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?



Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

47 responses to “Online Schools and the Hype Cycle

  1. Pingback: The Hype Cycle – but this time it’s worse « Teaching as a dynamic activity

  2. Larry, I interviewd Ray Ravaglia and the Stanford Virtual High School in 2006

    Whilst I acknowledged the elitist dimension was essential to get the grant funding and keep the Stanford hierarchy happy it was the mass application of the programme I felt was most attractive.

    How timely that the developments in the Stanford Enginneering department offering free on line learning in Computer Science has had such an enormous and worldwide impact and no hype?

  3. Pingback: Stanford ‘brands’ online high school — Joanne Jacobs

  4. Larry, whoever actually wrote the text to Gartner’s hype cycle clearly did so from bitter experience. It’s an impressive piece of work and thinking, although the one thing I’d suggest is that the “plateau of productivity” could be absolutely anywhere on the vertical scale. In the case of virtual learning environments or managed learning environments, or interactive whiteboards, I’d place it about two notches above the “trough of disillusionment” for example. In the case of visualisers, it would be way higher.

    As for online learning hype in the UK. It’s early days. We are still in the midst of the fallout from the current government’s abandonment of the largest school building programme in the country’s history. The previous administration were planning to spend £55 billion (one hell of a credit limit they didn’t have!) on rebuilding or refurbishing every English secondary school. The new government quickly put a stop to it but there is still a lot of grumbling and disaffection from companies and individuals who were all set to profit from it. If recent statements about new Free Schools from the education minister, Michael Gove, are to be believed, then I can’t see online learning hype moving much in the near future. He does seem to have a lot of faith and confidence on bricks and mortar schools as effective educational tools.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for your assessment of online schooling (eLearning) in UK. I wish I had more info to make an educated guess. Here in the U.S. I would guess that the “peak of inflated expectations” is where online learning–2005 to 2011–is currently.

  5. Interesting post. Just a small note. Our projection on the S-curve isn’t for the replacement of schools. It’s referencing high school online courses delivered either in “distance” or in blended-learning environments. Our projections–using the same techniques–on the growth of full-time virtual schooling and home schooling suggest that we won’t be replacing brick-and-mortar schools.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you for clarifying your graph. Since you are far more informed about online schooling than me I do wonder where you would place the current moment on the Gartner cycle.

  6. Thanks Larry, Oh i wish it was that simple. As my Diana Laurillard says

    “Improving education with technology is not rocket science…itis much more complicated than that.

    I think you may be conflating two issues though?
    Virtual learning is only one example of how technology can enhance learning and there are many other examples so lumping all of it under one banner is somewhat misleading.

    One thing I agree with Joe on (did I really just say that:) is that the technolog money ringefenced as part of the BSF project did lead to many technology companies over-promising and under-delivering. In fact Joe’s old company,RM, ( they won over 50% of BSF contracts)has just parted company with it’s CEO and has seen it’s stock market price bomb. Many of the original companies involved in BSF have merged or been swallowed up by larger companies. Several Local Authorities are seeking to renegotiate those contracts as I post this. The new governments mantra is “schools know best” but the last Becta survey completed last year suggests on 30% were using technology effectively.

    When Michael Fullan spoke at the last Learning and Technology World Forum,after Michael Gove had left,he said;
    “I am not going to say anything about technology except to say everything I say is accelerated by technology.”
    Michael Gove is going to open BETT this year and rumour has it announce a new ICT policy(No money,targets,timeline,monitoring/evaluation) and has made some encouraging noises recently.
    More significant is the number of times he meets with Pearson,who have expanded their acquisitons in technology/learning/assessment companies recently. His civil servants are exploring what iTunes can offer and ministers and civil servants have been allowed to say “technology when used effectively can improve teaching and learning.”

    But that could just be hype?

    • larrycuban

      The post is about online learning (for-profit and non-profit) and the hype that has surrounded it of late in both K-12 and higher education. In that post, I do not believe that I am conflating it with new technologies at all.

      Based on what you and Joe have said about UK and the shift from eLearning and technology (both, mind you) that Michael Gove and officials are now pushing–where on the Gartner cycle would you put the current government rhetoric and actions?

  7. Larry, I am growing fatigued from the repeated hype cycle for each new educational technology. Could the height of the peak deepen the trough of disillusionment and ultimately lower the final plateau? Does distraction cause the trough as much as disillusionment, as the time between new technologies shortens?

    How much is the trough related to disillusionment as much as to adoption moving beyond the early adopters into the mainstream? Mainstream users don’t have the same preferences as early adopters. See Rogers adoption curves:

    Karl Hartig’s consumer electronics chart shows little evidence of troughs. I wonder why. Was he overly selective when creating the graph?

    To answer your question, I think we are seeing multiple adoption curves laid over each other for online schooling, since it has appeared multiple times in different forms, as Internet-based platforms have become more sophisticated. Perhaps the cumulative effect is a series of ups and downs, and we are currently experiencing an upswing.

    • larrycuban

      First, thanks for sending along the consumer electronics chart. I had seen versions of this in earlier incarnations but not this specific one from over a decade ago. Second,your juxtaposing the electronics chart with the Gartner hype cycle raised questions in my mind that I can only speculate about. Like yourself, the acceleration of the hype cycle and it quickened ups-and-downs (yep, including plateaus) in schooling is depressing–your word is disillusionment. I believe that the connection is less about consumer products (mostly entertainment) being adopted (the Everett Rogers concept of early adopters and laggards) and more about professional responses to school reforms and differentiating between hype (media exposure and talk), actual adoption, and use. It is the latter that gets too often ignored or is simply unexamined when it comes to professional teachers and technology use. Your suggestion about multiple adoption curves is what I am getting at by distinguishing between personal purchases of technology–lining up the previous night for iPads and iPhones–and what teachers adopt in their lessons. I am thinking aloud as I type this and it smells of speculation but your connecting the Hartig graph and Gartner cycle got me to try this out on you.

  8. Larry, you are spot on in you speculation here. “Actual adoption and use” is of no interest to the zealots, who have been driving the thrust of technology into schools for so long now (and God help us…still are it seems from Bob’s comments.) This is because their career paths are driven by what they believe is “innovation” but in reality is merely faddishness. I have heard Diane Laurillard declare the death of formal exams, on the basis that contemporary kids’ digital literacy renders paper and pen exams meaningless, in a way all the many skilled, professional teachers I know would find utterly risible.

    This morning’s news in the UK has an item which illustrates the problem perfectly. Even the large technology companies are now complaining that we have no computer scientists anymore because the ICT school curriculum is basically Microsoft Office, with a bit of online guff thrown in. That ICT curriculum is a direct result of the zealots and gurus who sandbagged the professional computer science teachers over a decade ago and are still hard at it. What I would so love to see, is some serious educational thinking by the big commercial players like Pearson, which leads to meaningful technology adoption by teachers: not over-hyped, over-priced fads. Until those big players (and government) can distinguish the professional, skilled teachers from the characters who saw technology as a personal escape route from the poor lessons and practice they were delivering to kids in schools, then we’ll keep seeing the same wasteful cycles again and again.

  9. Thanks for the clarification Larry….if we are talking just about Online/Virtual Learning(not necessarily the same thing I might add) then on the Gartner graph the UK is in the early stages of “technology trigger”.

    As for Joe’s suggestion that educationalists, serious researchers and thousands of teachers are driven to promote “faddishness” in order to promote their own careers is risible and I could equally argue that the techno sceptics are also motivated by the same?

  10. Joe,

    I worked as a teacher and school leader for a decade. Since then I’ve worked with many schools across the UK.

    In that time, the teachers I’ve met who’ve most enthusiastically adopted new technologies have almost without exception been the best practitioners in their schools, those most interested in doing the best job they can. Similarly, those ‘characters’ I’ve worked with who were coasting, burned out, disinterest or simply lacking in teaching ability were without fail those who were most resistant to using technology.

    My experience seems to jar with the assertions you make about the profession

    • Dom,
      One of the biggest problems with UK education is that few people ever get to see what excellence actually looks like. I’ve been lucky enough to have spent a lot of my teaching career at that end of the spectrum, but I’ve also ample experience at the other end and internationally. Like Gove, I therefore know just how much could be learned from the best.

      I would agree with you absolutely that it is innovative, creative teachers who will make effective use of technology. It is something I actually say in the presentations I do about this. I even outline a process to make sure schools enable them to get the technology they want, but the point is, they would be innovative and creative anyway. They use technology just like they use a pencil, with confident, professional discretion.

  11. Bob, I don’t see any techno-sceptics achieving “guru” status! Not so long ago, I had a meeting with the MD of one of the leading companies shortly after he’d been paid a visit by a leading “guru” on the hunt for funds. He asked me my opinion of the person concerned. I was actually very restrained and merely pointed out that it would be difficult to find any work they had done which any serious academic would call research. Lots of online self-publishing, journalism, blogging etc but nothing in the way of peer reviewed, formally published academic research, which you’d expect in any other discipline. That MD smiled and said, “Yes, I thought he was a b********er.”

    • larrycuban

      For Joe, Bob, and Dom:
      Since what I know about U.S. schools comes from both research and direct experience in schools as a teacher, administrator, and researcher I am reluctant to make any claims about how and why UK teachers, administrators, and researchers do what they do in adopting or not adopting new technologies. What I do know–again about U.S. schools–is that much variation occurs among teachers (age, gender, race, etc.) and contexts (urban,suburban, rural schools) yet amid that variation patterns of use have emerged. And it is about that variation and those patterns that I have written. As for UK, I am still learning.

  12. Pingback: Online Schools and the Hype Cycle | eLearning Administration |

  13. Sorry Joe, You have lost me there?

    Larry, I accept and respect your position and acknowledge your work is well founded and your questions about the use of technology for learning predicated on a lifetimes experience and peer reviewed research. I also welcome your interest in this area and the intelligent debate you stimulate.
    It just seems in such marked contrast to Joe’s unsubstantiated rantings?

  14. John

    Joe to say that teachers use innovation to drive thier own career paths is extremely insulting to the profession. I don’t know amy teachers who go into the profession to drive a career forward more it is to educate and the passion to teach and innovation is a valuable tool to do that for this generation. Thank god some people are still pushing forward with it or we would be stuck with chalk and talk which is the most boring method for students and teachers alike.

  15. John, I can’t see how my identifying a tiny minority of ex teachers, who have used a familiarity with technology (it’s rarely anything more) to pursue careers and roles outside of schools, is insulting to the vast majority of hard working, and sometimes genuinely innovative professionals, who get on with the job of educating children largely disinterested by technology, beyond that they are forced to use.

    Last week I “chalked and talked” a lesson to a class of very ordinary sixteen year olds, who had never seen me before in their lives. When I’d finished…they applauded. I wonder why.

    • John

      What would Ofsted said about that lesson? Taking into account the criteria for use of technology? And I’ve yet to meet a child disinterested by technology. I’ve got to go i’m on my xbox live playing FIFA with obviously the minority of young people.

    • John

      Perhaps they were clapping because the lesson was over? If you didn’t change lessons for Ofsted you wouldn’t last 2 terms as a teacher #capability

      • God only knows how I managed almost 20 years then! Your assumptions John, exemplify some of the issues I’ve highlighted here. Just to give you an idea what excellent really looks like. The best head I ever worked for (and there were 6) announced at a staff meeting that there was an inspection due but that he did not expect it to affect anyone in any way. He told his staff that they were outstanding teachers, who knew exactly what they were doing but that if anyone was in any way anxious, then they should see him and they could discuss what they might do. Needless to say…no one did.

  16. Not being someone who ever changed a thing to suit an Ofsted or any other inspector, I would neither know nor care. What matters is that the pupils I was paid to teach: learned what I’d chosen to teach them.

  17. I really enjoyed reading the article – and also the comments so far which take the discussion into many new directions. I’ve lived within the Gartner Cycle since the late 1970s – and have found that any individual ‘plateau’, if ever reached, never lasts long enough before the next trigger comes along to disrupt the flow. I also find that much of the process is not replicable – in that successful practice leading to enlightenment in one setting may not do that elsewhere. The UK’s best example – The Open University – was tasked with delivering on-line support courses to schools in 2010, and took a long time to produce practice that schools could accept – and even so, finds that its most successful activities continue to be face2face events. So I agree with Bob – in nationwide, general terms, the UK is still climbing up the trigger curve – with some enlightened rogues leading the way. I fear the plateau is still a long way away – but how boring that would be.

    • larrycuban

      I am unfamiliar with the experience of Open University other than what I have heard from Bob and now you. I do wish I had more time to be less parochial (only US) but I do not. Thanks for the point on plateaus being interrupted before the next “new thing” comes along.

  18. Bob, perhaps before you dismiss both my academic research and books…you should read them. I believe that’s what any, even half decent teacher, would expect of a child.

  19. Interesting to discuss the hype cycle with e-learning etc.. As others have mentioned we’re definitely on multiple curves in multiple positions in the UK (and worldwide as far as my knowledge extends), and I definitely agree that they all end on a plateau that can be at many (sometimes low) heights.

    As far as full time online schooling is concerned, we’re not even on the start of the curve in the UK, not that I’m aware of anyway. We have less home schooling than the States, and less places that are that remote attending bricks and mortar schools are an issue (and if you do find anywhere like that in Cornwall, Cumbria or Scotland then they’ll have no broadband any way!).

    As far as blended models, with existing schools offering courses, work etc online, we’re in a few positions on a few cycles.

    We’re in a deep trough when it comes to VLEs/MLEs etc (the likes of Blackboard in the States), the current solutions are largely poor, and after much hype most schools and educators are beginning to realise this. I think we’re still heading up towards a peak with regards to using collaborative tools, social networks, blogs etc to engage with learners outside of the 15% of their lives they spend inside our bricks&mortar cubes, it’s real early adopter territory there – even though some may have been doing it for 5+ years.

    Looking farther afield and farther ahead I think we’re still waiting for a real revolution, there’s a software trigger out there somewhere that we’re all waiting for. Khan Academy, Code Academy, iTunes Uni, Stamford Computer Science etc all show the possibilities for learner led learning but they’re not quite ready yet. As I write this my mind drifts back to the LWF conference in London last January and the words of Lord Puttnam, he prophesied that the next multi-billion $ startup would be in the field of learning, they’ll be the one who finally do it right, and differently. At the moment everyone is simply digitising old practices.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Daniel, for the information about multiple positions in adoption and use insofar as the hype cycle is concerned in UK, especially the VLEs. As I recall, interactive white boards caught hold in UK before the US; I wonder where they are on the cycle not on adoption but in use. Are there UK researchers who go into schools and watch what teachers do in classes with these IWBs and report on use?

  20. Joe, I have not dismissed your academic research and books..although I think you know a lot more about Shakespeare,Miltonn and Donne than you do about ICT!

  21. I’m surprised that no one commented on the mis-match here of the hype-cycle and the logistic curve (diffusion of innovation).

    I recognized the hype-cycle from my work with Boston University’s Center for Millennial Studies, which references the ubiquity of rising millennial hopes and expectations of “sunny days,” followed by millennial disappointment. All cultures, all sectors catch millennial fever, one way of another. I’m reminded of Horace Mann, “Schools will be found to be the way God has chosen for the reformation of the world.” (Letter to Rev. Samuel May)

    But the logistic growth curve, used here to depict the diffusion of innovation, or the growth of a population without predators, points in an entirely different direction — the upward trend of unbounded growth.

    That these two mathematical models are awkwardly yoked together to make a point (which eludes me) and disguises the fact that they are contradictory. Can someone please explain? The former seems more closely related to unstable cusp catastrophe manifolds (see link).

    • larrycuban

      The best that I can do, Glen, is to say that there are distinctions between adoption (Rogers “S curve”) and use of technology in organizations. Further, the Gartner hype cycle follows media talk about the new technology and neither documents adoption nor use. It records what people say about the new technology without determining whether those doing the talking were adopters (early or late on the Rogers’ curve) or actual users. So the cycles overlap, at best, but get at different aspects of technological change and disappointment.

  22. I think online learning in both K-12 and college have now reached a tipping point – we are only moving forward with online learning despite the various barriers and policy issues that need to be overcome. I also think it is important that we separately discuss online learning in colleges and K-12 schools. (You lumped the University of Phoenix and K-12 Inc in the same sentence in your post which can be confusing for those just beginning this journey to understand online learning). I think history has shown that college and K-12 are different and rightfully so, should be treated separately in the narratives about online learning. I think college online learning is in the “Slope of Enlightenment” while K-12 online learning is in the “Peak of Inflated Expectations.”

    • larrycuban

      You are correct, Rob, I mushed together online learning at K-12 and higher education. They are best separated. I should point out, however, that the recent survey of online learning research (Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in
      Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, U.S. Department of Education,2009) cites mostly higher education studies and yet K-12 advocates often turn to this meta-analysis for support. Nonetheless, your point about distinguishing between the two is one I need to make. Thanks.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Bob, for sending along the new online courses survey done by the U.S. Department of Education. The increases reported in rural areas hit hard by budget cuts has less to do with hype and more to do with desperation.

  23. Pingback: Online Schools is at the “peak of inflated expectations” – Larry Cuban « Shameem’s TBTE415 Blog

  24. Pingback: Online Schools is at the “peak of inflated expectations” – Larry Cuban « Learning Options

  25. Pingback: Online Schools and the Hype Cycle | Larry Cuban | Formation en ligne et à distance |

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