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Higher Education in the Digital Age

reviewed by Melinda Mechur Karp - July 26, 2013

coverTitle: Higher Education in the Digital Age
Author(s): William G. Bowen
Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton
ISBN: 0691159300, Pages: 192, Year: 2013
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Higher Education in the Digital Age is a compilation of William Bowen’s 2012 Tanner Lectures, given at Stanford University, and responses to those lectures. Essentially, the lectures frame the move towards on-line education as a cost control measure. As Bowen notes in the preface, the lectures have been available publicly for some time. The lectures as published in this volume, however, include revisions, updates, and additional endnotes.

Bowen’s first lecture lays the groundwork, discussing the rising cost per student over time. He calls this the “cost disease,” and does a remarkable job explaining—in relatively simple and understandable language—the challenge of increasing productivity in higher education. He also describes other cost pressures that contribute to the rising cost of college.

The second lecture presents one possible solution for dealing with the rising cost of higher education—the use of technology. Bowen notes that using technology to this effect will be challenging: “on-line education” currently encompasses myriad forms of teaching/learning platforms, there are significant barriers to optimizing any of these approaches, and there is currently a lack of evidence supporting the efficacy of on-line education in improving student outcomes. And yet, throughout, Bowen remains optimistic about the potential of on-line education to ultimately prove useful in increasing the productivity of the higher education sector.

Bowen’s optimism stems, in large part, from the fact that he expects on-line education to become more effective and less expensive as platforms improve and educators gain more experience in this delivery method. He also indicates that, if optimized, on-line learning platforms will, eventually, allow for customized teaching to better meet instructor preferences and institutional needs, as well as new organizational paradigms that allow for technology-mediated teaching. Bowen does also argue that embracing technology as a tool does not mean eliminating key features of higher education, such as residential colleges, nor that technology can be a panacea or sole solution to the cost disease.

The discussion remarks examine and react to Bowen’s thesis, in some cases presenting alternate viewpoints and in others providing supporting evidence. Howard Gardner (Harvard University) focuses on the benefits of in-person learning. John Hennessey (Stanford University) provides additional context for the rising cost of higher education and reframes the cost issue as one of low completion rates, rather than high expenditures. Andrew Delbanco (Columbia University) notes that technological disruption may disrupt or destroy elements of higher education that are worth saving, not just the cost disease. Daphne Koller (Coursera) sees unbridled possibility in on-line learning.

Overall, this volume is readable and engaging. The remarks are conversational in tone and make for an enjoyable read. Bowen often relies on anecdote rather than evidence, contributing to the volume’s readability; given the newness of online education and the paucity of outcomes research in this area, this is also somewhat understandable from an empirical perspective. Bowen himself notes that he would like to see more research on which to base his optimism.

However, his rosy view of technology’s potential is based primarily on a single study of one hybrid course; extrapolating from this study to make sweeping generalizations seems extreme. It is hard to argue with speculation. Anything, of course, might happen, and Bowen’s prose is compelling. This does not change the fact that his case in favor of the transformative power of technology rests on shaky empirical ground.

I also found this volume to be rooted in the experiences of elite and privileged institutions, rather than the higher education sector as a whole. A potentially negative alternative outcome, in which technological change increases educational stratification, is glossed over in favor of a rosier, elite perspective. Community colleges, for example, are almost entirely left out of this volume even though they educate nearly half of undergraduates in the United States. When they are mentioned, Bowen assumes that online education will exert pressures that act upon community colleges, rather than viewing two-year institutions as having an independent and influential role in these educational reforms. In fact, however, community colleges have been leaders in the use of technology to ensure student access to college coursework, and most community colleges already offer online coursework using an array of approaches. Bowen also ignores research indicating that many traditionally underserved students struggle in on-line courses, and often do worse than if they were to take a traditional face-to-face course (Xu & Jaggars, 2013).  

Bowen repeatedly argues that face-to-face learning when done well has important value and is, in many ways, an ideal. He notes that personal interaction can lead to transformative learning and that good teachers encourage good learning outcomes. He emphasizes that this type of learning often occurs in elite institutions, and argues that it should be maintained. However, he rarely acknowledges that this type of high-quality intellectual engagement can happen in other institutions, as well.

Bowen argues that high-quality on-line instruction is probably preferable to poor face-to-face instruction. But rather than argue for improving face-to-face instruction and expanding access to his liberal arts, residential ideal, he argues instead for abandoning it for most students. He implies that the “ideal” education should be maintained for students at elite institutions, but that we should essentially give up on providing this type of learning for other students. Why should less-elite students and institutions replace a desirable form of teaching and learning (high-quality face-to-face instruction) with an unproven one (on-line)? Why is the unproven approach acceptable for non-elite students, but not those privileged enough to attend Harvard and Stanford? Again, Bowen seems to ignore the potentially stratifying effects of technological change.

In the end, Bowen’s volume raises more questions than it answers. This is by necessity—online education is rapidly evolving, rigorous evidence is rare, and the purpose of the Tanner lectures is to provoke thought. Though this volume does not make me as optimistic as Bowen regarding the potential of online learning in higher education, it did leave me with meaty questions to ponder. In discussing the role of technology in education, as well as the role of individual interaction and face-to-face teaching, Bowen and his colleagues raise important questions about education more broadly. What does it mean to teach? What is learning—and to what end do we want our students to learn? Do different types of students demand different types of education, and if so, what are the ramifications of this? Although Bowen frames his discussion as one of cost control, these bigger issues are never far from the surface. They are worthy of greater attention in any examination of the future of higher education going forward.


Xu, D., & Jaggars, S. S. (2013). Examining the effectiveness of online learning within a community college system: An instrumental variable approach. CCRC Working Paper No. 56. New York, NY: Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 26, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17192, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 7:55:08 AM

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About the Author
  • Melinda Karp
    Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    MELINDA MECHUR KARP, PH.D., is a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University. She is a nationally-recognized expert on dual enrollment programs, College 101 courses, and student services in the community college. Her work has been published in Teachers College Record, New Directions for Community Colleges, Community College Review, and the Journal of College Student Retention, among others. Dr. Karp's current studies focus on the implementation of College 101 courses; educational pathways for under-served students; and the use of technology in college advising and counseling.
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