As a professor of electrical engineering and computer science in the 1980s, Stanford President John Hennessy played a key role in the development of modern computer architecture. His office began providing seed funding for faculty members interested in experimenting with new online teaching platforms in 2009. We asked him how new developments in the delivery of education might affect Stanford.

You spent a good part of your recent sabbatical thinking about the future of online education at Stanford. Have you come to any preliminary conclusions?

I continue to believe that online technology will be transformative. The key is for each institution to decide what the role of online education is given the mission and goals of the institution.

How might online courses affect on-campus education as generations of Stanford students have known it?

I expect using online technology to improve the delivery of courses for existing on-campus students will be a primary goal of our efforts. 

How do the humanities fit into this picture?

To the extent that online technologies offer better ways to deliver courses, such technologies should be used. We are a long way from finding a technology that can replace small, interactive, discussion-oriented classes, which are the backbone of any humanities courses.  

Do you worry that mass access to Stanford classes might devalue the Stanford "brand"?

We have always provided some amount of content for free: Recall that we were one of the first institutions on iTunes U. I believe that the presence of widely available, Stanford-generated content increases recognition and visibility of the University as a global leader. Of course, such online content is not a complete course, does not provide any instructor interaction, nor carry any university credit. Nonetheless, it plays an important role in contributing to the public good.

The University's mission is to provide a learning-intensive, capability-enhancing education to students who are highly qualified. I do not expect that to change. How online technologies might allow us to broaden our reach without decreasing the quality and depth of the student experience is something we hope to discover from our current and future experiments. Furthermore, as important as online technologies might be for the future of education, we do not think they provide many of the advantages embedded in a residential experience.

You've called online education a "tsunami coming." How might this wave, for better or worse, affect the broader ecosystem of American higher education?

U.S. higher education is the world leader: It offers a variety of high quality institutions that fit the rich diversity of interests and abilities of the student population. Our public colleges and universities, where the vast majority of students attend, are under intense pressure due to decreases in state funding. Many public and private institutions face the challenge of increasing costs without the ability to provide increased financial aid, leading to tuition bills that are unaffordable and significant increases in student debt. This process of reduced government spending, increased costs and larger burdens on students and families has been going on for more than a decade.

Online technology is a disruptive force that might allow us to "bend the cost curve" with little or no decrease in educational quality, although this hypothesis is one that will need to be rigorously tested. If online technology can increase productivity with little or no decrease in learning outcomes, it will be a major force for change. Students will benefit: sometimes through better learning opportunities, sometimes through lower costs. Embracing such technologies is likely to change the nature of at least some institutions and the role faculty play.

A tsunami in mid-ocean can be barely visible, and when it strikes the impact can depend on the nature of the terrain and exactly where the wave hits. Online education is still in its mid-ocean stage.