CS Assistant Professor and NSF Career award-winner, Adrian Sampson, has made his "Advanced Compilers" into an open-source, self-guided online course. CS 6120 is a Ph.D.-level course on programming language implementation. "It covers universal compilers topics like intermediate representations, data flow, and 'classic' optimizations as well as more research-flavored topics such as parallelization, just-in-time compilation, and garbage collection. The work consists of reading papers and open-source hacking tasks, which use LLVM and an educational IR invented just for this class."
Reflecting the shift from in-person instruction to online teaching—and this latest move to open-source, open-access—Sampson says it "has been a fun experiment in attempting to find a pandemic silver lining. Teaching normally would, of course, make me happier, but it’s a consolation prize that I can easily make the same curriculum available to the whole world" compared with "the twenty-or-so people who would take this course" in pre-pandemic conditions.
"This course was a good fit for letting out into the world," Sampon notes, "because I designed it to be 'open-source' from the beginning. That is, I have solutions to much of the homework already on GitHub, and I encourage students to put their stuff online, publicly available, as well. So cheating would be extremely easy—or, as I prefer to think of it, it’s impossible to cheat. I think this forces the work to feel more 'real' and less like an academic exercise." Sampson's transformation of the course—and his observations on the results—unsettle our notion of what "taking a course for real" means. While students used to work "in real life," there may have been a danger that lessons, in fact, felt like "academic exercises." Now liberated to include the whole world, the virtual classroom has achieved a special quality of urgency and widespread implementaiton.
And the numbers suggest an impressive growth that is likely only to multiply: "I’m shocked," Sampson observes, "that the intro lesson video has 2,397 views. That’s not very famous by YouTube standards, but it is by the standard of other classes I’ve taught!" With one-hundred fold growth in such a short time, one wonders not just how many students will eventually come to "Advanced Compilers," but how much good will come from their ability to freely access Sampson's teaching.