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February 06, 2013 11:00 AM Universities and Information Revolutions

By Mark Kleiman

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.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the University of California Los Angeles.