Flailing at Windmills: Higher Education in the Digital Age

Rachelle Peterson

What do you get when you cross Don Quixote and a former university president? A book, evidently, in the form of Higher Education in the Digital Age, by William G. Bowen. A former president of Princeton University and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Bowen is founding chairman of ITHAKA, a nonprofit that promotes digital technology in academia.

This book is not destined to enhance Bowen’s reputation, but as an attempt by one of America’s most celebrated educational leaders to give a measured assessment of how higher education is adapting to the digital age, it deserves some attention.

According to his wife, whom Bowen cites in his opening sentence, he has a “tendency to flail away at windmills” and “take on topics” the fainter-hearted might leave untouched. But what can he say?—“my DNA is what it is”—he is drawn to higher education’s biggest battles. Bowen rattles off his work on “the insidious problems” of college sports, spiraling college costs, and affirmative action, the defense of which is perhaps his proudest endeavor. In The Shape of the River (2000), Bowen and former Harvard president Derek Bok argued that race-blind admissions policies impede “racial justice,” because race plays a prominent role in an individual’s self-perception. (The National Association of Scholars helped bring to press Getting Under the Skin of “Diversity, Larry Purdy’s 2008 extended refutation of River.) Although Bowen’s work on race has little direct bearing on college costs or online education, he references it repeatedly in Higher Education in the Digital Age.

To this résumé of educational expertise Bowen adds a new item: “the potential implications of online learning for college costs.” He devotes the next ninety-five pages to online education and the costs of traditional colleges, but does little to advance the discussion, and concludes, unhelpfully, “In the case of a topic as active as online learning, we should expect inflated claims of spectacular successes—and of blatant failures.”

Where and how will online education succeed? Via standard online courses, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), “flipped” classrooms in which a teacher assigns video lectures as homework and spends class time on practice problems and exercises, or something else altogether that offers a viable alternative to traditional education? And post-“tsunami” of online courseware, will college really be any cheaper? Bolstered with charts, Bowen dispenses conjectures, but rarely comes down hard on any clear projections. Throughout the book he maintains a strained position as an officially agnostic yet supportive observer of online education.

If Higher Education in the Digital Age is light on argument, it’s heavy on opinions and citations. About a third of the book’s two parts (thirty-two of ninety-five pages) consists of endnotes with lengthy annotations, as if inserting a citation and explaining it ad infinitem makes up for a paucity of analysis. The absence of rigorous argument is due in part to the casual nature of the book, which is essentially a transcription of two lectures that Bowen delivered at Stanford in October 2012 as part of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values, a multiversity series established by a 1978 endowment from philosophy professor, philanthropist, and O.C. Tanner founder Obert Clark Tanner. The book also includes short responses to Bowen by Stanford president John Hennessy, Harvard development psychologist Howard Gardner, Columbia humanities chair Andrew Delbanco, and Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller, as well as Bowen’s replies to their responses. (For the most part, these respondents echo Bowen’s opinions without much criticism, leaving Bowen little to rebut.)

Bowen did revise and update his lectures with the help of ITHAKA colleague Kelly Lack (who is given credit on the title page), though his addresses remain first-person, encumbered by meta-speech, and sprinkled with the kinds of self-deprecating jokes conference speakers love to make: “I return finally (which one of my friends called the most beautiful word in the English language)…” The text also retains original temporal references—John Hennessy comments “in response to a question yesterday”—and in one instance includes a question interjected from the audience. The four responses had evidently been prepared in advance (some speakers apologized for repeating material covered—to their surprise—in earlier speeches), but Bowen’s reply to their responses was live, and the transcript, while lightly edited, maintains its extemporaneous tone.

When developing material for a live audience, perhaps Bowen was correct to forgo detailed statistical analysis in favor of simpler messages. Perhaps he meant to keep his audience attentive with mixed metaphors: “It is easy to get mired in the underbrush, and we do well to remember the admonition of the architect Robert Venturi: ‘Don’t let de-tails wag the dog.’” Later, while discussing what makes college unaffordable, Bowen apologizes, “This is murky terrain, and I hope you will be pleased to know that I intend to ride roughshod over it.”

Riding roughshod looks even rougher under the scrutiny that the printed word affords. Part 1, “Costs and Productivity in Higher Education,” surveys the economics of American higher education, relying heavily on “Bowen’s Law,” the eponymous thesis set forth in Bowen’s 1968 study, The Economics of the Major Private Universities. The idea is that higher education becomes increasingly expensive because institutional costs per student tend to increase faster than costs in general. This upward trend is largely due to the “cost disease”—another concept Bowen helped invent, with economist William J. Baumol—inherent in labor-intensive industries, where technology and other capital is not easily substituted for human resources.

The productivity ratio, Bowen is quick to point out, has both a numerator and a denominator. An institution can increase its productivity by conserving inputs or by increasing outputs (ceteris paribus). Thus the two-part solution to increasing productivity is “through determined efforts to reduce costs” and by “raising completion rates and lower(ing) time-to-degree.” In other words, we need to ratchet up online offerings and lower the graduation bar to make it easier for students to finish.

Bowen has an arsenal of helpful ideas on both fronts. By increasing teaching loads, institutions can harvest the time-saving electronic resources that have made scholarly research easier. Universities and colleges might try limiting tenure to a certain number of years. They should also make college more affordable by increasing financial aid packages to match hikes in room and board and tuition. This is especially important, Bowen believes, for minority and underprivileged students, because part of higher education’s “core mission” is to “enhance mobility and serve as a powerful equalizer.” Indeed, Hennessy cites the extra “services” required for minority students as a major driver of institutional expenses, but one that must be protected at all costs.

Colleges and universities pressed by their own budget shortfalls might have a hard time increasing financial aid (something Hennessy notes), but Bowen has a solution for that, too. Rather than recommend minimizing administrative bloat, he argues that governments ought to be willing to spend more money on higher education. The statement that not every career or lifestyle requires a college degree never appears in any of Bowen’s or his respondents’ speeches.

In Part 2, “Prospects for an Online Fix,” Bowen tips his hand as he ranks those prospects rather high: “I continue to believe that the potential for online learning to help reduce costs without adversely affecting educational outcomes is very real.” Of the various forms of higher education, MOOCs are the “most promising” for cutting costs, because they can be standardized and streamed to thousands of students at once. He does concede that regular, synchronous online courses, in which professors lead live Internet-based discussions with small numbers of students, may be better at teaching students. ITHAKA conducted a study of traditional online learning outcomes and concluded that “no statistically significant differences in standard measures of learning outcomes” exist and that this held true across campuses and subgroups of diverse students. Studies of MOOCs, on the other hand, have “no compelling evidence” that the courses generate “good learning outcomes for 18- to 22-year olds of various backgrounds.”

MOOCs face substantial start-up costs, of course, although Bowen asserts that once they are used repeatedly, the courses will pay for themselves. Most MOOCs currently don’t bear credit and don’t charge tuition, but Bowen is confident—as is Daphne Koller—that they’ll eventually be financially viable, though neither outlines a strategic plan. Bowen brushes off with equal serenity another strike against MOOCs––faculty disapproval: “In a less complex age, it may have been sensible to leave almost all decisions concerning not just what to teach but how to teach in the hands of individual faculty members” (emphasis in original). But gone are such faculty privileges. “It is by no means clear, however, that this model is the right one going forward.”

Bowen does make a resounding case for the importance of in-person classrooms: “personal interactions with brilliant teachers” must remain integral, along with “freedom of thought” and the task of communicating “values as well as…knowledge.” Bowen doesn’t suggest how MOOCs fit with such a picture, though Koller takes a stab in her response: MOOCs enhance residential education by making feasible the “flipped” classroom. This arrangement gives “students a free exploration opportunity” alongside or before they go to college, and—in an odd non sequitur—provides access to education to underprivileged women in poor countries, which will then reduce the “population explosion” as more women spend more time in school.

So what will higher education look like in the digital age? More digitized, according to Bowen, in a de facto two-track system as brick and mortar colleges become the new pricey elite for a select few, and as most students complete the bulk of their education on the Internet or in flipped, MOOC-supplemented courses. A curious recommendation from a man who champions leveling all of higher education for the sake of equal, easier access for the underprivileged. But who said Don Quixote was consistent?

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