MOOCs and Hype Again

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 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.

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 this 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.



Filed under school reform policies, technology use

52 responses to “MOOCs and Hype Again

  1. Pingback: MOOCs and Hype Again Larry Cuban | educación líquida |

  2. Rud, A.G.

    AG Rud, PhD Dean and Professor College of Education Washington State University Sent from my neural implant 3.1

  3. Pingback: MOOCs and Hype Again | E-Learning-Inclusivo (Mashup) |

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  5. Cal

    I have never signed up for a MOOC because if I did, five weeks later, I would write exactly this:

    “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. ”

    I’m pretty sure almost everyone would write the same thing, which is why I am not sanguine about MOOCs.

  6. I had a similar experience with that AI course. However I got behind on the homework due to the fact Stanford had difficulties the first couple of weeks due to the large enrollment and it was difficult to access the site. I have since completed a couple, Google’s Power Search and Coursera’s Gamification and enjoyed the experience. I do agree that it is more about skill development, though, than becoming educated.

  7. larrycuban

    Thanks, Cal.

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  10. Dear Larry – The mooc space is in desperate need of educators’ voices and I was glad to see your commentary. Your historical insights and analsis would be very valuable to individuals exploring the development of moocs. I shared my thoughts on this the other day as well:

  11. Ian Rae

    ” 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.”

    Hmm. The ‘only important’ outcome, or a necessary one before the higher-level outcomes can be attempted? My understanding is far from complete on this issue, but shouldn’t we ensure basic literacy and numerical skills first, then tackle social and political ends? We had a mayor once who loved organizing festivals and heritage improvement initiatives, when what people wanted was working streets and sewers.

    • larrycuban

      Tax-supported schools in a democracy inevitably have social, economic, and political ends. One of those ends is “basic literacy and numerical skills.” There is no sequence of doing one first and then doing the next afterwards.

  12. Pingback: MOOCs and Hype Again | Personal e-Learning Environments |

  13. Recommended – check out Stephen Downes and George Siemens work on the cMOOC. In this variant the network is the expert, and the collaboration between the people in the network builds the knowledge of the participants.

    They have similar issues with involvement, but they define an online learning space between the gigantic experience of the online lecture series with quizzes (the Stanford model of the MOOC) and completely informal online learning.

    In this sense the conversations that happen weekly on Twitter via the various hashtags chosen by educators could be considered a cMOOC. There are no assignments, no grades, and no attendance in a cMOOC, just participants joining for the occasional conversation via an online medium. Some of the most valuable professional learning I have done has been through an online medium, via Twitter or blogs such as yours.

    I don’t know if the awful attendance rate of the new Coursera-style MOOCs is an indictment of online learning or of learning through lectures in general, but I would tend toward the latter. Our conversation on Twitter has expanded from a few dozen participants in the first sessions to many thousands of teachers meeting religiously on a weekly basis to discuss issues around education.

    I have no idea why one would attempt to replicate the university experience (weekly lectures, assignments with deadlines, quizzes, midterms, final exams) except that this is a system with which they have great familiarity. Why assign deadlines for an assignment that is going to be machine graded anyway? Time for some imagination on how online education can be done differently, looking at the affordances of online learning – portability, scability, asynchronousity, affordable, multi-modal, etc…

    Keith Devlin’s MOOC on Mathematical Thinking had a couple of interesting experiments, including a peer assessment system. We need a bit more experimentation in this realm rather than replicating models of learning that SO many people are trying to move away from.

    • larrycuban

      Many thanks for the people you mentioned and leads on further investigating MOOCs. The issues you raise are ones that interest me.

  14. Great to see we think alike! I think we can already see the catalysts that will take us into the Trough of Disillusionment. I wrote about this three days earlier at: h

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  18. My first experience with a MOOC was the recent course “Introduction to Mathematical Thinking” from prof. Keith Devlin. It was a wonderful experience. For me it shows that even online learning can be more than a mechanically tested acquirement of skills. Emphasis was on the learning process and more than getting grades, learning to think differently was the main goal. I can only say it worked for me.

    The course had very strict deadlines, which were contested. However, precisely those deadlines kept the students together as a group. Without this the discussion and interaction part will stand no chance.

    Now I’m following “Introduction to Cryptography I” from prof. Dan Boneh. This great course has a different style and is more typical of an online Computer Science course, with automatic grading and multiple-choice questions. Nevertheless, this is not at all the type of course where you acquire basic skills that can easily be tested in an automatic way. The course is not about procedural skills. It really develops insight in a new world that even for a software practitioner as myself is very revealing. The multiple-choice questions are such that you have to think hard to grasp and solve the problem at hand. In a way prof. Devlin’s course was a good preparation for this.

    Regarding the commercial viability of MOOCs I think the goal should not be to make a lot of profit on it, but it is not realistic either that such high-quality courses will continue to be given for free. They could start asking one dollar for the subscription to a course. That would certainly cover most of the cost, while the threshold would still be incredibly low.

  19. FWIW, I’ll second David Wees comment from a few days ago to look at the work of Seimens, Downes, Cormier et. al. Their version of a MOOC focuses more on building a learning community centered around a focused question. (See The “instructors” do more facilitating and connecting than teaching, encouraging each student to find his/her own way through the course while providing opportunities to participate and learn from each other. It’s more an exploration. You might also be interested in this blog ( in which Seimens and his co-authors are reflecting on MOOCs as they write a book on the topic.

    In general, I agree that we’re in a hype cycle around many things right now, flipped learning, data analytics driven personalized learning, MOOC learning etc. all of which are simply tweaks on the delivery method and not a shift in the way we’ve come to think about learning. I do think, however, that we are seeing the first iterations of tools and sites that will allow learners to explore their own questions and needs in new and different ways, and I think that will require K-12 environments to focus more on developing the dispositions on inquiry and self-direction for students to take advantage of those opportunities.

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    • larrycuban

      Hi Julian,
      Thanks for the comment and your post on speculative bubbles–including MOOCs. Perhaps the next time we meet we have a chance to talk.

  35. The way I see it, MOOCs should be tailored to the online learner if they stand a chance of engaging the online learner. Recorded lectures just aren’t appropriate to the online market.

    As with a few of the online course providers, their videos are certainly more tailored for the online learner, but then lack that interactivity or completion gratification.

    A buddy of mine is working on a startup ( to tackle some of these issues, if anyone is interested.


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