Higher Education in the Digital Age by William G. Bowen

Miriam E. David considers a commentary on the preservation of pedagogy in the face of technological advances

June 6, 2013

This eloquent little book, by the former president of Princeton University and also the Andrew Mellon Foundation, William Bowen, is based on two lectures presented at a colloquium at Stanford University. It also offers commentaries by four distinguished participants in that colloquium: Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education at Harvard University; John Hennessey, president of Stanford; Andrew Delbanco, director of American studies at Columbia University; and Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, an educational technology company that offers massive open online courses, at present free of charge.

The two lectures, by one of the most internationally renowned economists of education, presented in direct conversational and readable fashion, are about the linked issues of the costs and productivity of higher education - the “cost disease”, as Bowen calls it - and how online education and Moocs can play a key role in making higher education affordable. While Bowen is concerned with the rising costs of higher education, it is in a very specific context - namely, residential undergraduate education for young people straight out of high school in the US, or secondary education in the UK. Interestingly, there has been a massive expansion of higher education over the past several decades, accompanied by transformations in both teaching and technologies, but Bowen and his fellow colloquium participants focus on a relatively narrow range of issues that are not to do with mass higher education, or indeed education for the masses (as Delia Langa Rosado and I dubbed it in 2006). They are not particularly concerned with social diversity or transformations in higher education to make it available to a wider constituency of social, cultural or ethnic groups. What we call widening participation or access to higher education in the UK is not a central concern of this debate; rather it is about how higher education can contribute to the increased productivity of both elite higher education and the subsequent labour markets - both of which, of course, are already being transformed through technological change. Equally interestingly, these lectures, which have been available online since the colloquium, and this subsequent publication, make scant mention of how socially transformative these Moocs can be.

In other words, the central issue for debate here is how to preserve social and cultural differentiation and the social positioning of universities, in particular those of the Ivy League and other elites in the US and indeed elsewhere. The change that is this book’s focus is described as almost a tsunami, or at least a tidal wave; meanwhile, however, other social changes, such as the second-wave feminism that had a significant impact on US universities starting in the 1960s and 1970s, do not get a mention. Surely one of the most important social transformations of the late 20th century has been towards gender equality in education, and Moocs could indeed aid that process around the world. (Just two prominent women - journalist Tina Brown and entertainer Barbra Streisand - are mentioned here in passing, but in relatively sexist terms.) Furthermore, debates about open-access publishing - if ever there was a misnomer - get no mention either.

Nevertheless, what is particularly welcome about this publication and the debate it fosters is its focus on teaching rather than research, and its commitment to humanitarian values. Indeed, the whole discussion centres on ways to maintain good quality in teaching and considers whether or not face-to-face interactions are more important than online courses. Gardner, for example, provides two wonderful illustrations, albeit from imaginary male students, of truly inspirational teaching and the difficulty of measuring, in the short term, the long-term impacts of great teachers in academe. But while Moocs are the centre of attention, the equally important question of how to assess and evaluate students on such online courses, through the course management system Moodle, for instance, is not discussed.

Higher Education in the Digital Age is an elegant exposition of old- fashioned, gentlemanly and humane views and values, couched in concerns about the value of new educational technologies and their pedagogical and economic potential. It is worth reading for its beautiful prose and for its clear commitment to the continuing importance of teaching and pedagogy in higher education.

Higher Education in the Digital Age
By William G. Bowen
Princeton University Press, 192pp, £18.95
ISBN 9780691159300 and 9781400847204 (e-book)
Published 13 May 2013

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