Technology and Affordable Education

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

Last week I sent Michelle Nickerson, a colleague of mine here at UT-Dallas , a link to Dan Brown’s “Open Letter to Educators.” Michelle like me, is concerned about the future of the University, and as someone whose opinion I respect, I wanted to see her response. After watching it we swapped emails back and forth about Dan’s video, at one point Michelle asked if I was going to write about it for this blog, to which I responded “how about you write about it and I’ll post it.” So, the following is Michelle’s thoughts on Dan Brown’s piece. I don’t entirely agree, but this is a good jumping off point. Let the conversation begin.

University administrators and faculty should pay attention to the message of Dan Brown’s “Open Letter to Educators.” Students need to ask themselves, as Brown does: “What does it mean to receive an education?” Brown’s most important observation is how the university, as an institution, is failing to change in ways that make it relevant to what he describes as “a very real revolution.” He notes that technologies popular in higher education today—like email, on-line databases, and blackboard—represent minor adjustments that fall woefully behind the curve of the real sea changes threatening to undo “the University” as an institution of learning. Brown, moreover, correctly identities how shifting class relations challenge the current structures of higher education. I agree that the internet has, in many ways, proven itself a democratizing force in our society and many others. Brown’s limited insight, however– contained as it is in his box of “information”–prevents him from seeing numerous other layers to this problem. I will talk about one.

The university, as a concept, could very well disappear just like Brown predicts…for many Americans, but not for all.

As institutions of higher learning seek ways to economize by eliminating and devaluing the spaces of learning that have been so central to “the University,” they are coming to resemble exactly what Dan Brown sees in them—exchange sites of information, marketplaces easily replaced by much cheaper flows of information accessed on the internet. As they pack more students into lecture halls and fill the rosters of on-line classrooms, universities save billions of dollars in the short run, but diminish the value of their degrees. Classrooms and other spaces in the university lose their meaning in this race to the bottom. The competition for more bodies per professor, however, does not threat the university as a concept. This is where Dan Brown’s class analysis could use some help. The “State University”—specifically, the notion of affordable education is eroding. Financial and intellectual elites (rich people and academic-types) tend to be suspicious of each other, but one thing they seem to agree on is what the space of the University represents, and they will not stop paying for it…they will continue to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to send their children to ivy league universities and small private liberal arts colleges. Princes and sheiks in foreign countries will continue packing their children off to the United States for higher education. These spaces, since they come at a very high price, are rarified worlds that diverge ever more from that of state universities. Administrators of these universities know that parents aren’t paying to send their children to these expensive schools for “information.” They are sending their children to become the producers, manipulators, and interpreters of information. When university classrooms, libraries, courtyards, and student commons are designed and utilized to their greatest effectiveness, they become spaces where students learn not for the sake of absorption (passively), but for the sake of generating new knowledge, developing new conceptual models, discovering new worlds of meaning not introduced by their professors. The professor to student ratio is critical in this respect, because the professor-as-critic-and-listener is just as important, if not more important, than the professor as instructor. I therefore recommend that viewers heed Dan Brown’s “Open Letter to Educators,” but think more carefully about what is disappearing with the university.

And for what it’s worth here is the video that sparked this conversation.