Last week I participated in a reception to celebrate Harvard’s newly redesigned Mark I exhibit in the Science Center. If you don’t know about this machine or its history, you can learn more here. Today’s blog post presents my notes from yesterday remarks. I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed giving them!

A photo of the reception from the Harvard Gazette. Photo by Jon Chase.

It’s a true delight to speak, for my academic passion is to understand and build machines that are the descendants of the Mark I. What has always fascinated me is how we can take a very simple building block – we effectively start with something no more complex than an on/off switch – and from this simplicity build machines of great complexity.

Now, just because we can build something complex, and even get it to run for a short time, you shouldn’t fool yourself into thinking you can keep it running or get it to do what you hoped it would do. The way you get one of these behemoths to run is to think about how it can fail.

Failure. The Mark I and its successors are probably best known for the story of the “first actual case of bug being found.” The engineering community had used the term “bug” before the creation of these machines, but on Sept. 9, 1947 a mechanical malfunction in the Mark II was traced to a moth – a real bug – trapped between the points of Relay #70 in Panel F. The story lit the imagination of people outside of the engineering community and was one of Grace Murray Hopper’s favorite stories when she spoke about her life.

I like to think of this as the first big impact of computer technology on our larger society. The eventual size of this impact was certainly unforeseen at the time.

Some of you may have heard the early 1940s quote, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers,” attributed to Thomas J. Watson, Sr., who launched IBM. Historians aren’t convinced he actually said this exact quote, but there is plenty of evidence that he and numerous other leaders and forward-thinkers in the early computer industry, including Howard Aiken, didn’t think that there’d be a large market for machines like the Mark I.

Grab a random undergraduate walking by and I can guarantee you that you’ll find a handful of computing devices in their pockets and backpack. I carry a computing device, a Fitbit, which is many times more powerful than this Mark I. Its important task? Count the steps I take in a day. What would Watson or Aiken have thought of that?

How do I use the computing power of my cell phone, a device that is constantly conversing with 10s, 100s, maybe even 1000s of machines throughout the day? To keep me happy with texts from my kids. Am I wrong? Who here doesn’t become instantly frustrated if the text you type doesn’t instantly go through?

The Mark I is a reminder to us that Harvard recognized early the importance of these machines and what they could calculate quickly. Unfortunately, a bug crept into our thinking, and we let leadership in this space slip away from us for a while.

Today, Harvard again has reengaged, and I believe taken a leadership role in this space. Our efforts are certainly rooted in SEAS and the technology, but they don’t end there. We are pursuing leadership in computation and its impacts in every one of our disciplines.

So, if we try to learn from the past, what’s the bug in our thinking today? What is our blind spot to avoid?

I don’t know, but I see one. I often hear us talking about the important resources underpinning our great university: Our finances, our facilities, and most importantly our people. But would you start with just these three if you were to build a university from scratch today? I don’t think so. I think that you would put as much thought into digital resources as you would in physical ones.

Today is a day to celebrate what we accomplished 70 years ago with the construction of the Mark I, and to reflect on what we learned about the impact of these machines on society over those 70 years. It is for us to apply those lessons as we approach the next 70, for Harvard, higher education, and the world. With our breadth of excellence, we are uniquely positioned to do this.

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I grew up in New Jersey crazy about cars. As I recently told a gathering of alumni in California – it’s amazing what you end up revealing when Diane Paulus starts asking you questions – I wanted to grow up to be a used-car salesman. To this day, I still have my extensive collection of used matchbox cars, although they have now become the property of the next generation in my family.

I have a vivid memory of being young and driving with my dad to get gas for the family car each week. On these trips, I would climb into the back seat and start praying he’d head to the green Hess station in Ewing, New Jersey. It was a longer trip, but there I could get out of the car and go and look at the Hess trucks in the station window. They were the coolest trucks this 7-year-old had ever seen.

I never did get to fulfill my childhood dream of becoming a used-car salesman, but I did accomplish a different childhood dream: My office at Harvard contains a collection of Hess trucks and other Hess vehicles. You can see a few of them in the picture below. And yes, those sharp-looking gentlemen with me are the president (Gus Mayopoulos, right) and vice-president (Sietse Goffard) of the Harvard Undergraduate Council. What do they and I have in common? Yes, yes, besides a love of Harvard? A fascination with Hess trucks.

From Left: Sietse Goffard (UC Vice Presdient), Dean Smith, Gus Mayopoulos (UC President)

Spring break. In theory, a time for all of us on college campuses to relax a bit and catch up on all those things that you let slip during the shortest month of the year. Like your blog.

So far, this has been a good break. Mine started the Thursday before our break officially began; mine began with Harvard’s Housing day. Nothing compares to walking into Harvard Yard on yet another snowy, blustery winter day – thinking, “When will this awful winter end?” – and being stopped short by the warm joy radiating from several hundred happy undergraduates gathered around the John Harvard statue. Most dressed for the occasion, but not the weather.

Photo by Rose Lincoln, Harvard Staff Photographer

The end of winter is also marked by March Madness, the men’s NCAA basketball tournament. Yesterday, Harvard notched its second-ever victory in the tourney, a well-played and hard-fought victory over a strong Cincinnati Bearcats team. Before the game was even played, it felt like every news broadcast and sports talk show (whether radio, TV, or on the internet) started with a comment on Harvard’s team. As Charles Barkley said about our team during the TBS half-time show during a later game, “They represent everything great about college basketball.” There may be many problems with collegiate sports in America, but coach Tommy Amaker has taught our students to play like a team and bask in the joy of the game. Through them, the rest of us get a small taste of that joy.

Photo by Gil Talbot

What else? I found a corner of my garden where the soil was soft and moist. There I planted some new bulbs. Just me and some dirt. A simple joy, and like our jobs as teachers, a hope for what we’ve cultivated will bring forth.

Happy Spring!

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Time to continue with my reflections on the China trip. It’s been nearly two months since my first posts on this topic and the more I think about my time there, the more I appreciate all I saw and learned.

From my first days in China, I was struck how everyone, whether they are tech-savvy or not, talked about China’s incredible progress and prowess with “hardware” (e.g., buildings and bridges and infrastructure) and its struggles with “software” (i.e., the educational level and professional skills broadly available in its population).

China is clearly a country interested in educating and increasing the skills of its workforce. I was fortunate during this trip to meet with the leadership of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Fudan University, Peking University, and Tsinghua University. The leadership of each institution spoke of expansion and what their institution could do to help address the “software problem” in China. Each institution also talked of how it planned to be more competitive in the world of higher education.

Our first stop was with President Tony Chan at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. This institution boasts a beautiful location and an expanding interest in both liberal arts education and online learning. During our conversation, I asked President Chan about his thoughts on online learning, and his response mirrored almost exactly what I had said an hour earlier to the U.S. and Chinese faculty in a workshop discussing the future of general education. It doesn’t seem to matter whether your institution is 20 years old or 375 years old, we’re all grappling with the same questions about online learning.

We visited Fudan University in Shanghai next, where we met Mary. She was clearly ready to be our guide for the day. She spoke excellent English and had more energy and pep than anyone I had ever met. I’ve been on many campus tours as my kids looked at colleges, but she made the day of travel around Fudan informative and fun.

Fudan’s president, Yuliang Yuan, was kind enough to spend some time with us, and he spoke about several fascinating trends in China’s approach to higher education, including new approaches to admissions (evaluate the “whole” student) and efforts to improve teaching and learning (we spoke in depth with their new director of the unit for “academic affairs”, an office charged with creating a strong culture of teaching, developing clear learning outcomes in their classrooms, and thinking about the impact of technology on teaching and learning).

In Beijing, we visited Beida (Peking University) and Tsinghau University, where I met Presidents Enge Wang (Beida) and Jining Chen (Tsinghau). I have been fortunate to be able to spend some time with both these presidents outside the formal settings pulled together to greet our delegation. Both are impressive individuals and each speaks eloquently about the next generation of China’s “software.”

With our trip behind us, it is now time for our group to look ahead to see how we can work together with our Chinese colleagues and institute new practices in teaching and learning that will help improve the “software” of higher education worldwide.

Let me end here with a heartfelt thank you for the gracious reception that we received at each institution and the time that each president made in their incredibly busy schedules to speak with me about their institutions and their aspirations for the future.

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Although I’m sure we didn’t plan it this way, our second day in Shanghai turned out to be a day of cultural restoration, and I was astounded by what I saw.

We began with a morning outing to the Shanghai Museum of ancient Chinese art. Since it was rush hour, we elected to take the subway and thus avoid Shanghai’s notoriously difficult traffic. Although I had received repeated warnings about how crazy and packed it might be during rush hour, I was looking forward to the subway ride. While the train we boarded was certainly crowded, the station and its platforms weren’t. They were nowhere near the claustrophobic feel of a Green line station after a Red Sox game.

People's Park

We exited the subway at the People’s Park, which is rich in history and beautiful to behold even in winter. We cruised around it twice before someone finally realized that we didn’t know how to get through the park and to the museum.

When we finally arrived at the museum, the curator of the bronzes was there to meet us and introduce us to their amazing collection. It was fascinating to watch those in our group who had grown up in China react to the pieces that they had studied growing up. I was reminded again of how little of China’s history I had learned while growing up.

From the bronze exhibits, the museum staff took us upstairs to see how they restored and maintained the objects in the collection. From looking at the pieces on display, I had assumed that they had found the objects largely intact. Nope. We were introduced to the one person they had on staff to restore the ancient bronze pieces the museum collected. This person would painstakingly spend months restoring just a single object. To my surprise, he didn’t just clean the object; he rebuilt objects. They showed us one piece, a bronze bowl, which was found mostly destroyed, and then reconstructed by this person. Since a little over half the bowl survived, the gentleman in the bronze restoration department rebuilt the entire bowl by assuming the missing part was a mirror image of the surviving part. To a layman like me, I couldn’t tell the original part from the reconstructed part. Is this what happens in U.S. museums?

Around lunchtime, we departed the museum for a “little” restoration project on the outskirts of Shanghai. This was creative reconstruction on a massive scale. The project involved the transplantation of thousands of 1,000-year-old trees and 30-some centuries-old houses of government officials from one part of China to a former industrial park outside of Shanghai. This dilapidated industrial park was going to become a beautiful new resort where guests could relax in 7-star accommodations built inside centuries-old framing.

I’ve included here pictures of the model home (you’d rent the entire house), one of the trees currently sitting in a tree farm awaiting its final destination, and a stone carving from one of the deconstructed old houses. Like we witnessed at the Shanghai Museum, here we watched one guy restoring the houses’ stone carvings. In this case, fixing the damage done during the Cultural Revolution. One guy creating new heads on century-old bodies, in whatever creative, historically similar way he chose. Fascinating.

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I just returned from almost two weeks in China. Yes, this was my first trip to China, my first trip to Asia actually. I was asked numerous times, “What are your impressions? What surprised you?” And I was asked once, “What took you so long to visit here?” Good question.

I’m old enough to remember a very different China than the one I experienced on this trip. In the few HAA events I did during my travels, I talked about how China was viewed when I was a child and how differently it is seen today by my children. I knew basically nothing about China growing up. You couldn’t visit it. China was only ever mentioned by smart alecks commenting on my hole digging skills. “Hey, what are you doing? Digging a hole to China?”

Today, my children know so much more about China. They studied its history in school. They use its products everyday. They’ve heard about its technological advances from my days as an entrepreneur, and they’ve met China’s children, who have been my students at Harvard.

So, what took me so long to visit? The world, and especially China, changed faster than my understanding of it. Nothing we see or hear through our media or our politicians rivals what I saw and experienced on this trip.

I thought I’d use the next few posts to describe a few of the things that surprised me and impressed me on this trip. In this post, I’ll begin with my personal impressions of the cities we visited. I say “we” because I benefited tremendously from traveling with a number of Harvard colleagues who have broad experience and deep knowledge of China. My heartfelt thanks go to Xiao-Li Meng, Mark Elliott, Lydia Chen, Paul Keenan, Jon Petitt, and Tim Brown, who traveled extensively with me and tolerated my unending stream of questions. I also want to acknowledge Bill Kirby, Arthur Kleinman, Mike McElroy, and Lillian Wei, who worked behind the scenes at some of my stops.

Hong Kong

That’s me on The Peak overlooking Hong Kong on a fairly smoggy day. I will admit that I was expecting a simple observation platform when I got to the peak. What I found was a full-fledged, upscale shopping mall.

My trip began in Hong Kong, a city that straddles Chinese and Western cultures. A good place to begin if you want to ease into the experience.

I did love this city with its meandering paths that took you through building lobbies, across walkways flying above the busy streets, and into quiet gardens sprinkled across the bustling city. You didn’t walk across town; you weaved through it. It’s not like walking the grid-like blocks of NYC, or the long main streets of London. I found it more confusing than the bowels of Penn Station, but also quite pleasant, as Margot Gill and Paul Keenan illustrate in one of the city’s gardens.

Ok, I didn’t enjoy everything; every building in Hong Kong pumps perfume into the air circulation systems of their lobbies. Yuk. I hope this trend doesn’t take hold in the USA.

After a few days in Hong Kong, we flew to Shanghai. Yes, the airports in China are modern and massive. In fact, the airports are so spacious that they felt empty to me. Not what I was expecting. Once airborne, on the DragonAir flight, Xiao-Li attempted to teach me how to recognize Chinese numbers and dates in a Chinese newspaper. We did this while Modern Family played on the plane’s flat-screen TV. Definitely not what I had expected.

Shanghai is a modern city. It is full of skyscrapers, each seeming to want to outdo the others in its modern design. I can’t imagine such a variety of architecture in an U.S. city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, after a few days in Shanghai, we took the high-speed train to Beijing. What a nice way to travel, and a great way to see the country (or at least a part of it).

Beijing differs greatly from Hong Kong and Shanghai. It retains a sense of history even in its new construction. It felt like I was now fully in China. And to celebrate, we were treated to a couple of beautiful blue-sky days.  I hope China is able to overcome its pollution problems. When it’s clear, the country’s beauty is truly something to behold.

Beijing

No filter needed for this beautiful blue sky.

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I had a busy weekend before Thanksgiving. It started with The Game on Saturday between Harvard and Yale. Our football teams met for the 130th time under a beautiful blue November sky. The Yale Bowl was hopping, with Yale’s new coach and new president itching for a victory. When the day ended, however, Harvard had not only beaten Yale, but it also had earned a share of the Ivy League football title, as undefeated Princeton faltered in Hanover against a tough Dartmouth team.

This is significant because Ivy football teams play for the Ivy League title. That is our championship. No bowl games, no post season. Just add up the wins and losses against your Ivy League opponents, and crown the winningest team(s). Don’t look for more glory because we believe that there is plenty in competing with likeminded institutions. This principle defines the Ivy League.

Sunday, I sat among another group of likeminded institutions. I participated in an event, under the banner of edX, where we were working to shape the future of higher education for the world — something else highly worthy of glory.

In the picture below, Anant Agarwal (president of edX) and Jeffrey Young (editor and writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education) are talking with three leaders from around the world about their use of the edX open-source platform and their plans for helping educate learners inside and outside the walls of our existing college campuses.

Dr. Sharmini Coorey (Director of the Institute for Capacity Development at the IMF) talked about how the IMF was planning to use the platform to significantly expand the capacity of their training centers and their outreach to government officials around the world. Professor Jie Tang (Tsinghua University) talked about China’s plans for online education and the creation of XuetangX, China’s newest online learning portal powered by the edX platform. Dr. Deepak Phatak (IIT Bombay) spoke about online learning and how he sees India’s universities accepting, in the not too distant future, credit for MOOCs. Leaders from the institutions participating in edX sat in the audience and discussed these rapid changes to the higher education landscape.

Like Harvard and Yale on Saturday, each of these world leaders compete with the others. They compete for faculty and students, and for their institution to be the first to discover new knowledge. But like the Ivy League, these likeminded institutions also stand together. They share important principles. They care deeply about finding the best way to improve learning and make education available, in some form, to every person interested in learning.

I’m proud to have been an Ivy League student athlete and now to work for a university that cares about more than winning in sports. I’m also proud to stand with this worldwide league of institutions of higher education and to be a part of the edX consortium. Call me sentimental, but leagues should be more than about winning. Ok, I am sentimental. It was nice to beat Yale.

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This past Friday, I traveled to Hyannis to speak with the Harvard Club of Cape Cod. The gathering numbered over 130 people, including a few individuals from the Boston University, Cornell, MIT, and Wellesley Clubs of Cape Cod. I was invited to talk about online education, apparently a hot topic even during the Cape’s offseason.

I spoke for about 30 minutes about what is happening on our campuses and around the world in higher education. The audience was fantastic, and we had a lively discussion during and after the talk. The question-and-answer period lasted over an hour, but felt to me like it lasted no more than 10 minutes.

I’ll spare you the entire talk, but I do want to mention a piece of history that I mentioned and found fascinating. I spoke about the fact that efforts in online learning are not new. The Harvard Extension School started, for example, an online learning project called Teleteaching back in 1984, sending a Calculus course over the modems of the day.

In this brief historical review, I focused on efforts at institutions with which I had a personal connection. The other institution I mentioned was Stanford, and its Instructional Television Network (SITN) effort begun in 1969. I taught over this network during my graduate student years, but I never knew about its roots. So, in preparing for Friday’s talk, I looked up an early paper that talked about the launching of the SITN and what the creators were thinking at the time. The paper was authored by Joseph M. Pettit and Donald J. Grace and titled “The Stanford instructional television network.” It was published in IEEE Spectrum in May 1970.

While the technologies for online learning have advanced a lot since 1969, the questions asked haven’t changed one bit. Consider the following quote, which I found on the second page of the paper, but I could easily find repeated again and again over the last 45 years:

“But what about the quality of the [online] instruction? Would it meet our standards? Would it be as good for the student as if he were sitting in the classroom on the campus?”

With the efforts of non-profits like ITHAKA and Harvard’s HarvardX research group led by Professor Andrew Ho, I have great faith that we will make a serious dent, finally, in these questions. And with rigorous answers, we will also, finally, overcome the tentative steps that always follow the asking of these important questions. What was the tentative step taken in 1970?

“Network member organizations are permitted to make ‘off the air’ video tapes of Stanford lectures at the request of their students who wish to make up missed classes or use them for course review. Such tapes cannot be employed in any other way and must be erased within two weeks of the end of each quarter.” [Ibid]

Today, we retain all kinds of data that make me scratch my head in wonder. Let’s find a way to keep available the educational materials that create so much positive wonder in our students.

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As dean, I was fortunate enough to meet poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, but they were only brief encounters. Yesterday, months after his passing, I got to know him much better, as Harvard’s English department celebrated his life and work at Harvard in a moving memorial of music, song, remembrances, and, of course, poetry.

A number of our faculty in English and Celtic Languages and Literatures took turns reading pieces of Heaney’s poetry. I found myself fascinated as I listened to so many different voices read their favorites out loud. As each person spoke, I sensed the many voices weaving together an image of one incredible mind.

Some readers provided a bit of history before presenting their selected work, and it was especially moving to hear Robert Kiely read an unpublished poem that Heaney wrote for the 50th anniversary of the founding of Adams House. Kiely was master of Adams when Heaney was a resident, and he had kept the poem Heaney had specially written for just that occasion.

Stephen Burt read the line of Heaney’s work that struck the deepest chord in me. The line comes from a poem titled Terminus, where Heaney talks about his perceived place in the world.

Two buckets were easier carried than one.

I grew up in between.

I’ve spent the last few hours trying to determine why these words, these two short sentences, the simple image mean so much to me. Reflection is not something the role of dean usually leaves time to do. Seamus Heaney and his poetry illuminating “the rhythms of ordinary lives” (as described once by Bill Clinton) helped slow mine for a few hours, and I’m richer for it.

 

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I helped officially launch the Harvard Campaign for Arts and Sciences on October 25-26, 2013. More than 1000 friends and alums gathered in Cambridge during the weekend of October 26 and shared many spectacular and memorable moments. I’d like to share two of mine with you.

Lisa New, Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature and David Malan, Senior Lecturer on Computer Science.  (Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer)

This is a photo from one of our faculty panels. In it, Professor Lisa New and Senior Lecturer David Malan are sharing with the attendees how they had become good friends through their participation together in HarvardX. Here are two individuals from seemingly very different worlds – poetry and computer science – who found that they could learn so much from each other. While it is often written how online technologies are driving people apart or putting them at odds, I am finding that it more often pulls together on our campus those who might have otherwise never met. And we are richer for it.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

This is a photo of me from Saturday’s speech. Honestly, I’m not wired to give speeches. I can’t stand still at a lectern, and I feel uncomfortable when it seems like I’m talking at people instead of with them. So, I asked our event planning people to let me teach, not preach. For me, teaching has always been a conversation and not a lecture. Yes, that’s me holding a Yellow Pages. For those under the age of 20, we used to use these big books to hold open doors and look up phone numbers. I also used to use these big books in Computer Science 50 to teach the students how to search using a computer. If you want to see the lesson, check out David Malan’s CS50 class online. I touched on only a few highlights of the lesson, but shared with the audience the fun of ripping apart phone books and tossing the pieces around the stage. There’s nothing like making a mess with a 1000 close friends.

Overall, this weekend was a success because of the hard work of so many. Thank you all.

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