MOOCs and Hype Again

November 21, 2012

I have a confession to make. I dropped out of a Massive Open Online course (MOOC) on Artificial Intelligence at Stanford university in the Fall of 2011. There were over 160,000 other students in the class from all over the world. I listened to the two professors on my laptop give mini-lectures, watched fast hands scrawl quickly and cleverly over whiteboards to graphically display the concepts they were teaching. I found the information fascinating. I took a few quizzes. Then I fell behind and realized that I couldn’t keep up, given the other things I was doing so I dropped out. End of story about my first encounter with a MOOC. Turns out, however, that about 138,000 others dropped out also since only 14 percent completed the course and received a certificate.

MOOCs have soared in popularity as the “disruptive innovation” that will revolutionize higher education. Called the “Most Important Educational Technology in 200 Years” by the head of a new consortium of Harvard and MIT offering MOOCs, forecasts of fundamental changes in higher education are as common as iPads in a Starbucks. Stanford University President John Hennessey says “there’s a tsunami coming.”

Right before our eyes we are experiencing the very beginning of the hype cycle. For many academic entrepreneurs deeply dissatisfied with the cost of higher education and the traditional teaching that occurs, the onset of MOOCs is exhilarating. It is an unexplored frontier where plunging into the unknown and taking risks could lead to exciting  returns. The promise of a college education taught by stellar teachers delivered free to anyone in the world who has the smarts and grit drives higher education reformers.  In 2012. MOOCs are at the very beginning of the Hype Cycle.

My guess is that the Artificial Intelligence course at Stanford in 2011 triggered the cycle.

Technology TriggerA potential technology breakthrough kicks things off. Early proof-of-concept stories and media interest trigger significant publicity. Often no usable products exist and commercial viability is unproven.

Of course, Stanford and hundreds of other universities (including for-profit ones) have offered online courses for decades. None, however, have been taught by experts in the field and, here’s the kicker, offered free to anyone in the world with a computer and Internet connection.

I suppose that the current deluge of stories on MOOCs touting their capacity to “disrupt” higher education and the rapid spread of elite institutions forming partnerships to launch online courses available to anyone on the planet is on the upside of the graph line moving toward the “peak of inflated expectations.” Not yet near the peak but on the way.

Peak of Inflated Expectations: Early publicity produces a number of success stories—often accompanied by scores of failures. Some companies take action; many do not.

Apart from reformers’ desire to open up higher education to everyone, a significant question is left unanswered: how to convert millions of eager students in developing and developed countries seeking university courses taught by the best and the brightest into a cash cow?

I do not know whether the other phases of the hype cycle will play out as predicted. Nor do I know whether MOOCs will transform higher education for the better or worse. Debunkers have already begun to point out shortcomings to MOOCs in both teaching and learning. Whether the critics will gain the high ground, I cannot say.

What I can say is that at thsi stage of the hype cycle, hyperbole rules.

Yet from my perch as a K-12 practitioner and historian of reform, I do worry that all of the hype for MOOCs may redefine schooling narrowly as the acquisition of information and skills. The past three decades of K-12 school reform in the U.S., driven by fears of American students falling behind on international tests, has led to a national consensus that the best way for U.S. schools to produce graduates able to compete in an information-based, globally-driven economy is to have common curriculum standards, tests to insure that students have achieved those standards, and holding both students and teachers accountable for results. This stripped down version of schooling leaches out the social and political purposes of schooling in a democracy, leaving only information on tests as the only important outcome.

I do wonder whether that is what will happen with MOOCs in higher education.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-ed pieces, scholarly articles and books on classroom teaching, history of school reform, how policy gets translated into...