In a recent commentary on the rock star Sting’s dipping back into his childhood to revitalize his song writing, David Brooks said: “how important it is to ground future vision in historical consciousness.” I agree with Brooks when it comes to the half-life of technological innovations. The experience of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) over the past few years is an unexpected example of what Brooks meant.
Much has been written about MOOCs since they went viral in the past three years (see here, here, here, and here). This vision of creating platforms for college-level courses that would give anyone with an Internet connection access to college courses while reducing ever-escalating costs of higher education has turned some professors into academic entrepreneurs. Here is a two-for-one innovation (increased efficiency and equity) that has married new technologies with global access to higher education. MOOCs spread rapidly among elite institutions (e.g., Harvard, MIT, Stanford) and some second- and third-tier universities. For those familiar with the Gartner hype cycle–which many acolytes of MOOCs somehow either missed or ignored–the first two phases of the cycle were textbook examples:
“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.”
Recent articles (see here and here) express disappointment mixed with hope over how MOOCs have fared since the first blush of the academic love affair with the innovation. The evidence thus far is ample: high dropout rates, little knowledge of what students who completed a MOOC actually learned, lack of faculty enthusiasm, and the real sticking point for universities–how to make money from offering MOOCs? No surprise, then, that the birth rate of new MOOCs has plummeted. We are now in the “Trough of Disillusionment” phase of the cycle.
The high hopes and inspired rhetoric pushing MOOCs have collapsed. Looking back, the creators were pained–one of them, Sebastian Thrun, has departed from the MOOC scene–and I must add, terribly innocent about earlier technological innovations in education.
Of course, I do not know how (or whether) the next phase (“Slope of Enlightenment”) will unfold. No one does. It is a work in progress. But how does all of this current disappointment with MOOCs connect to the point I raised in the first paragraph: “how important it is to ground future vision in historical consciousness?”
Would knowing the checkered history of technological innovations in K-12 schools and higher education–including the Hype Cycle–help high-tech innovators “ground their future vision?” Yes, it would but I doubt if lessons drawn from earlier innovations would help them alter what they will do anyway. While innovators are creative and hopeful about the future they may be, in David Brooks’ words, “necessarily naive.”
And it is that phrase “necessarily naive” that creates the paradox previous high-tech innovators and school reformers have faced and do so now.
The paradox works like this: If I know well what has occurred with past technological innovations seeking to reshape K-12 and higher education, that is, most fail in the first few years, I would not even try. However, if I don’t care about those past efforts but still forge ahead because I have faith that what I propose will work regardless of the odds, then I can succeed.
The paradox of forging ahead without a backward glance is 100 percent American. Consider often described characteristics of being American: highly individualistic, competitive, optimistic, believes in change, especially technological, as an unvarnished good and that anyone with grit who works hard can overcome any obstacle. There are other characteristics associated with being American including beliefs in equality, a strong work ethic, and fairness.
Running like a red thread in the white fabric of being American, however, is the pervasive belief that if you know the past well, it can be a drag–a disincentive, economists would say–for action, invention, and making progress. To avoid looking backward in order to innovate, one has to be “necessarily naive” in the face of past failures in new technologies. Hence, with “naive” entrepreneurs ignoring the past, there has been a swift rise in and decline of MOOCs.
A skeptic might say: Really, Larry, what would you have to know about past technological innovations that might have helped the founders of MOOCs avoid the “trough of disillusionment?”
My answer is:
1. Technological innovations aimed primarily at increasing productivity and efficiency in schooling have largely ignored teacher knowledge and expertise.
2. High-tech innovators seldom ask the questions teachers ask about a new classroom technology.
3. Innovators have cared little about whether their new technology can be integrated into teachers’ routines because their priorities are to transform teaching and learning, increase student productivity, and keep costs low.
A backward glance to lessons drawn from previous technological innovations, then, might help start-up entrepreneurs from being “necessarily naive” about MOOCs or the next new thing for K-12 classrooms. Will that happen? I doubt it.