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A former online learning skeptic tells why he’s changed his thinking

Former Princeton President William G. Bowen helping academic community use digital technology
University Business, November 2013
William G. Bowen is the founding chairman of ITHAKA, a nonprofit organization focused on technology.
William G. Bowen is the founding chairman of ITHAKA, a nonprofit organization focused on technology.

William G. Bowen is a name familiar to anyone who works in higher education today. Bowen was president of Princeton University from 1972 to 1988, and president emeritus of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where he served for nearly 20 years.

These days, not one to rest on his laurels, Bowen is the founding chairman of ITHAKA, a nonprofit organization that helps the academic community use digital technologies to preserve the scholarly record and to advance research and teaching in sustainable ways. In the fall of 2012, Bowen participated in the acclaimed Tanner Lectures series, delivered at Stanford University.

His presentation, and several responses to it, formed the basis of his latest book Higher Education in the Digital Age (Princeton University Press, 2013), in which he explores the two most pressing trends in higher education today: spiraling costs and the rise of online learning.

In your Tanner presentation and in your book, you talk about the “cost disease” of higher education. Explain that concept.

The basic idea is that in labor intensive industries such as education, there is less opportunity than in other sectors to increase productivity by, for example, substituting capital for labor. Yet markets dictate that, over time, wages for comparably qualified individuals have to increase at roughly the same rate in all industries. As a result, unit labor costs must be expected to rise faster in education than in the economy overall.

Higher ed leaders, in general, don’t do a very good job explaining the cost of higher education to the public. Rather, the conversation seems to be controlled by the media.

Yes, that’s true. Among the many problems is the failure to distinguish the cost of education as borne by institutions from charges for education that are borne by individuals and families. That crucial distinction is generally lost. That is one mistake.

The second mistake is that too much attention is given, by far, to the small number of elite, high-profile, privileged places like Princeton, Stanford, and so forth, that charge high sticker prices but that also provide a lot of aid. They are, obviously, not the norm. What is really important is not those places but the vast public sector for higher education. The media, of course, don’t really get that either.

What can be done to reclaim the conversation?

People just need to do a better job of speaking clearly and to the point—not defensively. There are some able people of course. I think the ablest of the public university people is Brit Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. He understands all of this and speaks very clearly and cogently to these issues.

I think that there are others in the private sector. John Hennessy at Stanford is also very good and has been very outspoken and very clear.

You’ve said online learning is not a fix to the cost disease but it can be part of the solution. That’s a reversal of your earlier position. What led to the change?

Yes, I’ve changed my position. There were several reasons. One is the obvious advancements in technology that are all around us. The greater access to the internet, the speed of communication, the reduced cost of storage—you will tick off the advances as readily as I will—but these advances just make all kinds of modes of communication and exchange of ideas much easier than they used to be. The days when individual students had to deal one-by-one via email with their instructor are over.

There is no question that online teaching can—can underscored—be more expensive than traditional instruction, but there is no reason that it need be. Another reason is that there is more and more pressure to control cost, as you know. That is going to force institutions and individuals to think about options that they didn’t want to think about before. Much confusion can result from failing to recognize that “online learning” is far from just one thing, and that it is anything but static.

Despite its growth, there has been some resistance to online teaching and MOOCs, especially among faculty.

That’s easy to understand. Faculty don’t want to be told—or urged—to do things differently. That’s not their nature. They fear loss of jobs, loss of status, loss of authority, and so on. All this is perfectly reasonable. We have to find ways to overcome these fears and concerns.

That’s one of the themes of my book, the need to find new ways to achieve genuinely collaborative thinking, not “either/or-we/they” thinking about these issues. We’ll have to find new ways of making decisions, talking about issues, and working together.

You note in the book that there is a lack of hard evidence of learning outcomes and cost savings in online learning.

I think it borders on intolerable—embarrassing—that there is so little hard evidence about such an important question as to what the real learning outcomes are that are associated with these various forms of teaching.

Now, to be sure, that’s very hard research to do, in part because of the selection effect. That is, if you allow people to choose on their own one form of teaching or another, you’ll get all kinds of biases in studies of differences. You have to find some way of controlling for selection effects.

Is that possible?

We’re doing it in an important study that we’re conducting of the Carnegie Mellon stats course on public university campuses. We were able to randomly assign students to one mode of teaching or another. That’s the ideal way to do this research.

Another problem is the lack of shared, customizable teaching and learning platforms.

That’s right. I think there is a natural tendency on the part of the people who design these big platforms to want to make a one-size-fits-all solution and not have a lot other people monkeying around with their platform.

But, of course, local teachers and institutions want to be able to do some degree of customization and they should be able to. I think that is increasingly understood by the leaders in the MOOC world—Coursera, edX, and so forth. The trick is to find ways for that to happen easily and cost-effectively.

Do you have any suggestions?

First there has to be a determined effort to do that. Right now, we at ITHAKA are involved in an important series of studies with the University System of Maryland where we are trying to see if various ways of adapting MOOCs to the campus scene at Maryland can work, and what’s involved in doing that. I think learning by doing is the right approach. We are in the early stages of this work, but I believe this study is going to be very important.

You tell a story in your book about Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who said, “Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy. Choices can be hard.” What does that mean to you?

What I’m saying, writ large, is that college and university education ought both to impart knowledge and understanding of concepts. I use the example of statistics. Bezos, as a child, once calculated how much time, at two minutes per puff, his grandmother was shortening her life by smoking. His grandmother burst into tears. His grandfather scolded him by saying, “One day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”

Students should obviously learn those things, but they should do much more than that in college. They should think—and think hard—about choices, about values, and about choices versus gifts, as Bezos puts it.

I think the traditional, face-to-face teaching residential college experiences are very good ways of doing that for places that can manage to do it. There are no magic bullets here, there is no syllabus for choosing the right things, but you can get people to recognize that there are choices to be made.

Not long ago, President Obama announced a plan to institute a national rating system of colleges and universities in an effort to better understand cost. What is your take on that?

I understand what he’s trying to do, which is to hold places more accountable than they are now. That makes sense, but I confess that I’m somewhat skeptical about how easy it is going to be to create a sensible rating system. There is a great risk of getting things wrong, and creating perverse incentives.

For example, the current ratings that the U.S. News & World Report publishes each year put a lot weight on SAT scores. What that does is encourage colleges and universities to try to get those scores up one way or another. That’s not necessarily a good thing. You can do a lot of harm that way. There is a danger of perverse incentives, as I think the president and Secretary Duncan recognize. Whether those dangers can be avoided is up in the air right now.

The current ratings also put a lot of weight on teacher-student ratios. The argument is that higher teacher-student ratios are good things. Well, not necessarily if you are concerned about controlling costs and teaching effectiveness. If you can teach better with lower teacher-student ratios, that’s good.

What’s next for you?

I’m working right now with [former Macalester College (Minn.) President] Mike McPherson, and [former Tufts University (Mass.) President] Larry Bacow on further studies like the kind suggested in the book. One of these is the study of evolving principles of governance, as I was talking about earlier, and the fact that new notions of shared governance will need to be designed.