Tapscott, D. and Williams, A. (2010) Innovating the 21st century university: It’s Time Educause Review, Vol. 45, No. 1

First of all, thanks to both Burkhard Lehmann and Clayton Wright for directing me to this article. I had however seen it myself a couple of weeks ago, and have hesitated to respond to it, for reasons that I set out below.

In their article, Tapscott and Williams touch on several themes that I (and many others) have been advocating, such as the need for universities to move from a lecture-based system to a more constructivist approach, to re-design courses around open content, and to move to what the authors call collaborative knowledge construction.

However, maybe because I have been saying these things for so long, the article really pissed me off, and I’ve been trying to work out why. I think the first reason is that Tapscott and Williams write as if they have discovered something that has in fact been known by many people for some time. Yes, we know the current system is under stress, yes, many people like myself believe the system must change, and yes, the Internet does change everything. Yes, we should be moving to more constructivist teaching and collaborative learning and using the Internet and web 2.0.

The interesting question is not what universities should be doing, but why it isn’t happening. The Tapscott and Williams analysis of this is trite, to say the least:

“It’s the legacy of established human and educational infrastructure,” says Proenza. The analogy is not the newspaper business, which has been weakened by the distribution of knowledge on the Internet, he notes. “We’re more like health care. We’re challenged by obstructive, non-market-based business models. We’re also burdened by a sense that doctor knows best, or professor knows best.”

I’m sorry but it is more complicated than that. We have seen a major enlargement of the higher education system, but basically we have not increased the number of tenured professors or even adjunct instructors to maintain the elite system of teacher:student ratios of 1:20, except in the most expensive Ivy League institutions. Using lectures and increasing the number of students per lecture is an exceedingly cost-efficient way of dealing with larger numbers with less resources. The extra student added gets exactly the same education as all the others, at no extra cost. (Note that I said cost-efficient, not cost-effective.) Also the investment in technology has actually taken away resources that could have been spent on teaching.

The basic problem is that you cannot use constructivist learning approaches with classes of 100 students or more. I know, I’ve tried. No matter how much you divide the students into self-managing groups, it becomes an impossible task for the instructor to manage, and the quality suffers.

Also, Tapscott and Williams write about the ‘new’ constructivist way of teaching. I’m sorry, but this is not new. It’s been around for over 100 years and has been used in elite universities from the middle of the 19th century. (It was called in Oxford and Cambridge the tutorial method). Why universities don’t use it now is not because they don’t understand the technology of the Internet but because it doesn’t work well with very large numbers.

And this brings me to my next point. Academic knowledge is not the same as everyday knowledge. It is as Diana Laurillard puts it, a rhetorical activity, which requires movement between the concrete to the abstract and back again, and a constant questioning of what we know. Just putting students into social networks will not automatically lead to the development of academic knowledge. It needs mediation from a highly skilled and knowledgeable teacher. This takes time and requires manageable numbers of students.

Lastly, the suggestion that the privatization of the universities or ‘market forces’ are needed to bring about change also misses the point. The large research universities have no need to change. As Tapscott and Williams themselves acknowledge:

College and university attendance is at an all-time high. The number of students enrolling in degree-granting institutions rose more than 118 percent from 1969-70 to 2005-6, while the percentage of 25- to 29-year-old Americans with a college degree rose from 16.4 to 28.4 in this same time. The competition to get into the greatest universities has never been fiercer.

There is an important role for private, for-profit universities, but this is at the margin, because there are aspects of higher education that will be lost by institutions operating purely for profit. In particular the pursuit of new knowledge is costly and a return on investment approach based on short-term gains will not benefit society over the long run. We need both public and for-profit institutions, but their co-existence of itself will not cause the large publicly funded research universities to change. Indeed, there are aspects of public universities that I don’t want to change, such as autonomy, allowing them to freely criticise government and business as appropriate, and their pursuit of new knowledge. I fear Tapscott and Williams’ solution (at least as they have expressed it) would throw the baby out with the bathwater.

What we need to look at is what forces or pressures could make the large, publicly funded research universities change, and it’s not going to be the threat of Facebook. We need to look in particular at how best to use the limited teaching time of top research professors. They need, as I have argued before, to work smarter, not harder. So, yes, I agree with Tapscott and Williams that having top professors lecturing – on a regular basis – is not the best use of their time. Using open content can help. But if they are to spend more time online or in face-to-face in discussion with students, we will have to find ways to keep the students numbers down. Although technology can help, this is much more a funding, organizational and ‘vision’ problem. Also, we will not get tenured research professors to change if they have no training in educational methods and so-called ‘new’ pedagogy – but there is no requirement for this at the moment.

So , yes, thank you, Don and Anthony, for pointing out the obvious, but next time, could you please provide more helpful and constructive suggestions on how to solve the problem?


  1. Constructivism tells us how people “construct” knowledge, but it doesn’t say how we should teach to facilitate the construction of knowledge. What do you mean by a “constructivist way of teaching”?

    • Hi, Charles

      Good question and a full answer would take a book! You are right – constructivism is more of a philosophy than a teaching method. The challenge for teachers is to take the philosophy and develop methods to apply it. The most common ways are either through encouraging personal reflection on learning, or through encouraging students to discuss with each other and/or the instructor. Thus e-portfolios and student blogs are good examples of technology being used to encourage personal reflection, and online discussion forums or social networking are good examples of technology being used to encourage social constructivism.

      There are several books/articles that either implicitly or explicitly discuss ways to teach constructively online:

      Harasim, L., Hiltz, S., Teles, L. and Turoff, M. (1995) Learning Networks: A Field Guide to Teaching and Learning Online Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. This was one of the first books to discuss in a systematic way the construction of knowledge through online discussion.

      Jonassen, D., Davidson, M., Collins, M., Campbell, J. and Haag, B. (1995) ‘Constructivism and Computer-mediated Communication in Distance Education’, American Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp 7-26. A major theoretical framework supporting online teaching.

      Salmon, G. (2000) E-moderating London/New York: Routledge

      Paloff, R. and Pratt, K. (2001) Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

      Linda Harasim is bringing out a book later in the year (to be published by Routledge) that will explicitly deal with constructivism and online learning

      Salmon, G.

  2. Excellent article. As a high school science teacher who is a heavy technology/computer/internet user, I see the problem from another viewpoint, but it complements yours.

    It is the need to cut costs in education that will drive change. There are very few goals for students in secondary and college education:

    1. Read quickly with great comprehension.
    2. Write clearly and logically.
    3. Think critically.
    4. Understand several areas of knowledge very well.
    5. Speak articulately.

    Most students do not have enough motivation and self-discipline to do the first two items, which must be accomplished before grade 12.

  3. HEAR! HEAR! Our university is moving swiftly toward a “unicorp.” I’d like to see the accreditors crack down on administrators who see universities as investment banks. That is not a good model for higher ed–and not even a good model for investment banks, it turns out.

  4. Much the same complaint I’ve recently made on my blog, with a comment from Mark pointing to yours. In my post are links to 2 readings I think you’ll find interesting. Also, at risk of being dismissed with this mention, I am starting to look through neo anarchist critiques of education to try and find observations we in the edutech echochamber are missing. Most obviously is Illich, but there has to be more…

  5. Let’s not assume that there is such a thing as ‘the university’. The arguments and counter-arguments above are in fact about ‘the Anglo-American university tradition’, not about universities on other models (continental European ones for example, which need discussing from a different perspective). If we’re limiting the discussion to the Angloshpere, fine, but let it be done explicitly.

    • Bonjour, Marie-Noelle

      Je suis de votre avis qu’il y ont beaucoup de différences entre des universitaires. Cependant, dans une étude de 11 universitaires, cinq de l’America-Nord, et six de l’Europe, mon collègue et moi, nous avons trouvés beaucoup de choses en commun, bien qu’il y avaient quelques choses différentes aussi, au sujet de la gestion de la technologie. Nous publierons les resultats vers le fin de l’année.

      Hi, Marie-Noelle

      I agree that there are many differences between universities, However, in a study of 11 universities, fve in North America and six in Europe, we find many common features, as well as differences, with regard to the management of technology. We will publish the results towards the end of the year.

  6. I suppose we can discuss learning theories in online education, redefine and repurpose old one..however that does not allow us to truly address how we can harness the power and potential of today’s technology to make online education better than face to face and move past the issues of comparing the two.

    I guess the question that keeps coming to my mind..in this day when we constantly hear that our “education system is broken,” how can we so confidently say face to face is superior to online/distance education..when the majority of our education is still delivered face to face.

    External drivers, beyond those of the traditional university will disrupt education. These are the economy, work related demands, the demand for convenience,open education resources, a student who is technically savvy (I still don’t buy digital natives as a generation but a certain person who is technically savvy). Not only that but also people behind the scenes who understand and make every effort to make technology accessible and easy to use..that is what is and needs to be disruptive and that is happening.

    I think the economy and the need to educate people, globally, will do more to disrupt our current education model than anything. Sure the University of People is having some success, but that model would also have to change the model of accreditation in the US for it to gain any ground or widespread credibility. However the pressure on a global scale for accepting the University of People model could also prove to be disruptive.

    New definitions of what is quality in online learning need to evolve. The set of guidelines that we are currently using to evaluate that is out dated and obsolete. It needs to take into consideration how people learn, their time spent on content and discussion, and the pedagogy/andragogy in the design and delivery of content.

    I believe the potential is there to not only make online/distance education as good as face to face instruction..but better than face to face, ubiquitous, and accessible to many not just a few.

  7. e-learning, open education, tradicional education, any and all demand heavy investments: of course technology in the present times, but also large amounts of money, and considerable sums of time and expectations.
    I wonder if achievements are paying all: are we learning all that we need (wish, expect) or are we coming short?, are national education systems fulfilling every social, polítical, economic, cultural, groupal and personal need, or are they only consumming time (social and individual) and money, prolonging into the future the state of affairs.
    Education is learning, yes, but to what level of conciousness, of motivation to act upon what has been learned?,
    I think there is a missing link between what is expected to be learned, and what is finally learned many years later. The missing link might be conceiving each and every learning item as an information unit that has to be interiorized to a degree that in time moves to action in a certain socially aproved way.
    We teach, we learn a lot, but do little with that knowledge.
    Might it be posibible to theorize on a a view of education as the transmision of information, which becomes part of the new generation’s culture, and foundation to generate equelly valuable information to teach into the future?

  8. Very very good article. In Australia, higher education has been gradually eroded and (purposefully in many views) under funded for many years now. The basic problem inherent in what is said above is actually exacerbated here compared to US, since there is no huge benefactorial system propping some of the system up. There needs to be a fundamental realisation (as implicit in this article)that *higher* education is just that..and to corporatise Universities in the mainstream will lead to a failure in seeking new knowledge as well as dumbed down courses, producing graduates who are ill prepared to deduce and integrate their knowledge..ie ‘think well’. Universities by their nature demand public ‘no strings’ investment (as long as they follow their role as independent bodies), and are an important facet of civilsation, not merely another ‘business’ opportunity. Lack of public investment aimed at effectively *short term* economic gains (by involved business or decreased government spending), is a long term danger; because if there are no or too few *true* Universities, the ramifications are enormous for the basis of western civilisation, its culture, its social structure, and (ironically) real economic strength.


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