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Higher Education and Technological Futurism


This Bill Keller piece at the Times discusses Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun’s plan to eliminate the traditional university through technology, offering a future of higher education for at all at (theoretically) low prices, delivered by a very few highly paid professors with huge cadres of graduate students to grade the thousands of exams.

It seems that technology is the one part of our lives in which we are seen to have no control. Marxists used to talk about Man in History (with a capital H), of people caught up in forces bigger than they were leading humanity to an inevitable, predestined future. Of course, no one thinks that anymore about politics or history or economics, but they sure think very similarly when it comes to technology. The reaction to the discussion on self-checkout machines at grocery stores that I and djw started reeks of this, to some extent in comments, but more specifically in the longer posts people wrote on their own sites. Yglesias weighed in, inspiring Peter Frase’s piece of technological utopianism that djw responded to in length the other day. Frase, and I think to a lesser extent Yglesias, envisions an ideal world where technology frees us from drudgery work like checking out groceries, hoping that a social safety net will protect those that can’t adjust.

Of course, that safety net is going away rapidly. But hey, we can’t resist this technology. After all, technological innovation only helps the working person, right? As djw excoriates Frase for saying, “The decoupling of rising productivity from rising fortunes for workers is, after all, only a phenomenon of the past 30 years.” Oh, is that all? Only the majority of the working career of an adult who came of age in 1980? And it’s not like there’s any sign that this isn’t going to become 50 or 60 years, at the very least.

But then, it’s not like Frase is the only technological utopian out there. My students buy this whole hog. They think they are riding the wave of a paradise of new technological achievements that will make our lives easier and better. They have a very hard time figuring out that technology can sometimes have unexpected bad consequences, not to mention fully intended bad consequences like putting people out of work. I can’t really speak for other countries, though clearly societies like Japan and South Korea share similar love of technological innovation, but this blind faith in technology is deeply embedded in what it means to be an American, going back to the early 19th century and the rise of canals and railroads at the very least.

So evidently, humans have no agency to accept or reject technology. We can either embrace it wholeheartedly and ideologically or we can be called “Luddites,” which several people rightfully pointed out is a term completely disconnected from what actual Luddites stood for, pointlessly resisting an overwhelming force that will grind us under its unstoppable wheels.

While people like Sebastian Thrun are trying to apply this technological futurism to our entire lives, its more of a dream than reality at this point for higher education. Over a decade into its existence and supposed take-over of higher education, the impact of online courses have remained relatively limited. Lower-end schools rely on them as do schools developing courses for non-traditional students. But the big for-profit educational institutions have been a disaster, with students poorly served by them and their educational models. There’s not much evidence that the traditional 18-22 year old college student want this alternative to the traditional college experience, because college is so much more than just taking classes.

Of course, with the rapidly rising price of higher education, one wonders whether people might be forced into online courses, but that doesn’t make it a good thing. The evidence does not suggest that students learn better this way. On top of that, one wonders both why Thrun would want to outsource his own job (though no doubt he sees himself as one of the charismatic professors who would survive) and who these graduate students are who are going to manage courses with thousands of students. In a future of higher education with almost no chance of academic employment, why would people become graduate students? This is obviously an issue today as well, but the employment prospects would fall from slim but real enough that you can delude yourself to literally zero.

Thrun’s model also seems to neglect the skill-building exercises of the college classroom–how to write, how to comport oneself professionally, how to think critically, how to engage in a group discussion. This is not just socialization but skills people need to compete professionally.

But then Thrun’s model isn’t practical at all. It’s the model of a dreamer, someone who hopes that one day, we can offer higher education to all for very cheap in a world where robots will do everything and we will have zero employment. This is the technological future that we are all supposed to embrace or to sacrifice the future of human growth while we spend our days toiling away checking out people’s groceries. Evidently, we have no ability to resist this unstoppable technological force. We might as well start constructing our altars to the robot gods now. At least until we can create robots to do it for us for a fraction of the cost.

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  • djw

    It occurs to me that something that would actually be really interesting to read would be a historical study of technological utopianism. These kind of narratives have been around forever. It seems as though when you see techno-futurist visions that take the form of “In the future, technology will save us from X!” the content of X is more often than not a fascinating window into the class anxieties of the day.

    • Linnaeus

      Not surprisingly, this is a topic that at least a few historians of technology have taken on. A decent start is Howard Segal’s Technological Utopianism in American Culture.

      • djw

        As soon as I wrote that I figured it surely must exist. Thanks for the cite;

    • Lara

      Timothy Burke also gave a “History of the Future” course at Swarthmore.

    • rm

      When movies were new, they said instructional films would replace schools. (In a few of my Junior High classes, they kind of did.)

  • I for one welcome our new robot graduate-assistant underlings. The huge cadres of graduate students we have now keep asking to take breaks to “eat” and “sleep.”

    • DrDick

      Well, that at least answers my question about where we are going to get those armies of TAs from if there are no jobs for academic PhDs.

      • Shalimar

        yeah, that was my question too. If you have a huge army of graduate students and only a handful of professors, what happens to each generation of graduate students when they actually graduate?

        • MPAVictoria

          They compete in a Thunderdome like competition and the lone survivor takes the place of the professor/dear leader?

          • ajay

            As I suggested below: they go out and get jobs that aren’t “being a professor”?

            • MPAVictoria

              Such as?

              • ajay

                Er, such as anything? I mean, what do you think happens to all those armies of BAs and BScs who don’t manage to get a place in a graduate degree programme?

                • MPAVictoria

                  But presumably these people want to do something intimately connected to their field. Also, in case you haven’t noticed, the job market is not great at the moment.

                • ajay

                  Well, lots of undergraduates also want to pay slightly less extortionate fees, and this is apparently what technological universities offer. Why privilege one over the other? Why should we restrict access to learning in order to preserve access to teaching jobs?

                • DrDick

                  Graduate school is very expensive and a lot of work. Nobody is going to go through that with no expectation of a significant reward at the end. It is also the case that many employers who routinely hire college graduates will not hire those with graduate degrees, because they are over qualified (this is based on personal experience when I was a graduate student with an MA).

                • Furious Jorge

                  DrDick, this is my firsthand experience as well. And with the academic job market in the state it is currently in, I’ve come to the conclusion that going to graduate school is probably the worst decision I have ever made.

                • Linnaeus

                  I’m in sympathy with ajay here. I went to graduate school with the goal of being an academic, but I’ve moved away from that goal after having seen 1) how bad the academic job market is in my field and 2) how the academic hiring process works. It is possible to move into an “alternative career” (a term I rather dislike); it’s not easy, but if you’re willing to consider doing something else that you might find satisfying, there’s more opportunities out there than you might think.

                  Most people here would consider how I went about pursuing graduate education an object lesson in what not to do, i.e., “wrong” field, too much debt, etc., and that’s totally understandable. I could have made some different choices than I did. But, in the end, I really don’t have many regrets; the other options I had in front of me at the time I chose to go weren’t very appealing either. I still value what I got out of graduate school in terms of education, life experiences, etc.

          • Steve LaBonne

            I think they do it like in the bearded Spock universe- whichever grad student succeeds in assassinating the professor becomes the new professor.

            • MPAVictoria

              In the war of internet comparisons using pop culture references there are no winners, only losers.

    • Hogan

      Did I say graduate students? I meant data monkeys. Stanford regrets the error.

  • Marek

    Have none of these people ever read “Player Piano”?

    • Bill Murray

      Reading is so last millenniums technology

    • Linnaeus

      Ah ha! That’s the book I was trying to remember!

  • joejoejoe

    Online education delivered at lower cost isn’t some Buck Rogers scheme. It’s what Western Governors University does today. Maybe their IT or RN programs do suck compared to a sit-down school not that there isn’t any evidence showing that from employers.

    Students have to figure out the long term return of a lower cost lower quality education that gets them a higher paying job more quickly with less debt vs. a better quality traditional 4-year experience with higher debt and better prospects. The lower barrier to entry to online classes doesn’t have anything to do with teaching, it has to do with student choices, not optimal teaching methods.

    • rm

      WGU does something substantively different from what the Stanford guy in this article is proposing. They use mastery learning, where a student can work on a topic until she/he succeeds, however long that is, consulting a human tutor as much as is needed. I don’t think they would claim that model could work for everyone, because it really could only work for self-motivated and/or older working students. But at least they have human contact.

      What Thrun is proposing is lecture-centric, so it’s more like a throwback to the medieval university. Expert will be lecturing; everyone who wants to go and listen.

      Stanford does run an online school that is set up diametrically opposite to Thrun’s model. They have an online high school where they use videoconferencing software and social media extensively, so they can get as much direct teacher-student interaction as a face-to-face school. Lectures are prerecorded, but they are homework, and the actual class meetings are synchronous. Very labor intensive. If that model were followed widely, there would be a lot more jobs for MAs and Ph.D.s. Of course, the model also depends on self-motivated students with high-speed internet.

  • Pointy-headed interllectualismistic perfesser Hubert Dreyfus thinks distance learning yields only a linguistic veneer, not real learning. What does he know, anyway. Probably never built a robot in his life!


    • DrDick

      I routinely teach online classes and, while they are really useful for a lot of students and have an upside, they are not nearly as good a learning environment as face to face learning in a small class setting (which I also hear from students themselves). FWIW, I get great reviews for my online classes which students think are among the better ones they have taken.

      • Anonymous

        Thanks, DrDick. I should say I’m a pragmatist about these issues and am happy to accept multiple modes of instruction. But I think the proportions here are a prime workplace issue and need to be settled by collective bargaining. My real objections are to a single mode system being forced onto an institution from top down.

        Gawd, I sound like a wingnut! “They’re trying to cram this down our throats!”

        • Above was me. I blame technology, the patriarchy, the NCAA, and expansive readings of the Commerce Clause.

  • ploeg

    I think I have an idea of what “the traditional 18-22 year old college student” wants, but it has a lot more to do with the “so much more than taking classes” part than with the classes themselves. As for those students who are actually interested in the classes themselves, those students will seek out ways to pick up the skills that they need, regardless of how the formal educational experience is structured.

    • But the students don’t always know the skills that they need. This really embraces the student as consumer model, which is not a useful way of thinking about higher education.

      • Murc

        Uh, it’s not?

        College is fucking expensive, and as an adult student, the sole reason I went back is that I expect a return on my investment. I expect value for my money. And hey, the government considers college educations to be so valuable that they pay for lots of people to get’em.

        If I’m not a consumer, what the hell am I?

        • Bill Murray

          a student

        • ploeg

          You would be an apprentice. The idea is that you must become proficient in a specific area of study, and you require guidance, practice, and supervision to ensure that you achieve that proficiency.

          Of course, my original point (which I didn’t make very well) was that attaining academic proficiency is not the primary interest of your typical young adult, at least not by my experience. Your typical young adult is much more interested in other things, and many pass through undergraduate study like a rock through a digestive tract (if, indeed, the young adult passes completely through at all). Those young adults who are genuinely interested in learning will find a way to transcend the limitations of the educational system (generally by finding like-minded students and working with each other).

          Then again, I’m the type who typically goes to the self-service line in the grocery store too. I figure that any savings in labor is offset by the reduced sales of candy bars, chewing gum, magazines, and whatever other crap they sell in the other lines. Also, I suspect that the grocery stores simply tell the clerks to go rearrange the store so that nobody can find what they came in for.

          • Murc

            You would be an apprentice. The idea is that you must become proficient in a specific area of study, and you require guidance, practice, and supervision to ensure that you achieve that proficiency.

            Traditionally, an apprentice paid a fee in order to receive those things, and in some locales and professions had the ability to sue for redress should their master fall down on their end of the deal. That made them… consumers.

            • ploeg

              For as long as you serve as an apprentice, the master is the boss. You are receiving a service for the fee that you pay, but you don’t get full choice regarding the service that you receive. The master has to serve the broader interests of the occupation, rather than follow the whim of the apprentice.

            • Marc

              No, not at all. And this is a real problem with the consumer model of education.

              A student is there to learn something, while a consumer expects to be catered to. The customer is never wrong, remember? But the student often is.

              Methods that are effective for teaching are frequently not ones that the students initially appreciate. (Of course, there are also ineffective and unpopular methods. Learning not to use those is part of the art of teaching.)

              The worship of the market is so deeply embedded that people can’t seem to recognize contexts where market analogies fail.

              • This discussion is rather pointless, as it misses the obvious problem, which is that we expect the student and their family to shoulder massive financial burdens in order to access higher education. So of course people view it as a provider/consumer relationship. They’re paying five figures a year for it, after all. And in that sense, the return on investment is the most important part for the students, since if they don’t get that the dynamic threatens to be financially and economically ruinous for an entire lifetime.

                The entire dynamic is absurd, of course, and in a utopian world the learning first dynamic most professors insist on would be best, but that’s going to require something close to fully subsidized higher education. And since we know that isn’t going to happen in the U.S., there’s no sense advocating for it or imagining a better system built around it, so it’s time for those college professors to get on board with the program and give those middle and working class students the degrees they’ve paid good money for.

        • dave

          A ‘consumer’ in the sense that one ‘consumes’ golf lessons or gym instruction – the expert giving it knows what they are doing; you [initially] do not, and are responsible for your own ability to follow, or fail to follow, the guidance given.

      • joejoejoe

        Public schools charge about $9K a year on average with private schools triple that. Why should students who don’t know what skills they need even be in school at that price?

        I don’t deny the role of good teachers in shaping the education of students but a shitty economy, flat wages, and limited opportunity shape it even more.

        Students are going to gravitate towards inexpensive online education for the same reason people buy frozen peas. Cheap, available, and not horrible beats expensive and delicious freshness when resources are limited.

        • “Why should students who don’t know what skills they need even be in school at that price?”

          Theoretically, they should be learning that in high school, but therein lies a whole nother Pandora’s box.

          • Murc

            I dunno. I knew a lot of academically gifted and naturally intelligent people who got out of high school and had no clue what skills they needed because they didn’t know what they’d enjoy doing.

            What they DID tend to know was which college track would get them the credentials to enter careers that made them a decent living. That lets you go back when you’re thirty and have discovered you’re super passionate about something.

    • ploeg

      Of course, I hasten to add that I have no problem with the “so much more than taking classes” part myself. It is, after all, part of the educational experience.

      • rea

        Well, yes. The “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll” part of college was, in fact, what I needed to know at the time.

        • DrDick

          I think that was one of my majors early on.

  • Ohio Mom

    Where does the hands-on learning that is part of so many disciplines figure in here? For example, science and engineering require you learn your way around a lab; any sort of art or applied art (e.g., architecture, industrial design) requires studio time. What about applied health fields, like nursing and physical therapy? I can’t imagine you can master very much of what you’d need to know sitting in front of your computer.

  • Chet

    Heh. This guy Thrun doesn’t just think he’ll be one of those charismatic professors. He think he’ll be the Dean. Heck, maybe the Provost. He’s hoping that his reward for removing every vestige of real education from the college experience, will be a place in Heaven with the education executives.


  • hM

    On the subject of humanity’s dance with technology and how our fate is increasingly intertwined with it, I highly recommend Kevin Kelly’s “What Technology Wants”.

    The $.05 summary? A net positive, but only just.

  • joel hanes

    All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

    I like to think (and
    the sooner the better!)
    of a cybernetic meadow
    where mammels and computers
    live together in mutually
    programming harmony
    like pure water
    touching clear sky.

    I like to think
    (right now, please!)
    of a cybernetic forest
    filled with pines and electronics
    where deer stroll peacefully
    past computers
    as if they were flowers
    with spinning blossoms.

    I like to think
    (it has to be!)
    of a cybernetic ecology
    where we are free of our labors
    and joined back to nature,
    returned to our mammal
    brothers and sisters,
    and all watched over
    by machines of loving grace.

    Richard Brautigan 1968

  • joel hanes

    … but I don’t believe that Brautigan’s idlyllic vision is what capitalism will deliver.

    For a much darker speculative fiction take on what society is like when it no longer needs workers, see Riders of the Purple Wage by Philip Jose Farmer, first published in Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions

  • Walt

    If Thrun’s vision worked, it would have already happened in the 60s. The gain of current technology over the mere existence of TV is pretty small.

    • SKapusniak

      The 60s version set up by the Wilson government — http://www.open.ac.uk/about/main/the-ou-explained/history-the-ou — is by far the largest University in Britain in terms of student numbers.

      …watching all their TV programs on Saturdays and Sundays on BBC2, rather than shows that kids were expected to want to watch, in the days before they switched to DVD and internet, is a key part of my memories of childhood.

      Also, if you’ve ever been baffled by a British comedy sketch that involves men with heroically sized beards and heroically flaired trousers talking in incomprehensible surrealisms in front of a board with bogus equations, and wonder why that was supposed to be funny, then early OU maths and physics TV programming is what it’s a reference to.

    • SKapusniak

      Also, with 60s technology, for a ‘University of the Air’ you pretty much require some level of Socialism to bring it into being, because how else are you going to get that more than 12 hours a week of extremely valuable television time that I was watching as a pre-teen, on one of the only three broadcast TV networks then in existence?

      You need a Government confident enough in it’s own power to simply order that it be done, and a patrician publically funded institution like BBC sitting still for it simply because they were a *patrician* *publically funded* institution.

      You couldn’t pull off that level of (albeit diluted) Socialism today in Britain, and you probably *never* could have managed such a thing in the US. What internet connections being as ubiquituous as television does is reduce the amount of Socialism required to something that existing Academic institutions might be able to pull off on their own initiative.

      So a form of the model comes back 40 years later, as the hot new thing, now technological advance has changed what’s required to implement it to something that’s no longer a political non-starter.

      Of course those political constraints haven’t gone away, they’ve merely gotten a technical workaround, so a ‘University of the Internet’ born of modern hyper-capitalism is likely (for good or ill) to end up shaped very differently in detail from a ‘University of the Air’ born of the last gasp of British Fabian Socialism.

  • ajay

    In a future of higher education with almost no chance of academic employment, why would people become graduate students?

    This is a really telling remark, because it shows the extent to which some bits of academia have become a self-licking ice cream. Why would anyone study? So that they can later get a job supervising and teaching other people who are studying, of course! Why else? Even the idea that you might want to get a graduate degree so that you can spend your career doing research is ruled out.

    Also, the post – and the comments for that matter – should have addressed the existence of existing examples of technologically-advanced universities like the Open University. Is it a failure? If so, in what way? If not, why can’t this example be extended? This is like Americans asserting that a government-run health care system would never work.

    • John

      Maybe in the sciences you can get a PhD and then earn a living doing research. You certainly can’t do that in the humanities.

      • dave

        I believe the traditional reply to that is ‘thank God!’

    • Walt

      So why hasn’t the Open University replaced all other UK universities?

      • ajay

        Walt: until very recently indeed price was not a factor in the selection of undergraduate universities in the UK, because fees for UK nationals were a) capped and b) paid entirely by the government. The university business in the UK was not an open market and, to an extent, it still isn’t one.

        John: you can make a living doing research, or research-like activities, in the humanities. You could, for example, be a museum curator. You could work for a think tank. You could be a full-time author. In any case, I wasn’t aware that this post was solely about the humanities.

        • Marc

          People don’t choose the cheapest heart surgeon and they don’t choose the cheapest schools for their kids.

          Thank God.

          On things which they believe to be really important they are far more interested in the best, and cost enters in only at the margins.

        • John

          This is just totally fucking clueless. I don’t even know where to start. Yes, there are a tiny number of jobs like museum curators that use the skills one would acquire in a humanities graduate program. The number of such jobs is even smaller than the very small number of jobs teaching at universities. I don’t see how moving to a system where there are fewer university jobs but more graduate students would make it easier to get the tiny number of other jobs where somebody might be looking for someone with a PhD in the humanities.

          Second – writing books? Are you fucking kidding? Almost nobody can make a living off writing books, and nobody can make a living off writing scholarly books.

          Your argument appears to be:

          1) we shut down all existing universities and replace them with online schools with only a tiny number of real faculty

          2) the online schools are supported by a massive number of graduate students, 99.99% of whom have no chance at ever getting a job in academia

          3) That is fine because these people can get jobs doing “research”, even though, in all but a few science-oriented fields, there are almost no jobs of this sort.

          This is vastly, vastly ridiculous. You seem to have no idea what you’re talking about, in general. People don’t get into academia because they dislike research and prefer teaching other people how to become academics. Most people attending graduate school do it because they want to do research. The problem isn’t that they don’t like research, it’s that it’s almost impossible to make a living just doing research, so people take the jobs that are available – which are teaching jobs. The best of those jobs give limited amounts of teaching and give people time to do their own research, but the teaching is still a necessary part of the job. In the sciences, where there’s tons of grant money, you might be able to sever the connection between teaching and research without doing too much harm (although even there you’ll create problems, I would imagine). But in every other field you’re just taking away the entire economic basis for the field. Research in everything but the hard sciences is funded largely through academics’ work as teachers.

          In short, you have absolutely no concept of what you’re talking about.

          • ajay

            Fighting bravely past the straw version of myself…

            OK, if you are working, for money, to support the operations of an online university, then in what way do you not already have “a job in academia”? Especially if you’re working full-time? Is there a reason why this sort of job absolutely has to be done by someone who is also trying to work on their own doctorate, and who is consequently overworked, untrained and underpaid, rather than by a full-time qualified person? We don’t insist that schoolteachers spend half their time doing research.

            At present you have (numbers for explanatory purposes only) a university with 10,000 undergraduates, 500 faculty members and, assisting them, 2,000 graduate students who also work as part-time teaching assistants. I’m proposing shifting to a situation where you have 10,000 undergraduates, 1,000 full-time salaried teaching assistants, and, say, 50 lecturers. You’re still producing exactly as many graduates each year, but rather more efficiently. And, if you want, you can keep the fees exactly the same and fund another 450 full-time researchers. Or you could decide that the best way to fund research might not, in fact, be a hugely regressive tax on university students.

            • John

              What makes you think this is a plausible outcome? And where do these 1000 full time assistants even come from? How are they trained?

              • ajay

                They come from graduate degree programmes, having graduated, and they’re trained… however current TAs are trained.

                Why wouldn’t this be a plausible outcome? An online university would need far fewer lecturers, for obvious reasons, but until you can automate the reading of essays and so on it would need exactly the same number of full-time-equivalent teaching assistants.

                • John

                  Where do these graduate programs exist if we’ve eliminated the traditional university?

          • ajay

            Also, wait, I’m one of the few people in this discussion of online universities who has apparently even heard of the Open University, and I’m the one with no concept of what he’s talking about?

            • John

              I’ve heard of the Open University. It coexists with traditional universities. I thought we were discussing a plan to eliminate the traditional university and replace it with something on the model of the Open University. That’s quite different.

      • Davis X. Machina

        Tarquin and Ghiselle need to go somewhere

        • ajay

          Davis, almost half the UK population goes on to some sort of higher or further education and very few of them are called Tarquin or Giselle. Please adjust your stereotypes, we are about to enter the 21st century.

          • Davis X. Machina

            The ones who can afford Oxbrige you mean, or the ones who are consigned to what used to be Polytechnics until Maggie waved her magic wand over them? The schools that matter are harder than ever to get into for the people who don’t matter — and that’s probably the intent. Even the plate-glass universities are becoming too heavy a lift financially for actual real people.

  • On the plus side, one gets to call all of the students “Meatbag”.

    It’s hard to overrate a benefit like that.

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  • “Over a decade into its existence and supposed take-over of higher education, the impact of online courses have remained relatively limited. ”

    That’s probably true in the big picture, but I can assure you it couldn’t be more wrong at the margins.

    • John

      It couldn’t be more wrong at the margins to say that the impact of online courses has been relatively limited? What does that mean, exactly?

      • That at the margins online courses have a very large effect.

        • John

          Is that necessarily in conflict with the idea that they’ve had only a limited impact?

  • el donaldo

    Your students are techno-utopians? I’m currently teaching essays by Ian Bremmer, Malcolm Gladwell, and Sherry Turkle that are all techno-pessimistic, expecting at least some of the students would react against that pessimism by asserting the value of their brave new wired world. But they all turn out to be rather conservative, insisting that technology is a poor substitute for face-to-face human interaction.

    They do this while largely ignoring my presence and texting compulsively to their friends outside.

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  • StraightPriorities

    “They have a very hard time figuring out that technology can sometimes have unexpected bad consequences, not to mention fully intended bad consequences like putting people out of work.”

    But exactly this IS progress! Freeing people up from work so that they can be free to develop themselves, including to continue working if they desire to do so.

    We definitely need a Basic Income Guarantee.

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