Returned from my book-writing leave to find higher education more confusing than ever

NYT Rear Axel 1912

I returned from eight months in Qatar in May and spent the next few weeks wrapping up the manuscript for my new book Heroes and Martyrs: How A Small Band of Innovators will Remake Higher Education. Doha made an interesting hilltop for observing and writing about American higher ed. In many ways the wealthy Persian Gulf nations have not changed much over the last hundred years.  Their massive investments in the knowledge economy may still pay off, but it will be a steep climb for societies that value membership in privileged tribal groups over actual achievement.

Meanwhile, the pace of change here is accelerating. Zealots love the idea of rapid innovation, but there are real and imagined roadblocks–and a lot of people who are trying to disentangle the two. It would be a shame to declare today that technology-enhanced education is doomed because of a barrier that may be irrelevant tomorrow. Or worse yet, because success might be bad for professors.  In short, it seems to me pretty early in the innovation cycle to be declaring–as University of California President Janet Napolitano did last week–that a roadblock is insurmountable.  She was talking about MOOC’s, but her critique was a repackaging of objections to educational technology that have been repeated so many times that casual observers might confuse them with established fact.  Maybe it’s just a result of living in the Middle East, but I hear in domestic  arguments about the future of higher ed more than a little tribal talk about what is good for professional academicians.

I was keeping this 1912 New York Times article as a reminder of how far off base preliminary assessments of what’s feasible can be–especially when underlying technologies are being transformed. Ford’s use of lightweight Vanadium steel for axles gave it an insurmountable advantage until drive train technology made  modern suspension systems possible. It’s a morality play. Higher education is in the the early days of a technology-enabled revolution. So early that no one should be trying to tie breakdowns (yes, there are breakdowns) to intractable root causes. I tried a different approach in my new book.

  1. Richard Potter said:

    As director of corporate engagement for a midwest land grant institution, I continue to find Abelard to Apple a valuable resource. When do you anticipate Heroes and Martyrs to be available for purchase?


    • richde said:

      Thanks for that. Heroes and Martyrs will appear in early 2015. MIT Press will be the publisher. I will give everyone a heads up when I know the exact publication schedule.


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