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 What Would Joe Do?
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena is a freelance journalist and Editor of EDA Confidential at She can be reached at peggy at aycinena dot com.

Rutenbar’s Coursera: Grand & Crazy on a Planetary Scale

April 21st, 2016 by Peggy Aycinena

Just as Auguste Rodin revived the art of sculpture
at the end of the 19th century in Europe, and Wynton Marsalis rescued the art of jazz by the end of the 20th century in America, here in the 21st century University of Illinois CS professor Rob Rutenbar is resurrecting the art of teaching VLSI design around the world.

He’s doing that via his Coursera-based online class entitled VLSI CAD: Logic to Layout, a course with an enrollment that defies comprehension. Per Rutenbar’s own whimsy: “There are about 25,000 people working in the EDA industry today. About 55,000 of them have signed up for my class.”

I had a chance to speak by phone with Dr. Rutenbar earlier this week. He was sitting in his office in Urbana-Champaign, but looking out an academic landscape that encompasses the entire world.

[hint: a MOOC is a Massively Open Online Course.]


WWJD: How did you decide to teach this class?

Rutenbar: Let’s start with a little background. All of this MOOC stuff happened in the fall of 2011 with some of our friends at Stanford spinning up these courses, ramping them up at a massive level. Which meant that simply by using Netlix-type technology, anyone anywhere with adequate bandwidth could see the lectures.

The folks involved were building real evaluation materials – exams, homework, projects involving software, all graded in the Cloud – and Coursera was one of them.

Because I’m part of the Computer Science world, and all of the people at Stanford doing MOOCs were my colleagues, I went out to Stanford in the spring of 2012, talked to a bunch of my peers out there, and asked: ‘Hey, how are you doing this?’

After that, I pretty much became one of the people here who convinced our campus to get into the game, and the University of Illinois joined the Coursera platform in 2012. We were among the second cohorts of schools onto the platform.

First we selected a set of classes and set up instructors and materials from the University of Illinois to be the first classes in the platform.

I had access to 15 years of teaching material from the long-standing VLSI CAD class I taught at Carnegie Melon before I came here to Illinois in 2011, so I volunteered to put one of my classes on the platform. Those materials, and a lot of help and collaboration from colleagues, became the origin of our MOOC on VLSI design.

We did the first version of the course in the fall of 2013, and I’ve done the course every spring since then, making changes and improvements. The class in its current form is a 10-week course that’s called ‘VLSI CAD: Logic to Layout’.

You can think of it as a course about the ASIC flow – the foundational algorithms, data structures and methods behind all of the tools we all know so well.

The course material is basically half logic and half layout – we think it’s pretty rare, if not completely unique. There are not too many courses anywhere that try to do the flow like we do, from front to back.

And it’s not about using other people’s tools. This is a course about logic synthesis down deep, and place-and-route down deep, about formal verification down deep, and timing down deep.

People do homework in the class and a software project. We give the students data sets and they have to crunch them, and then upload their files to the Cloud. We give them partial credit for incorrect solutions, and they have to go back and correct their errors and then resubmit the files.

WWJD: Back in 2001, I did an article about teaching VLSI design at the university level. I talked to a lot of schools across the country, some very well-known, and a number of them told me that teaching VLSI design was the stuff of trade schools. It wasn’t sophisticated enough for top-tier schools.

Rutenbar: That’s simply not true.

Most people are still teaching VLSI courses. There’s always something fun there to teach, and the CAD companies still make their tool flows available for instructors.

But teaching people how logic synthesis works, the basic math behind it, how does place-and-route work, static timing – here’s what’s easy and here’s what’s hard – my course has evolved to fill that nitch and it’s been fairly successful. Surprisingly successful, really.

[Laughing] Now I go to conferences and people are asking to take selfies with me

And I’ve gotten people jobs as a result of taking our course. Recently, I gave a Distinguished Talk at Cadence. I asked the audience if any of them had heard of people taking my course.

From the back of the room somebody said: “Oh yeah, we hired him.”

WWJD: When I was a grad student at Stanford in EE, I was working full-time at NASA Ames Research Center. We took our courses on closed-circuit tv in a conference room at Ames and were pretty much treated like second-class citizens. If we called in a question, it would be broadcast in the classroom back at Stanford. The professor would say – Uh oh, we’ve got a question coming in from TV Land – and all of the students sitting in the classroom on campus would snicker. It was pretty humiliating. I far prefer this new idea of streaming courses on-demand where everybody’s a student in TV Land.

Rutenbar: Well, the MOOC stuff is a much higher quality experience today, but you should understand that these classes are still synchronous and not on-demand. We have a start and stop date for the course, and real-time due dates for the homework. Of course, how you consume the lecture material is your business.

[Meanwhile], Coursera has changed a platform somewhat. We want the course to be offered in a little more of an on-demand manner, and they’ve moved a couple of things.

They’ve learned that MOOCs that are the same length as a college course don’t work as well, courses that are 10-to-12 weeks long. Grownups can’t put their lives on hold for months at a time like that. So we’re advocating for 4-to-6 week courses, and for making them available not just once a year, but several times a year. Plus, if you don’t take a lecture on the assigned day, it’s still there [to be viewed later].

WWJD: Then why not move fully to an on-demand strategy?

Rutenbar: There are two virtues for synchronous classes. First, it pulls the students to actually get stuff done and handed in on time. And second, there’s tremendous value from interacting with your fellow students, your cohorts in the class.

If you all start the class at the same time, then there are other people on the forums who are having the same problems with a particular question: “What’s he talking about on problem 7 on the new homework?”

So, the courses are [evolving] towards having more start dates over the course of the year, but still being taught in a synchronous fashion. That way you still have the virtue of deadlines, but instead of having 10,000 people in your class, you might only have a thousand cohorts [to discuss the homework with].

WWJD: Many universities have explored the idea of having satellite campus in remote geographies. Some faculty at MIT, for instance, have spent time teaching in Singapore in a program targeted at granting MIT degrees to students who pursue their studies there rather than in Cambridge. Do you think that teaching your course on Coursera dilutes the University of Illinois brand?

Rutenbar: No, not at all. I really don’t believe that, and there are two narratives that explain my opinion here.

First, it’s true that the University of Illinois has evolved to be one of Coursera’s largest platform partners with 2.6 million students registered in our various courses. But this it not diluting our brand, it’s promulgating our brand at the planetary scale.

Urbana Champagne is like a lot of classical college towns, it’s not a large city. We’re not in Boston or close to San Francisco, so this is an opportunity to take some our educational content and make it available at a planetary scale.

Second, like or not, EDA is not as popular and attractive a topic as it was in the 1980’s and 90’s. I have a lot of former EDA students, people who did a lot of EDA work, who are now at Microsoft and Google.

But I’ve made the argument that every vibrant discipline needs an on-ramp to stay vital, and I see our course as just that. It used to be the case that every university would teach a handful of EDA courses, but EDA has been eclipsed by Big Data and a lot of those VLSI courses are disappearing.

Which is why I’ve made the following analogy: There was a time when there was a bookstore on every corner, mom-and-pop shops all over the place – books were popular, and continue to be – but those guys got flattened by Barnes-and-Noble and Borders. But then Barnes-and-Noble and Borders got flattened by Amazon, who distributes this stuff at a global scale.

This is the way I see my CAD course on Coursera – somebody has to continue to teach this stuff. I grew up when a bunch of great schools had VLSI courses. If I have to become Jeff Bezos to make sure that’s the case once again, to make sure that everyone has access to learning this material, so be it.

Again, as far as diluting the brand – it’s the pedagogy versus credential question, and I’m in the camp that says we can’t put this genie back in the bottle. Today I can deliver lectures to anyone who has the bandwidth and access to a decent computer.

There’s value for the future in that – and I can say that I essentially have people on every continent in my class except for Antarctica and Greenland.

[Laughing] My EDA karma worldwide is pretty good at this point.

WWJD: This is all quite fantastic, but isn’t it exhausting?

Rutenbar: Yeah, there’s no doubt that the amount of prep needed for the course is huge.

And Coursera has made some deep changes in the platform, so we’ve had to spend some of the last year and all of this semester twiddling the homework assignments in response. When your course lives on top of a complicated implementation fabric, you suddenly have all of the legacy problems when the next revision is introduced.

But deep in our hearts, all of us involved in this are crazy, early adopters. Yeah, it’s a crap load of work, but it’s absolutely the right thing to do for the discipline.

It’s been a grand and crazy kind of experiment!


About Coursera …

Coursera provides universal access to the world’s best education, partnering with top universities and organizations to offer courses online.

To learn more …


About Rob Rutenbar …

Rob A. Rutenbar is an American academic noted for contributions to software tools that automate custom integrated circuit design, and custom hardware platforms for high-performance automatic speech recognition. He is Abel Bliss Professor and Head of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

To learn more …


About VLSI CAD: Logic to Layout …

A modern VLSI chip is a remarkably complex beast:  billions of transistors, millions of logic gates deployed for computation and control, big blocks of memory, embedded blocks of pre-designed functions designed by third parties (called “intellectual property” or IP blocks).  How do people manage to design these complicated chips?  Answer:  a sequence of computer aided design (CAD) tools takes an abstract description of the chip, and refines it step-wise to a final design.

This class focuses on the major design tools used in the creation of an Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) or System on Chip (SoC) design.  Our focus is on the key representations that make it possible to synthesize, and to verify, these designs, as they move from logic to layout.

Our goal is for students to understand how the tools themselves work, at the level of their fundamental algorithms and data structures. You should be taking this course if (1) you are interested in building VLSI design tools;  (2) you are interested in designing VLSI chips, and you want to know why the tools do what they do;  (3) you just like cool algorithms, that work on big cool problems that involve bits, and gates, and geometry, and graphs, and matrices, and time, and…

To learn more …


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