education's digital future

Oct 16: Schedule Shift: Higher Ed Tsunami Reflections (Surfing?)

"Hold the presses!" The lively talk by Adrian Sannier, your great questions and continuing dialogues outside class, the William Bowen Tanner Lectures and luminary panels (for those who could join), CMU's Candace Thille's talk on the Open Learning Initiative (if you can make it on Tues at lunch the day of class in CERAS100B) - all point to a much more sensible design for next week.

Come prepared with your leading questions and reflections on these diverse predictions about where higher education is headed. Check #stanfordedf for tweets relating to these talks as well if you could not make the Bowen lectures and panels.

What happened in class: 

After a jam-packed week focused on online higher education — including Adrian Sannier's provocative EDF talk last week, the Tanner lectures and discussions led by Princeton emeritus president William Bowen, and a talk from Candace Thille of Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning initiative — it was time to synthesize some of what we had heard.

Mitchell began with what is becoming a trademark EDF "Schoolhouse Rock" version of two academic revolutions in the past 60 years of American higher education.

  • Revolution 1: Massification, 1945–1980. (See Jencks & Riesman [1968] in references below for more detail.) Starting with the passing of the GI Bill for returning WWII soldiers, and riding an economic high tide, the US launched an unprecedented public-works project to expand and improve higher education. Subsidized by big government and east-coast philanthropies, it produced the largest and most successful higher education system in the world to date. This project was also related to Cold War geopolitics as a means of leverage to bring developing economies into the American economic model. Massive 60s-era university architectural projects, from Berkeley's Sproul Plaza to Stanford's own Tressider Union, developed alongside expansions in large-scale research, including SLAC.
  • Revolution 2: Higher education "restructuring," in the sense of corporate restructuring, 1980–present. (See Gumport [2000] in references below for more detail). Rising costs of healthcare/eldercare and massive expansion of prison systems contributed to a slowed pace compared to Revolution 1, and reduced funding to higher education. General society and post-secondary educational institutions saw an increasingly stratified distribution of wealth.
  • Revolution 3: As of yet unnamed, 2006–present. Lawmakers and philanthropies led a culture-wide imperative for "accountability," "measurability," and "data-driven reform," in synergy with new digital media-delivery and data-collection methods. Ambitious for-profit education providers are attempting to meet these demands, and are often notably leaving government out of the loop, unlike in Revolution 1.

Building on Mitchell's comments, John Mitchell and Betsy Williams led a discussion about the return-on-investment of higher education, and the degree to which that return was based on a signaling mechanism, that could be done better with online coursework. Daniel Stringer asked a question that remained open — are the new players in EDF challenging the pedagogical quality of post-secondary institutions, and/or do they threaten their position as a service in civil society?

Roy picked up the thread with a discussion of William Bowen's recent lectures - Bowen was a president of Princeton and a highly respected economist of education. Roy began with Bowen's overview of the so-called "cost disease" in higher education — educational services have so far been resistant to scaling and automation, and so they have failed to outrun inflation and become more expensive over time. Can technology cure the cost disease? Bowen is a cautious optimist! A recent meta-analysis by the research firm Ithaka S&R (see references) suggested no significant differences in learning outcomes among online, blended, and traditional higher education courses, but the former two are presumably less expensive to deliver and scale. Andrew Delbanco, American Studies professor from Columbia University, asked what institutions and jobs the online-learning tsunami will actually destroy. The most commonly cited victims were the teachers in mid-level universities with large classes, who can't compete with the scaled quality of the best MOOCs and can't deliver a small-group experience. The optimistic view, proposed by Sannier and Thille, is that high-quality online education will help students of all ages develop necessary sub-skills far more efficiently than ever before, leaving in-class time for more innovative hands-on and project-based learning experiences.

The ensuing discussion focused on the accreditation of formal and informal learning — who decides how accreditation works, and who accredits the accreditors? Greg Bybee argued that formal accreditation is deeply entangled with mainstream social acceptance, which is itself driven by practical concerns like job preparation. He argued that MOOCs like Coursera are aiming to become pipelines for skilled job candidates, and will therefore gain official accreditation faster than we might otherwise expect. Kareem Edouard countered that social acceptance for online accreditation may be a long time coming in domains like heart surgery. The discussion continues on the EDF student forums and into the next class, where we discuss the blurring lines between school and work.

Bowen, William G., and Kelly A. Lack. "Current Status of Research on Online Learning in Postsecondary Education." Ithaka S+R. N.p., 18 May 2012. Web. <>.

Gumport, Patti J. "Academic Restructuring: Organizational Change and Institutional Imperatives." Higher Education 39.1 (2000): 67-91. Print.

Jencks, Christopher, and David Riesman. The Academic Revolution. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968. Print.