Uncommon Sense

October 30, 2018

Sometimes You Don’t Have to Even Read the Book!

The Amazon posting for the book College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students by Jeffrey J. Selingo supplies the blurb below. Reading just the blurb tells me that reading the book is unnecessary as I already know the arguments are, well, mistaken.

* * *

What is the value of a college degree?

The four-year college experience is as American as apple pie. So is the belief that higher education offers a ticket to a better life. But with student-loan debt surpassing the $1 trillion mark and unemployment of college graduates at historic highs, people are beginning to question that value. 

In College (Un)bound, Jeffrey J. Selingo, editor at large of the Chronicle of Higher Education, argues that America’s higher education system is broken. The great credential race has turned universities into big business and fostered an environment where middle-tier colleges can command elite university-level tuition while concealing staggeringly low graduation rates, churning out graduates with few of the skills needed for a rapidly evolving job market.

Selingo not only turns a critical eye on the current state of higher education but also predicts how technology will transform it for the better. Free massive online open courses (MOOCs) and hybrid classes, adaptive learning software, and the unbundling of traditional degree credits will increase access to high-quality education regardless of budget or location and tailor lesson plans to individual needs. One thing is certain—the Class of 2020 will have a radically different college experience than their parents.

Incisive, urgent, and controversial, College (Un)bound is a must-read for prospective students, parents, and anyone concerned with the future of American higher education.

* * *

This book is only five years old but is out-of-date already. The reason it is is not because of advances in technology, but because research has already showing some of the darlings of that time (MOOCs, for instance) are not what we hoped they might become.

The mistake made by all who argue “technology will transform education” is one of perspective. There have been transformative technologies in the past that have had massive impacts on education, for instance the invention of the moveable-type printing press, the prior invention of paper, etc. But if you look at the history of such innovations you will find them littered with mistaken claims for “technological transformations.”

Think about motion pictures and how they have transformed education.

Think about filmed animations and how they have transformed education.

Think about the telephone and how it has transformed education.

Think about television and how it has transformed education.

Think about computers and how they have transformed education.

Think about cell phones and how they have transformed education.

Actually none of these things have transformed education, although all have had some small impact. I currently operate a small business via email and the Internet. That business existed before email and the Internet were invented, but while those inventions make my job a great deal easier, they still result in a product consumed by a bunch of people. I can generate my product more cheaply this way and that has allowed us to stay in business, but we aren’t exactly getting rich. Big impact for us, not a whole lot of change in output.

The same is true for education. Email and programs like Skype allow me to have conversations with people all over the world. If I had needed to do that back in the day of physical mail being my only option, it would have taken far longer, but it still could have been done. Many of these technologies are similar, they speed things, e.g. like communication, up but don’t fundamentally change what is done, e.g. communicated.

Technology will have an impact on education, but there will be nothing particularly earth shaking for the simple reason that education is a social process. The whole reason for bringing people together on a “campus” is to facilitate the social interaction between students and students, students and teachers, and teachers and teachers. Sure, you could do it all using a messaging app, but a great deal would be lost. Communication is a small percentage about just the words, there are many other things to be considered, a more important part being the emotional affect of the communicators. And, yes, I am aware of emojis and their use. But emojis are chosen by the person madly typing away and they may or may not be accurate or may even be flat-out lies. If someone directly in front of you is claiming to be satisfied but is clearly not so, you can tell this. Every one of us has the ability to read the mental state of other people. We suspect when we are being lied to. We can detect uncertainty in the speech of another. We can tell duplicity and myriad other things, like when a conversant is disdainful.

Education is not just about accumulating facts and skills. One is also learning how to communicate with others, to reason effectively, to learn the tools of a trade. Photographers know that learning how to use their cameras and lighting accessories, etc. is fundamentally important but that is not what photographers learn about in most photography courses. They learn about leading lines in compositions, balance, tonality, all kinds of things that can make a photograph into a work of art or a brilliant illustration of a concept. Similarly when people become educated, they are not just learning facts, techniques, and skills. They are developing attitudes, the ability to speak in front of others, even groups, to convince, to describe, etc. To do this requires social interaction and anything that gets between two human beings engaged in this diminishes the communication.

So, if you are waiting for technology to transform education, don’t hold your breath. The critical factors are still social interaction, inspiration of individuals to work hard on a topic and then come together to defend and attack ideas flowing through those communication channels.

And, if you prefer to think of me as a modern day Luddite, a hater/fearer of technology, you couldn’t be more wrong. What I fear is bullshit artists who make claims for tech and people that are misleading and lead young people astray. There is no app for that.

Addendum Oh, btw, there is plenty wrong with higher education, but the use of “ed tech” isn’t a solution for any of those things.


  1. Well sir, once again I agree with you 100%. When I was doing my apprenticeship as a machinist, one of the night classes that was part of that program was public speaking. Hey, I’m going to just be a machinist, out in the shop, getting sweaty, dirty, and making a decent wage, why do I need to be able to give a speech? I knew if, a very huge and nearly unrealistic if, that I would not own my own shop. My boss, the owner could give his talk to a new or prospective customer, not part of my job. I just followed the prints and made the parts.
    Long story shortened. I took the class and man, it was fun. I’d always been nervous about getting up in front of a group and giving any sort of speech. Oh, I could talk, man could I ever, still do talk too much, even online. That class gave me something extra, confidence. After each of us gave our assigned speech topic, the entire class would tell the speaker why we liked or didn’t like her/his speech. It never was nasty, critical yes, but constructively so.
    School IS a social thing and always should be. New tech goodies may aid in teaching, but the classroom is where the real learning is. Online courses, even live are not quite the same. I still have a nice “how to” CD that came with my first Canon DSLR and it IS very helpful, but I’d rather take a real school room class. The CD has a great bunch of experiments, but you are left on your own to decide how good you do them. That is one thing I got from my photography class at community college. We gave critical feedback on each others photo assignment. Made all of us better picture takers, at least it did for me.


    Comment by Walter Kronkat — October 30, 2018 @ 2:11 pm | Reply

    • Right you are. Educritics talk incessantly about individualizing the curriculum. This is the job of the student. They need to take what’s being taught and find a way to learn it and make it relevant to their own lives. Having someone else do that for them stunts their education. Teachers teach and students learn (and vice-versa).

      On Tue, Oct 30, 2018 at 2:11 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — October 30, 2018 @ 10:10 pm | Reply

  2. education is a social process. The whole reason for bringing people together on a “campus” is to facilitate the social interaction between students and students, students and teachers, and teachers and teachers.

    Wow! What a profound truth that is Steve! And thus, the more diversity involved on the campus or the think-tank alike, the better and expansive the learning and wisdom gained! Period. No debate. Btw, that most certainly includes those things/people that make you very uncomfortable like having wet undergarments in a wooden chair! Often those conditions are some of the best lessons. 😄

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Professor Taboo — October 31, 2018 @ 10:58 am | Reply

    • As a professor I argued for diversity in teacher preparation (from large colleges, small colleges, etc.) as well as across the board in background. It all helps in finding ways to communicate with students.

      On Wed, Oct 31, 2018 at 10:58 AM Class Warfare Blog wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — November 2, 2018 @ 11:56 am | Reply

  3. Did you catch the article in The Times yesterday about how the “screen” time in different socioeconomic levels? It appears the upper levels (especially the technology types) are actively discouraging technology gizmos in classes. They are preferring old fashioned learning techniques. From what I see, and I use technology in a limited basis in my classes, in public school systems I have seen it has almost become a baby sitting thing. Just give the kids a computer an assignment and let them do it. Little teacher student interaction. But then again I am in Florida the bastion of school innovation! Maybe I am just a Coelacanth instead.


    Comment by Holding The Line In Florida — October 31, 2018 @ 12:36 pm | Reply

    • Nope, you are spot on. And you are right about the babysitting aspect, look at all of the “digital charter schools.” The one in Ohio defended their claim of students being on task )at home!) even when they hadn’t turned their computer on for weeks! (We need a song like Monty Python’s Spam Song” but with “scam” instead “Scam, scam, scam, …”

      On Wed, Oct 31, 2018 at 12:36 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — November 2, 2018 @ 11:59 am | Reply

  4. After reading the comments that were posted after mine, I just felt I needed to add a bit more. Holding the line, I see the students wanting they “old way” as a very good improvement. I agree that the computer and other tech goodies are like a baby sitter. Yes, school is where us older folks were socialized, and not in a political way, well, some us may have been. We learn social skills by being in a classroom together.
    At the same time, I can see “distance learning” as a neat thing. Say one lives way out in the high desert in SoCal and the closest college, even community college is too far to drive to class then make it home with enough time to get enough sleep so you can make it to work on time the next day. Also, online lectures by instructors who are among the top in the field they are in could be interesting. But, even with the possibility of emailed questions, you still don’t have that same connection we had during our school years. Even during my machinist apprenticeship classes, while the teacher was also a machinist, we had that opportunity for asking more asking questions related to a project we may be working on in the shop we were employed at among other questions. During our coffee breaks he’d always try to be free for any questions, even those not pertaining to the class subject.


    Comment by Walter Kronkat — October 31, 2018 @ 1:14 pm | Reply

    • You are right about distance learning being an advantage for the isolated, but it is more difficult. Advocates point to students making a success out of distance learning and apply it to students in residence at a university! There is a famous study done at the U. of Colorado (or Denver?) that showed that a majority of people signed up for online courses were in residence at the U. When queried as to why they were taking classes online, many were just avoiding having to go to class at 8 AM or 9 AM. Now there is a reason for having online course available, a crummy reason, but a reason nonetheless.

      As a student athlete, every day of my season had basketball practice from 3-6 PM, so I loaded up my classes in the early morning (I had the advantage of being a morning person) so they wouldn’t conflict with practice. So, possibly my experience isn’t a good model. As a teacher I lobbied to move my chemistry lecture from 8-9 Am to 9-10 AM to accommodate my sleeping students. When I queried them as to why they were taking my 8 AM class, the bulk of the students admitted they were not morning people, but they had jobs in the afternoon. I eventually got around to informally querying them about their jobs and the majority of those were to make money to support their lifestyle, not to keep food on the table and the table in an apartment. (Many, being freshmen, still lived at home.) The idea that theu were stinting their education for a part-time job had not occurred to them. (These discussions are part of why education is most definitely a social process.)

      On Wed, Oct 31, 2018 at 1:14 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — November 2, 2018 @ 12:08 pm | Reply

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