The Corner

The Accelerating Pace of Change in Higher Education

Back in 2011, I came across a book whose title intrigued me: Abelard to Apple by Georgia Tech computer-science specialist Richard DeMillo. In it, DeMillo argued that higher education was in the throes of change, moving away from the old lectures in ivy-covered buildings mode and toward an electronic mode. I reviewed the book, here.

In 2015, DeMillo wrote another book on the same theme, Revolution in Higher Education: How a Small Band of Innovators Will Make Higher Education Accessible and Affordable.

I asked him if he would care to sum up his case in an article for the Martin Center. He agreed, but since he’s a horribly busy man, he finished it only recently. In “The Accelerating Pace of Change in Higher Education,” he points to the trends that make him more optimistic than ever.

Back in 2011, for example, his idea for an online master’s degree in computer science at Georgia Tech was a fledgling. Today, the degree is in high demand. Online learning can be very successful.

Adverting to Moore’s Law, DeMillo writes, “The pace of innovation is determined not by the plodding, consensus-oriented processes for which academia is known, but by technology curves that enable a doubling of capabilities every few years.”

Nor will the improvements be limited just to the STEM fields. The liberal arts will also benefit from advances in pedagogy that new technology makes possible. Although the “we can’t do that” syndrome is a substantial obstacle there, innovators are going around the bureaucratic bottlenecks. DeMillo optimistically writes, “Buckminster Fuller once argued that changing the course of a large tradition-bound enterprise could be accomplished not by a frontal attack, but rather by making the existing way of doing things obsolete.”

A point that DeMillo doesn’t make but I think important is that as the revolution proceeds, it will weed out lots of really useless and even harmful “higher education.” When students can do much if not all of their learning online, choosing among competing programs and courses, the lock that lazy and/or politicized professors had on students who had no choice but to take what their college offered will be broken. Higher education will cost less in the future and much of the current junk will be swept away.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.