Universities and information revolutions

Per Susanne Lohmann, information revolutions always cause universities to expand, not to dissolve.

Brad DeLong writes:

I will not dare make predictions about the potential Christensenian disruption of higher education until I understand why and how the university as we know it survived the Christensenian disruption that was the coming of the printed book. I don’t understand that.

The long answer to that question will be known to all the world when my colleague Susanne Lohmann publishes her long-awaited book on the history and management of the research university. While we’re waiting, here’s the short answer (per Lohmann): all three information revolutions (printed books [turn of the 16th century], electrical [turn of the 20th century] and electronic [turn of the 21st Century]) hugely expanded the demand for highly-educated labor, and universities are the primary suppliers of such labor. The production process is as much social as it is cognitive, and therefore cannot (to date) be reproduced without physical concentrations of learners and teachers. Thus Alex Tabarrok’s argument that some teaching tasks can be done better on-line than they can face-to-face – which is undoubtedly true, and will become truer over time – does not prove what he thinks it proves. Yes, a 15-minute TED talk generating 700,000 views is a lot of student-hours. But that’s an extraordinary TED talk. A much less extraordinary book that takes 20 hours to read and finds 10,000 readers generates even more. But the TED talk will no more replace the course than the book did.

In my view, the current information revolution will save higher education as a mass high-quality activity, by bringing Moore’s Law to the rescue of the Baumol Cost Disease.

Footnote: Actually there was an even earlier information revolution: the development of the manuscript book (first the scroll, then the codex) and the concurrent reduction of oral traditions (Homer, the Bible) to writing, which happened sometime in the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. It was followed by the development of proto-universities such as the Academy.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

10 thoughts on “Universities and information revolutions”

  1. Of course the experience wasn’t always so, but during college I routinely sat in rapt attention, either to my professor or to my classmates, my mind whorling with new ideas and reiterations of old ones. There was also something profound in the ritual of being lectured to – sitting quietly with no distractions, at a particular time and place. I imagine one could find religious transcendence in sitting in front of you tube videos instead of going to church, but the two seem at odds. And I didn’t go to great schools either. But I know I gained enormously by taking community college courses with Laotian refugees, single mothers and middle aged gay men and women recounting stories of growing up in conservative Midwestern towns.

  2. “first the scroll, then the codex”
    Jack Miles, in his excellent God: a biography, presents an argument (I don’t know if it originates with him) that some of the success of early Christians in their polemics with the competing rabbinical-Jewish and Hellenistic-pagan religions was down to their early adoption, and possible invention, of the codex. In days when arguments were won by citing authorities, a codex was nearly a random-access device to citations, unlike the hallowed and unhandy scrolls. A similar advantage was gained by Protestants in the Reformation by the Genevan invention of verse numbering in the Bible.

    1. James,

      I believe this point about the codex is discussed at length in Christianity and the Transformation of the Book, by Anthony Grafton and Megan Williams. One of their points, I gather, is that the codex allowed for the presentation on one page of parallel authorites, like the gospels.


  3. Actually there was an even earlier information revolution: the development of the manuscript book (first the scroll, then the codex) and the concurrent reduction of oral traditions (Homer, the Bible) to writing, which happened sometime in the middle of the first millennium B.C.E

    Not to mention the actual development of written records at the end of the fourth millennium.

  4. In my mind, one key benefit of the electronic revolution is the possibility of nearly-immediate feedback and non-face-to-face social communities. Just in the blog space, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Making Light all come to mind immediately as places that are social groups where learning is a real possibility. The way I think of it is that books are a partial substitute for lectures (and a partial complement as well, of course); online spaces can be a partial substitute for discussions.

    1. I think online spaces can be a HUGE benefit to discussions, enabling connections between the interested learners and the interested participants who already know much more. What could be a better illustration than this [still short] thread of comments?

  5. It is difficult to see online classes providing the same benefits of a few years in Ann Arbor, Hyde Park, Cambridge or Berkeley.

    Many a student has gotten eye opening enlightenment by being around Telegraph Avenue, Harvard Square or Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap.

    If this online learning thing really gets going (and it does appear very popular with right wingers who would like to see what they believe is the lefty professoriat) it could destroy the very useful Bohemian campus experience some schools provide.

    So far as I can see a large hunk of the drive towards online classes is motivated by a desire to steal Profs’ intellectual property for the benefit of various institutions (not students). Amazingly, many Profs are cheering the whole thing on. Professorial ranks are likely to be heavily reduced while there don’t appear to be signs of any thinning amongst the administrators.

    “I am perpetually awaiting
    a rebirth of wonder …
    and I am waiting for retribution
    for what America did to Tom Sawyer”

    Or in this case for what it hopes to do.

  6. Yes, a 15-minute TED talk generating 700,000 views is a lot of student-hours.

    Actually, I think it’s truer to say that it’s a lot of hours. I’m not sure how Alex Tabarrok knows he’s comparing apples to apples when he measures his teaching against his TED talk. He may be doing the same thing in both cases, lecturing to people, but that’s just on the input side.

  7. Ted talks are great for reproducing and sometimes exceeding the lecture the lecture. Not so much for the seminar or the bull session. And it’s not clear to me how you do the economies-of-scale thing on that. You can do the economies-of-time and of space on on (see right here) but you still need substantial cognitive input from people with something like expertise. And if you’re going for credentialing, you need evaluation systems that aren’t terrible (which is already a huge problem for universities).

    What this suggests to me is that the “revolution” will give us rather less than an order-of-magnitude improvement in efficiency for things that look more or less like current university educations. The trick will be running an economy and a polis with people who have a different kind of education.

  8. what H said

    Also, what about those face to face meetings with Professors, Grad Students….the lecture is such a small part of it, it is kind of silly to pick on that
    also, how do those of us in the sciences or engineering get training with $$ lab equipment ?
    A decent spectrophotometer, a basic piece of lab equipment, is about 2 grand – maybe 1500 if you scrape the bottom of the barrel;
    things like NMRs, Mass Specs, etc, are much more $$ and there is no substitute for running one your self.

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