Revolution in Higher Education: chapter 5

Revolution in Higher Education, coverContinuing with our reading of Richard DeMillo’s Revolution in Higher Education: How a Small Band of Innovators Will Make College Accessible and Affordable (2015) (publisher; Amazon): this week we’re discussing chapter 5, “Internet Scale.”:

Here DeMillo returns to educational technology, but reframed to approach the problems of hype and technological failure. Short version: “Internet Scale” sees higher education productivity levels as problematic, and hopes technology can help.

To start this argument DeMillo wants us to think of higher education having fewer faculty members.  He begins by asserting  “the number of professors that it takes to educate college students is too high” (2264).  Moreover, if we want to increase teaching quality what reducing costs, that “can only be achieved by changing the scale at which quality instruction is carried out or by reducing student demand on scarce resources” (2270).  “[E]nhanced productivity means that the number of professors will decline” (2277).

Readers will expect technology to be the answer, but DeMillo is upfront in admitting the failures of educational technology, from programmed learning (2297) to PLATO (2309).

[I]nvestments in computers in the classroom and universal Internet access have been cornerstones of educational technology since the late 1980s, but the results have been dismal. (2232)

Most computers-in-the-classroom products have failed. (2381)

Gains through big data, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies do not solve the Scaling Problem. (2597)

Hype without results is the order of the day.  Or is it?  This chapter gives counterarguments for successful technologies, starting with Apple devices in schools (2345) and building to a review of railroads, which were massively hyped in the 19th century but did yield not only social transformation but high returns for some investors (2395ff).  DeMillo concludes with a celebration of the Gartner Hype Cycle:

[Business c]ollapse is followed by sustained build0out during which the allure of glamour is replaced by real value, leading to a golden age that results in more innovation as lives are structured around the new technology.(2415)

Later in the chapter DeMillo offers an interesting metric for teaching scale.  He identifies “the Scaling Problem” as follows: “One professor, teaching several large lectures, even with the help of a small army of teaching assistants, can touch at most a thousand students at a time.” (2591)

How can we get past that limit?  Through multi-professional “technology-augmented” teams, inspired by health care examples (2623).  Such teams would add to a professor some of these functions and officers: instructional designer, technology manager, video producer, advisor, tutors, assessment manager, data analyst, and marketer.  Combined effectively, “five teams like this can teach five hundred thousand students”, at least according to Georgia Tech’s Mike McCracken (2661).  This would augment profs into “super professors”, according to Arizona State’s Michael Crow (2597).


Informing this chapter is the theme of expanding access to American higher education, which really animates the entire book.  This chapter also concerns itself with economics, at least as far as the problem of unceasing academic productivity.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • The blackboards as emerging technology part is hilarious, starting with the publication of a user’s manual in 1841 (2364).
  • DeMillo thinks we’re seeing an enrollment boom.  “[T]here are more students entering the college pool than ever before”(2264).  I wonder if he’s relying on international learners moving to the US, or looking at higher ed globally, because US numbers are headed the other way.  At one point the author claims that the majority of enrollment growth comes from adult learners (2565).
  • There’s a distinction between scaling up and scaling out starting on 2495.  I think scaling out is about specialization.
  • There’s also a weird argument against supporting the adjunct faculty movement.  DeMillo wants us to think of adjuncts as largely retirees, or people employed full-time elsewhere, or as full-time academics simply lacking tenure (2572ff).  While it’s important to bear in mind the full complexity of adjuncts, this seems to miss a key point.

Overall, I found this chapter bracing and engaging, but ultimately frustrating.  DeMillo seems to be chucking out much of the technology he celebrated a chapter or two previously.  While his team solution relies on tech, it’s really an HR or structural transformation.  With this section Revolution in Higher Education threatens to become a different book.

What do you make of it?

Next week, starting December 7th, is chapter 6: “Accessibility.”

Would you like to follow along?  Simply snag a copy of the book from your library or MIT Press or the local bookshop or Amazon (etc.), and get reading.  I’ll post about each chapter at the start of each week, so you can add comments there.  I’ve set up a tag for all posts: demillorevolution.  Twitter’s also a fine place to chat (I’m @BryanAlexander).  If you’re into Goodreads, let us know so we can catch up (here’s me).

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3 Responses to Revolution in Higher Education: chapter 5

  1. jennycolvin says:

    I’m not sure if you can first demonstrate that technology has not universally changed education and then claim technology as the cure. Can you? I’m not sure he figured out why technology has been slow to create deep change.

    The return of a cancer treatment analogy is super frustrating to me. It is definitely because my Mom just spent the last year and a half battling multiple cancers, but because of that I have some experiences that maybe he should be considering. There are things that cancer health care does right. #1 – If you know you have cancer, and that you will have crazily expensive health care costs, you can pay for more insurance. This changes chemo treatments from $20k each to fully covered. Perhaps instead of asking a student to take part in a class of thousands we should be finding specific funding sources that people could opt-in for. I don’t know what this would look like. Socialism? 🙂

    You wouldn’t water down the chemo to inject it into more people because then nobody would recover from it. Yet DeMillo persists in this watered-down education approach. Cancer treatment has moved in the opposite direction – more intense chemo, less frequently, with time to recover in between. Could education adopt this model? Some hybrid grad schools do this; independent studies do this. Meet less frequently, for longer periods or greater intensity, plus more work on your own. Again, not in larger groups (which is my biggest issue with most of his ideas). What if a faculty member taught five groups but only once a week? Oh look I’ve solved the staffing issue without sacrificing education! I’ve chemofied it.

    Perhaps there is something there.

    • Technology: I think (it’s hard to say, since the book hasn’t cohered yet) that DeMillo considers new technologies to be different this time, and that we can combine them with new research into learning.

      I’m so sorry your mother is going through such a horrible process, and wish her the best. And I’m impressed at how you apply such dark experience to the problems of education.

  2. Pingback: Warpping up Richard DeMillo’s Revolution in Higher Education | Bryan Alexander

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