Book by William G. Bowen
Review by Rich Lewine, PhD
Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences                    
University of Louisville

Higher education is in crisis: prices are going up, graduation rates are going down, post-graduation jobs are not guaranteed, shared governance is threatened, tenure may soon be antiquated, and teaching within a decade may be unrecognizable to today’s faculty. Our uncertain educational future gives rise to many extreme arguments for and against the use of digital technology in pedagogy. Bowen’s book, in contrast, is refreshingly balanced and thoughtful, providing well-reasoned analyses and suggestions for how digital technology might be useful, not a cure-all. Take note: the book will be encouraging to non-faculty advisors and sobering for those with traditional faculty appointments as suggested below. 

The book (based on Bowen’s 2012-2013 Tanner Lectures on Human Value and invited responses to the lectures) is divided into two parts: the first presents the problem of “cost disease” and the second, ways in which digital technology can address some of the causes and consequences of cost disease. The cost disease model explains the education crisis in economic terms as the inability of higher education to reduce costs while maintaining or exceeding current levels of productivity. Consider, for example, industries in which increasingly sophisticated technology replaces human labor, freeing humans (fewer in number) to engage in more complex roles. This has the simultaneous advantage of reducing labor costs and increasing productivity. The sobering theme for faculty is Bowen’s proposition that shared governance may be a major stumbling block to getting through the cost disease-productivity quagmire. 

In contrast, non-faculty advisors my actually face a rosier future as we can infer from the second lecture.  Bowen does not attempt to resolve the conflicts about online learning, MOOCs, and hybrid courses, although importantly pointing out their strengths and weaknesses and emphasizing that for digital technology to be useful it will need to be customized for different campuses and disciplines. He argues that judicious use of appropriate digital technology can potentially reduce the number of faculty and hence cost.  Drawing from Hennessy’s (Stanford University President) comments to Bowen, we might view non-faculty advisors as filling the void, occupying the same role in education as physician assistants in the medical field. Advisors would need to be discipline savvy, receive training in both advising and teaching, and be accorded respect and recognition by faculty. This will not necessarily be easy, but it is doable and beneficial as demonstrated in the medical, dental, and legal fields.

Bowen’s thought provoking book should be required reading for anyone having a stake in our educational future, often described as an inevitable digital tsunami. Delbanco (Columbia University Professor) points out, however, that among enthusiasts of the digital tsunami metaphor what rarely is discussed is the damage such a force is likely to do. What do we risk losing? What can we give up? How can we prepare? Bowen, in addressing shared governance and what appears to be inevitable, major changes in higher education, issues a warning we should all heed: 

“In a less complex age, it may have been sensible to leave almost all decisions concerning not just what to teach but how to teach in the hands of the individual faculty members. It is by no means clear, however, that this model is the right one going forward, and it would be highly desirable if the academic community were seized of this issue and addressed it before ‘outsiders’ dictate their own solutions” (p. 65).

Higher Education in the Digital Age. (2013). Book by William G. Bowen. Review by Rich Lewine. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 192 pp., $26.95, (Hardback), ISBN # 978-0-691159-30-0
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