because they systematically transfer people who understand innovative technology into a wide range of places it can be useful, through a process known as ‘graduation’.

There was a lot of good stuff in this, but in some ways it was curiously conservative:  he put a lot of weight on students mixing in dormitories and spending time on international exchanges as sources of cultural exchange.  That’s an approach which may work well for Stanford, but is hardly scalable and there was quite a lot of muttering from the audience that this was very elitist.

He also talked about using new technologies both to support communication and to provide alternative channels for teaching.  He said proudly that the materials and the assessments – assignments and exams – were all available online and were identical  with their offline equivalents.  At one level, that’s a very powerful statement.  But at another, it’s rather odd:  given a different medium with different audiences, different economics and necessarily different approaches to learning, why assume that the two should be the same?

The relevance of all this to us is less in what Hennessy said, more in some of the implications and parallels it prompted with our own dissemination and sharing of knowledge, on which I will write a separate note shortly.