Thursday, January 23, 2014

MOOCs and the Hype Cycle

I had been thinking about writing a blog post on how perception of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) may be following a classic Gartner Hype Cycle. But when I started to research the post, I immediately found that others had already written about this. So I’m going to try something a little different – I’m going to point you to a few of those pieces and discuss them. –DK
MOOCs have been riding a roller coaster. Or at least the first big hill of a roller coaster. All during 2012, MOOCs were being hailed as the silver bullet that would solve the problems of higher education, and climbed from obscurity to the heights of fashion, appearing virtually every day in the higher education press, and a few times a week in the popular press. The New York Times even called 2012 The Year of the MOOC. But as the calendar pages flipped into early and mid 2013, something happened. MOOCs not only hadn’t quickly and efficiently solved Higher Education’s many ailments, they were also a threat to faculty jobs and to state university funding. And so, MOOCs were starting to get negative press, and were being dismissed as an idea whose time had passed. This point was nicely made in August 2013 in a piece in Slate called “Anti MOOC really is the new black” by History Professor and blogger Jonathon Rees.

Some of us have seen this basic pattern before. It starts with a rapid climb to inflated expectations and then crashes down to a trough of disillusionment. And then (sometimes) it climbs back up more slowly to a more reasonable level of attention and expectations. In information technology, this pattern was dubbed the Hype Cycle by the research and consulting firm Gartner.
Gartner's Hype Cycle

I’m inclined to believe that we are watching MOOCs climb up and fall down that first very large curve in the Hype Cycle and that MOOCs, or perhaps just the lessons they teach us, will end up leveling off at a more sane level, contributing in solid ways to teaching and learning. Some universities will leverage them well for some communities of learners, and lots of people will continue to pursue “leisure learning” in this way.
In a piece in the Times Higher Education (UK) called “The'hype cycle’ of Moocs and other big ideas,” David Maguire, vice-chancellor of the University of Greenwich, mapped MOOCs and a variety of other topics in higher education onto the Hype Cycle, noting that many things follow this pattern – and encouraging higher education to learn to cut through the hype.

In a blog called “Motherboard,” tech-writer Meghan Neal also recognizes the Hype Cycle pattern in a piece called “MOOCs Are a Total Bust—According to the Hype Cycle.” She says that it isn’t time to declare MOOCs dead but it may be time for a makeover on the way to the “enlightenment phase.”

In July, tech-writer Ry Rivard of Inside Higher Ed wrote “Beyond MOOC Hype,” in which he reports on a slowing of the early MOOC momentum, a development that relieved some in the faculty community.

My favorite, though, was a piece called “MOOCs and the Gartner Hype Cycle: A very slow tsunami” written in September 2013 by Jonathan Tapson, Professor and acting Dean at the University of Western Sydney. This is the piece I wish I had written, and I really do recommend giving it a read. He nicely lays out the nature of the hype cycle and describes what we are seeing with MOOCs. He discusses some of the challenges that MOOCs have in providing direct interaction, and then notes that you can’t really get that at 99 percent of modern universities either.

Tapson then maps MOOCs onto the Hype Cycle and makes a case for it taking 9 or 10 years, rather than 9 or 10 months, for MOOCs to wind their way through. If he’s right, we may want to pay attention for a little longer before declaring them dead.

Are MOOCs following the Hype Cycle, eventually to climb the slope of enlightenment? Or will they crash down and disappear? Will they get the makeover that Meghan Neal mentions? Or will MOOCs fade away, leaving behind their lessons integrated into online and classroom education?

Leave a comment and share your thoughts.


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  1. I view education as the process of acquiring: (1) knowledge and (2) skills. One deals with comprehension, the other with execution. These are not one and the same and having one does not necessarily guarantee having the other (which is probably why B-school profs don't make great CEOs and vice versa!)
    I think modern education has mixed up these two aspects at a great overall cost to society. There is absolutely no way any education program (e.g. 4 year college degree program) can do justice to both dimensions. The scope of knowledge is growing so fast that even multiple degrees may not be sufficient in a lifetime!
    This is where MOOCs provide value: they can expose a large audience to new topics and widen knowledge. Whether it is possible to expand practical skills through MOOCs is debatable.
    I am not convinced either that MOOCs are necessarily the way to go for students to complete their prerequisite classes. In most cases, fundamental courses require more rigor and training, otherwise why are they prerequisites?

  2. Thanks "Bud". Harvard's Clay Christensen makes some similar points in a few articles. I can dig up refs if you like.

    On your final point, maybe its useful to ask you to comment on another of Christensen's points. I'll use a long quote here...

    "Online learning is frequently disparaged because it is often asynchronous, and it is often done at a distance. This is a smokescreen. Distance learning was alive and well in 1970 when Clayton Christensen was seated with 200 other students in the 45th row of the massive Joseph Smith Auditorium at Brigham Young University in History 170, a general education course that he had to take for
his social studies requirement. The teacher was never aware of Clay’s presence or absence because everything was “distance” beyond the fifth row. And the process was asynchronous: Clay was asleep while the teacher was lecturing and the teacher was asleep when Clay was reading the textbook. Asynchronous, distance learning is nothing new."

  3. I've thought about those sleep inducing courses taught by lecturers to large student bodies in auditoriums. Are they really any better than (say) asking students to just read up content from text books or other interactive media? Arguably, an online lecture (as in MOOCs) could be just as effective and when coupled with a chat window and suitable online community, it might prove to be superior.
    One problem is that people have different learning styles and absorption rates. These differences get even more pronounced in large student bodies. I often struggled to catch up with the flow after missing a particular point (e.g. while taking notes) - sometimes I would fail to comprehend the rest of the lecture. Being able to rewind would have been a great help!
    Generally speaking, I see no value in a live human fronted class if there is no dialog between instructor and the instructed.
    That said, the question that you have raised is whether some kinds of content are more amenable to MOOC instruction than others? I think content focused on introductory material, general principles, reviews - these are all appropriate for MOOC - with the caveat that it does not degenerate into the old correspondence course model!