May 25, 2015

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.


The danger of cloud based LMSs

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Davis, B. (2013) Desire2Learn ‘in recovery mode,’ says there has been no data loss to university systems The, February 1

Bryen, W. (2013) Desire2Learn second system outage ‘very disruptive’ for CU-Boulder faculty, students Daily Camera, University of Colorado, January 31

Many universities in the USA and Canada have been hit by a serious outage of their learning management system, Desire2Learn. It appears that all universities who use Desire2Learn’s cloud computing facility have been affected. Those running D2L on their own servers will not be directly affected.

Virginia Jamieson, D2L’s senior director of corporate communications, stated:

We are experiencing significant challenges in one of our cloud data centers and that is dramatically impacting some students’ online experience. This stems from the file virtualization hardware not interacting well with the storage environment.

Among the universities affected are the University of Waterloo and Wilfred Laurier University, from where many of the staff at Desire2Learn have graduated, and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Apparently Desire2Learn has been hit by several outages recently.

Why no back-up?

I didn’t expect one of my 2013 predictions to happen so soon – see ’10. Expect the unexpected.’

I obviously have misunderstood cloud computing. I thought the whole point was independent back-up, so if one server goes down, others can pick it up. Please enlighten me.

Online learning in California generates controversy

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© Robert Holmes, CalTour, 2012

Booker, E. (2013) Online education policy draws fire in California Information Week: Education, January 11

This report of a one-day conference at UCLA: Rebooting Higher Education: Leveraging Innovations in Online Education to Improve Cost Effectiveness and Increase Quality,’ resulted in ‘heated critiques about the rationale for the state’s policy push into the area.’

Some of the points raised:

  • the Governor has created a fund for open textbooks and an open digital library for the state’s public post-secondary system (a model being imitated in British Columbia)
  • criticism from faculty associations that the focus on MOOCs doesn’t address the needs of undergraduate students, and that the rush into MOOCs wasn’t being accompanied by research or evaluation of their effectiveness
  • criticisms from the CEO of Straighterline, an online service offering introductory courses, that public universities were monopolies subsidized by taxpayers that were keeping out cheaper commercial providers
  • Daphne Koller of Coursera argued that MOOCs are ushering in a “brand new pedagogy” and provide important keys about effective teaching and educational design by using Google-style rapid testing resulting in daily improvements to the web site
  • the number of full-time-equivalent online students in the state’s community college network has doubled since 2005-2006, and now constitute 11% of all course enrollments.

The conference was sponsored by the 20 Million Minds Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to lowering the cost of higher education.


California appears likely to be a key battle ground regarding the role of the private sector and online learning in post-secondary education. Public colleges and universities have seen steep cuts in their funding over recent years and the state’s finances do not look to be any healthier for at least the next two or three years.

There are in fact several strands here that are getting mixed up and perhaps should be considered separately:

  • the commitment of voters in California to a publicly funded post-secondary education system. The current financial difficulties of the state are a consequence of the ‘tax revolt’ by Californians over the last 25 years resulting from  proposition 13 in 1978 that outlawed any property tax increases for ever in California. If you don’t pay taxes, you can’t afford public services. There seems to be a gradual understanding of this, because the governor was able to get some increase in state taxes through proposition 30 that was passed in a state ballot in November.
  • ‘traditional’ for-credit online learning is already well-established in the public post-secondary system in California, with somewhere between 11-15% of all for-credit course enrollments now being online. This ‘natural’ growth is likely to continue, with or without the influence of MOOCs, although the publicity around MOOCs may (or may not) facilitate this
  • MOOCs may have some relevance for for-credit programming, but that is not their current purpose. There is still a great deal of work to be done before they come close to being an adequate substitute for current for-credit online courses, and indeed that may turn out to be the least valuable road for MOOCs to travel. Whatever road they do follow, they will need to demonstrate their effectiveness through independent evaluation of what students actually learn
  • effective teaching is not the same as effective advertising, so assuming that Google-style ad testing will result in educational breakthroughs is just dreaming. To sort out the signal from the noise in analyzing big data, you need hypotheses or theories, so you know what kind of data to collect, and how to interpret it when it is collected. The theories for learning are almost certainly different than the theories for selling or marketing. It’s about time Coursera recognized that we do know a good deal about what leads to effective online learning, and this has not been applied to most Coursera MOOCs to date. The sooner this is done, the more effective they are likely to be, and you don’t needs tons of data for this, although it could be helpful once these approaches are applied, to further refine our knowledge in this area
  • despite all this, the costs of post-secondary education in the USA in particular, and many other OECD countries, including Canada, are too high and as a result are becoming an increasing barrier to access, so we do need more experimentation, innovation, research and evaluation. However this needs to be more thoughtful than just jumping off a cliff and hoping there’s deep water underneath
  • lastly, commercial providers can supply online learning offerings more cheaply than public organizations, because the public organizations are not just offering rote learning, but at least aiming for the development of critical thinking skills, originality, communications skills, networking, and above all the generation of new knowledge and innovation which is partly cross-subsidized by funds coming in for teaching (whether that should be the case is another matter). In other words, commercial online providers go for the low-hanging fruit, and leave the public sector to pick up the rest. As in the stock market, the commercial providers want to take the profits, and leave the losses to the taxpayer.

California is going to be one of the major focal points for these issues to be played out. It is one of the biggest public post-secondary systems in the USA, and it will be a marker for the rest of the country in this struggle, which reflects perhaps the most important ideological issues in education for many years.  However, public thinking, especially in the USA, is often grossly over-simplified into two opposing positions. Unfortunately – or fortunately, I’m not sure which – online learning is caught right in the middle. Online learning in fact can be a weapon used by either side. We should be looking for a third road, where online learning helps public institutions to become more cost-effective, through fundamental changes that at the same time strengthen the good parts of the public system: equitable access, quality teaching, new knowledge production, and intellectual freedom.

The money pours in to fund online learning start-ups – while the public system starves

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Banning, Doresa (2102) Online education start-up Udacity Raises $15 million in funding,, October 26

According to the National Venture Capital Association, a staggering $463 million has already been invested this year by venture capitalists into educational technology companies in the USA.

This year some of the online start-ups that have received venture capital funding are:

  • Udacity: $15 million this week; total: $21 million
  • Coursera: $16 million in April
  • 2U (formerly 2tor): $26 million in April
  • Codeacademy: $10 million in June.
  • Desire2Learn: $80 million in September (not a start-up, of course, but still a significant online education company. For more information on the investment click here)

At the same time, the California two year college system has undergone nearly $1 billion of cuts since 2008, resulting in a waiting list of 470,000 students who cannot get into classes.

The California State University system meanwhile is outsourcing most of the services for CalState Online to Pearson.

In the forthcoming November elections in California, in order for the governor to increase some state taxes, proposition 30 attempts to get round the infamous proposition 13 in 1978 that outlawed any property tax increases for ever in California, resulting in the state going into effective bankruptcy last year.


Clearly the USA is in the process of undermining their public state system of education (at all levels) and in effect privatizing education. Frankly, what American’s do in their own bedrooms is none of my business.

My concern though is that in the urge to get  a return on their investment, these privatized, American online companies will start to gnaw away at the funding behind public education systems in countries outside the United States. And as an aside, where the hell are the Canadian venture capitalists? (Still waiting for the Northern Gateway Pipeline, no doubt – so last century).

It is clearly the goal of the xMOOC companies such as Coursera and Udacity to go global with their offerings. This will be necessary to get a return on the capital invested. But where will these revenues come from? In the USA, it is clearly being diverted from the public education system. Will the same begin to happen in Canada or Europe or Africa as U.S. MOOCs spread?

The least we should know are the business models for getting their money back. Whose money will it be?

Spanish version of ‘Managing Technology in Higher Education’ now available

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 Bates, A. and Sangra, A. (2012) La gestión de la tecnología en la educación superior Barcelona ESP: Octaedro:ICE-UB

The Spanish version of ‘Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning‘, is now available from Ediciones Octaedro.