April 25, 2014

Book review by Sir John Daniel: Higher Education in the Digital Age

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Princeton University's campus: are elite residential universities the 'gold standard' for higher education?

Bowen, W. (2013) Higher Education in the Digital Age Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press $26.95

As part of a series of posts on technology and productivity in teaching and learning, I am delighted to publish this review by Sir John Daniel of William Bowen’s book which attempts to answer the following question:

Could the growth in online courses slow the rising cost of college and help solve the crisis of affordability?

In the book, Bowen explains why, despite his earlier skepticism, he now believes technology has the potential to help rein in costs without negatively affecting student learning.

Here is Sir John’s review:

I was excited to learn of William Bowen’s new book because he is so well qualified to assess the impact of digital technologies on higher education.

He brings three great strengths to the task. First, as an economist who took an early interest in the creative industries, he has commented regularly on costs and productivity in higher education. His classic paper on the ‘cost disease’ with his mentor William Baumol (Baumol & Bowen, 1965) is the starting point for many analyses of the economics of university teaching (e.g. Why does College Cost so Much? (Archibald & Feldman, 2010)). Second, as a former president of Princeton University and a major figure in US higher education, he is well aware of the dynamics of innovation in the sector. Third, and most significantly, he has a refreshing ability to change his mind as new evidence appears.

The evolution of his thinking about how technology might affect the economics of higher education is interesting. Until quite recently he wrote as if the ‘cost disease’, which prevents university teaching from benefiting from productivity increases in the economy as a whole, were an inescapable fact of life. This was also the stance of Archibald and Feldman, who simply told Americans that they should get used to seeing college tuition fees rise faster than inflation. However, in Bowen’s foreword to Unlocking the Gates, Taylor Walsh’s engaging book about the debacle of the first attempt by elite universities to engage with online learning a decade ago, he wrote that he was rethinking his scepticism about the potential of new technologies to improve productivity in higher education.

I hoped that his new book would document the continued development of his thinking and help us all to understand the economics of technology in higher education more broadly and deeply. Sadly, I was disappointed. Apart from a reprise of his analysis of productivity this book has little to offer to scholars and practitioners outside the US and even, I suspect, to many who are grappling with the introduction of technology within the mass of US institutions. Why did Bowen pass up this opportunity?

The fundamental reason is that the book began as the 2012 Tanner Lectures at Stanford University. Bowen naturally oriented his material to his audience, meaning that a more honest title for the book – had his publisher allowed it – would have been, ‘Higher Education on Elite US Campuses in the Digital Age’. Despite creating a most impressive set of endnotes in preparing the lectures for publication, his focus is resolutely on the implications of online learning for institutions like Princeton and Stanford.

This focus is even sharper in the commentaries by Howard Gardner, John Hennessy, Andrew Delbanco and Daphne Koller that are included in the book. The opening sentence of Hennessy’s contribution captures this bias nicely: ‘Let me propose, as a beginning point, that we should all accept the premise that a residential liberal arts education is the gold standard to which higher education should aspire’. Those who do not accept that premise – and they must surely be a large majority of the worldwide higher education community – will find the complacency of this ‘love-in’ of elite institutions rather cloying.

To be fair, Bowen shows greater awareness of this limitation than his commentators, but even so he circumscribes his approach in startling ways. After giving an excellent summary of the issue of productivity in higher education as the ratio of outputs (the numerator) to inputs (the denominator) he lists some of the ways in which we might expect online education to improve productivity. Amazingly, increasing the number of students, which is surely the most significant innovation of online learning, does not feature in the list. He does, however, emphasise dismal completion rates as an important factor in lowering productivity and I was disappointed that Coursera’s Daphne Koller did not address MOOC completion rates in her commentary!

However, Koller did perform a service by suggesting (very gently, given her audience) that, done well, distance learning can contribute more to students’ intellectual development than classroom teaching. This has certainly been my experience. I was a student at Oxford, which provides just the sort of face-to-face interaction that is revered in this book, and later had the privilege of leading the UK Open University for 11 years.

The fund-raising letters that I now receive from Oxford show more enthusiasm for its tutorial system than I found among my fellow students. But in my conversations with thousands of Open University students I was constantly inspired by the personal intellectual transformations they reported. Nor is this evidence simply anecdotal. Last year the Open University came top in the UK’s nationwide survey of student satisfaction – a remarkable achievement for an open learning system with 250,000 students.

In summary, Higher Education in the Digital Age alerts America’s elite institutions to new opportunities that online learning provides and describes the threats that it presents to less fortunate universities and colleges. A book addressing the topic for the generality of higher education from a global perspective remains to be written.            


Archibald, R.B. and Feldman, D. H. (2010) Why Does College Cost So Much? Oxford University Press.

Baumol, W. J. and Bowen, W. G. (1965) On the Performing Arts: The Anatomy of Their Economic Problems, The American Economic Review, Vol. 55(1/2), pp. 495-502

Bowen, W. G. Higher Education in the Digital Age, Princeton University Press

Bowen, W. G. (2011) Foreword to Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities are Opening Up Access to Their Courses, by Taylor Walsh, Princeton University Press, pp. vii-xvi.

Walsh, Taylor (2011). Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities are Opening Up Access to Their Courses, Princeton University Press.



  1. Excellent review, thank you Tony & Sir John.

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