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UCLA professor uncertain on engineering MOOCs

Posted: 21 Feb 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:UCLA  MOOC  chip design  CMOS  transceiver 

Behzad Razavi, a veteran professor of comms chip design, has announced that he will offer a massive open online course (MOOC) on basic circuit theory later this year, the first online course from the electrical engineering department at UCLA. He said he plans to post to YouTube in three to six months his first complete undergrad and grad courses and "gauge how it goes."

I sat down with Razavi at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference. He's a regular fixture at the event either presenting papers of his own on high-speed or low-power comms chip designs or attending those of his students.

It's still early days for the blending of education and the web. Razavi admits he has mixed feelings about massive open online courses (MOOCs).

Behzad Razavi

He told me at ISSCC: "The fact [that] you can reach unbounded numbers of people in any corner of the Earth is wonderful, but to replace a regular rigorous course with a video raises some questions."

"We have lost real-time feedback between the instructor and the students; a good instructor adjusts his pace, timing, word choice and where he stands based on that feedback. More subtly if a student is watching a video by himself he is much more prone to distraction than if he is in the classroom, and if he is stuck a TA might stop the video and ask questions every 15 minutes but that's different, and they don't hear each other's questions."

Even worse, "my fear is [MOOCs] might undermine some real-time courses; students may not go to class," he said.

The good news is UCLA's EE department is getting plenty of applications for Master's and PhD students. The flip side is "because circuits are getting more sophisticated it takes longer for students to be productive when they enter the industry," Razavi said.

Twenty years ago "getting a Master's degree in a year and a quarter would give you enough background" for a job, he said. Today a Master's degree takes closer to two years and grads face an "additional year of work in the industry to come up to speed," he said.

Still, Razavi remains upbeat about technical progress.

"I have always been very optimistic about the semiconductor industry," he said. "Some people are worried about CMOS scaling, but in my opinion we have plenty to do and plenty of room to grow. I'm a circuit designer so whether the technology scales or not it's my job to get the performance I need," he said.

The latest "golden target" is to deliver a Gb/s throughput for every milliwatt of power. One ISSCC paper this year described a building block toward that goal, an equalizer that consumes 0.2mW per Gb/s.

The achievement buoyed Razavi to predict that the Gb/mW transceiver is "around the corner, maybe by next year, especially as people migrate to 16nm technology."

Perhaps he will even be able to describe it in a 2015 MOOC.

- Rick Merritt
  EE Times





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