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A cover of the book Power and Progress

Power and Progress: Our Thousand-Year Struggle over Technology and Prosperity by Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson

Published in May of 2023.

Does technology advance higher education?

This question seems ridiculous to those of us who work in educational technology and online learning. Of course, technology pushes higher education forward. Who would want to go back to a pre-digital academia?

Picture a university without online courses, smart classrooms, learning management systems (LMS) and student information systems (SIS). How would things run?

What would we do all day long in academia without our laptops? We freak out when the WiFi goes down for a few minutes. Higher education without the internet is unimaginable.

As we rely on all these technologies, it is natural to assume that more and better technology will improve our higher ed work. The link between technological advance and progress seems so strong that we seldom pause to examine our beliefs about how these two areas are connected.

But what if we are all wrong? (Or at least those of us who work in and around technology and higher education are wrong).

The idea that progress is not a natural byproduct of technological advances forms the core argument of Acemoglu and Johnson’s fine new book, Power and Progress. The book takes a deep dive into the historical record of technological advances and improvements in the standard of living and finds the links between the two to be tenuous at best.

Contrary to what we think we know, the introduction of new technologies (from industrial to informational) is only weakly correlated with population-level improvements in well-being and health. Technological advances do not automatically lead to measures as diverse as reductions in poverty, improvements in average income, nutrition, health or life expectancy.

The historical record demonstrates that the benefits of new technologies accrue primarily to the socially powerful and existing economic elites.

Power and Progress moves from the medieval ages (where technology-created wealth got sucked into the Church and cathedral building and bypassed the peasants), to the Industrial Revolution and into the modern era. The shift from agriculture to manufacturing brought with it the rise of dehumanizing factory work and child labor. It is not the rise of industrial mass production that built a middle class, but rather the long fight to organize workers.

Anyone who claims that the rise of A.I. will be good for anyone but those who own (and profit from) large tech companies should read Power and Progress. A new economy undergirded by artificial intelligence could easily serve as an engine of further wealth concentration.

Thinking about where we have been and where we are going in higher education, the clear lesson from Power and Progress is that we should not expect new technologies to result in a more equitable and resilient postsecondary ecosystem.

If we want higher education to be an engine of mobility instead of a system that privileges the privileged, then the way forward is more political than technological. Academic leaders, even those at wealthy private institutions, can fight to restore public funding for public institutions.

What we can’t do is assume that the adoption of new technologies on campus (A.I., V.R., online education, etc.) will automatically translate into advancing our (laudable) institutional missions.

Reading and discussing Power and Progress may provide a way to have a different conversation about technology and education on our campuses.

What are you reading?

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