Online Schools and the Hype Cycle

For those who pine for film over digital movies, miss the clackety-clack of typewriters, or even rotary dial phones, well, get ready for the slow-motion demise of brick-and-mortar schools. Watching the surge of media attention for online schooling from both official and entrepreneurial sources, it sure looks like blended schools soon and, in the not too distant future, kiss goodby to those familiar red-brick, steepled, and factory-look-alike buildings called schools ( see: EEG_KeepingPace2011-lr). Cautious reports of educators not yet swooning for online schooling are lost in the swirl of hype.

Just recently, for example, a story on Stanford University graduating 30 seniors from the Stanford Online High School. Not a typo. High School, not the University. Exceedingly parsimonious about ever using its name, the Board of Trustees authorized a program for gifted youth launched five years ago to provide an online curriculum leading to a diploma at an annual cost to students of nearly $15,000. Other institutions such as the University of Nebraska (Lincoln), University of Missouri, George Washington University (D.C.), and Middlebury College have started online high schools leading to diplomas, according to the article. Of course, for profit companies from K-12 online schools to the University of Phoenix have been in this business for decades. Shrinking revenue in higher education has driven both public and private institutions to seek out new income streams and here comes the wave of online schooling for high schoolers. Harold Levy, ex-chancellor of the New York City schools and partner in a venture fund that invests in education companies including ones specializing in online education , said:

“If Stanford proves that online schooling can work for the high end, then that’s a great proof of concept. But if it’s used by the low-end for-profits for marketing a poor product–and you know that will happen–… that undermines quality, that’s what scares me.”

Scares me too. But fear does not drive the hype cycle—hope does. And the hype cycle is in full bloom. Yes, there is an actual cycle of hype called the Gartner cycle. Here’s a graphic of it.

A for-profit company that issues reports on each and every new technology across industrial and business companies, including education, Gartner guards its reports from folks who do not pay the stiff fees. The above graph has no dates or applies to no specific technology. It comes from Wikipedia. For online learning, however, Michael Horn had in the article cited above a graph on how schools will be transformed through online technology.

“Sunny Skies Ahead,” the title says. And the dates are in place as the curves moves upward past 50 percent of all schools.

Now, according to Gartner, here are the different phases of the cycle:

How Do Hype Cycles Work?

Each Hype Cycle drills down into the five key phases of a technology’s life cycle.

Technology Trigger: A 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.

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.

Trough of Disillusionment: Interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver. Producers of the technology shake out or fail. Investments continue only if the surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters.

Slope of Enlightenment: More instances of how the technology can benefit the enterprise start to crystallize and become more widely understood. Second- and third-generation products appear from technology providers. More enterprises fund pilots; conservative companies remain cautious.

Plateau of Productivity: Mainstream adoption starts to take off. Criteria for assessing provider viability are more clearly defined. The technology’s broad market applicability and relevance are clearly paying off.

Which phase applies best to the current hype for online schooling? For those online enthusiasts who date the beginnings of online schooling to the earliest correspondence courses in the 19th century where companies mailed their lessons to students, they might pick a phase different from those champions who date the origins to the past half-century of computers (remember PLATO?). And for those advocates who see improved technologies in the past decade as the launching of “modern” online courses with blended schools as an interim phase before bricks-and-mortar buildings go the way of the goony bird, they might pick a different phase. Which part of the hype cycle would you choose and why?

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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 practice, and teacher and student use of technologies in K-12...