Hype on Steroids: Self-Driving Cars and School Technologies

A full week of mainstream and social media swept across the nation about the death of a Tesla car owner killed in Florida using the self-driving option. With the auto-pilot function turned on, the Tesla driver collided with a tractor-trailer and became the first known fatality in the industry’s surge to produce self-driving cars. Google and Tesla and 30 other companies (e.g., Honda, Ford, GM,Toyota) compete for what is hyped as the “next big thing”; such cars, they claim, will “disrupt” the century-old personal transportation market.

A Morgan Stanley Blue Paper announced in 2013:

Autonomous cars are no longer just the realm of science fiction.They are real and will be on roads sooner than you think. Cars with basic autonomous capability are in showrooms today, semi-autonomous cars are coming in 12-18 months, and completely autonomous cars are
set to be available before the end of the decade

Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk said the self-driving function on the Tesla meant that “[t]he probability of having an accident is 50 per cent lower if you have Autopilot on” …. “Even with our first version, it’s almost twice as good as a person.”

Skeptics have tossed in their two cents (see here and here; for rebutting skeptics, see here) but when it comes to questioning new technologies in U.S. culture, skeptics are alien creatures.

While the hype pumping up self-driving cars can lead to accidents and deaths, no such serious consequences accompany promoters of technological innovations who have promised increased teacher efficiency, improved student achievement, and the end of low-performing schools for the  past half-century.  Need I mention that Google has a “Chief Evangelist for Global Education?”

Nothing surprising about hype (even when  injected with steroids)  in a consumer-driven, highly commercial society committed to practicing democracy. Hype is hype either for self-driving cars or for school technologies. Parsing the hyped language and images becomes important because real-life consequences flow from these words and pictures.


Consider these advertisements championing new technologies since the 1950s.





Over-stated claims are  commonplace when it comes to pumping up the benefits of the “next big thing.” Early adopters of new technologies discover the bugs in new hardware and software soon enough.  Glitches, however, seldom dissuade this crowd from peering around the corner for its replacement.

Does hype serve any social and political purpose other than to stimulate consumers to buy the product? I believe it does.

1. Over-the-top statements strengthen the popular belief that change is “good” for individuals and society overall. Not only is change “good” for Americans but in the technology industry and culture of school reform, change morphs into improvement. In Silicon Valley argot, “making the world a better place,” means a new product, a new service, a new app will improve life (a parody of this oft-repeated phrase can be seen here)

Equating change with improvement is a cognitive error. Surely, an improvement implies a change has occurred but because the change has happened, improvement does not necessarily follow. A moment’s thought would quickly squelch equating change with improvement. Stepping on a scale and seeing that you have gained five pounds while on a low-carb diet is clearly a change but not, in your view, an improvement. Think of a divorce in a family. The spouse initiating the divorce sees the split as a change for the better but for the others involved including children, few would see it as an improvement with two homes, living with different parents or weekend visits. Change occurs constantly but improvement is in the mind of the beholder.

Consider whether a new app that has a “smart” button and zipper that alerts you if your fly is down or another app that locates rentable yachts are improvements to one’s life (see here). To those individuals who buy and download these apps they appear as improvements promising a better life but to others, they appear as trivial indulgences that hardly make the “world a better place.”

School reformers who believe that changes lead to improvements in teaching and learning, for example, often refer to gains in student test scores, increases in teacher productivity (i.e., less time to do routine tasks), and other measurable outcomes as evidence of  better schooling. Reformers holding divergent values (e.g., higher civic engagement, student well-being), however, would differ over whether test scores, et. al. are improvements. Quite often, then, the definition of improvement depends upon who does the defining and the values they prize.

2. Hype over new technologies raises questions about the existing institution’s quality.  Consider current health care where millions still lack health insurance, emergency rooms are over-crowded, wait time to see specialists physicians increases, and patients get less and less time when they do see their doctors. Hyping the “next big thing” in medical technology becomes a direct criticism of existing health care. Think of “hospital in a box,” or patient kiosks placed in pharmacies, where ill people go to the kiosk for video conferencing with one or more doctors about what ails them. Such new technologies raises implicit questions about access to adequate health care and to what degree the relationship between doctor and patient is important in improving health.

Or consider the thousands of lives lost on the nation’s roads to accidents and human error in driving. Self-driving cars, once prevalent on the nation’s highways will, promoters claim, dramatically reduce the 32,000 deaths in car accidents while increasing worker productivity since with self-driving cars owners can complete other tasks that heretofore would have not been done. Self-driving cars raises anew questions about the lack of adequate public transportation and a society committed to one-person-per car.

And hype for technological innovations in schools for “personalized” or “adaptive” learning pictures the existing system as factory-like  whole-class, age graded, teacher-dominated instruction that ignores, even neglects individualized lessons, student-centered learning, and reconfigured classrooms.

3. Hype shrinks the time to show results to immediately. Most software products in the educational arena, for example, take time for teachers and students to grasp, understand, and use them in lessons. Education proceeds by short not long steps. Hyping these products leave the distinct impression that unless the desired result hasn’t happened in a few months then someone (note the beginnings of blame) has failed to do it right. And it ain’t the software developer.

4. Software and hardware developers come to believe their own hype. The cliche of “drinking the Kool-Aid–applies here and such self-deception occurs. And when it does, CEOs of start-ups and other companies start making short-cuts to get products into schools and stores. Those short-cuts increase software glitches, highten arguments with consumers of the products, and diminish faith in the innovation.

These outcomes of hype are not justifications for its ubiquity. They  help me understand the role that it (and its cousin, “magical thinking”) perform in U.S. society.








Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use

8 responses to “Hype on Steroids: Self-Driving Cars and School Technologies

  1. Laura H. Chapman

    Two examples come to mind, from the fans of disruptive innovation. Rather than being hype about technologies as “things,” there is an equally strong hype for technocratic processes as a “fix” for schooling. In addition to the enduring hype from mistaken federal policies, Public Impact offers up formulas for re-staffing based on the (unproven) premise that a teacher who is effective in a classroom with about 20 students will be just as effective if assigned to manage a team of merely “good” teachers while being responsible for the performance of 400 students…The so-called master teacher can hire and fire at will the team members, with the approval of the principal. The principal came up through this system, and so on. http://opportunityculture.org.
    A variant of this staffing and compensation scheme, hyped by the Obama Administration as the RESPECT program, was the brainchild of McKinsey & Co. in 2010. USDE recycled the McKinsey & Co. with an elaborate marketing campaign beginning with line-by-line discussions of this document http://mckinseyonsociety.com/closing-the-students-gap/

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, Laura. Adding technocratic processes to “things” that are hyped is a fine point. Thank you. While Public Impact’s Bryan Hassel has written about successful turnaround schools and charters in Education Next and other publications. I had not heard of Opportunity Culture and its process involving teachers and principals. Thanks for sending the links.

  2. GE2L2R

    Some random thoughts on ‘disruption’ . . .

    I’m old enough to have used that filmstrip projector! The only ‘disruption’ I remember is when you lost track of where you were relative to the ‘beeps’ on the record – an actual vinyl record complete with the scratches and pops of age. The ‘disruption’ was from the class laughing as the teacher futility attempted to synchronize the audio and video. Some of the mismatched slides and soundtrack produced memorable combinations that only added to the ‘disruption’.

    My recollection is that my teaching efforts were not more effective nor did my pupils (its been a long time since students were pupils!) comprehend faster. Then again, I didn’t have a test to measure these outcomes.

    I can’t remember the ‘brilliant projection’ or ‘brighter more detailed image’.

    I suspect that the collision between the Tesla and tractor-trailer truck was not the ‘disruption’ that Mr. Musk had in mind.

    One final thought is that I’m not sure I’m ready for an app that requires a ‘Smart’ button and zipper to monitor my fly status. Having Siri notify me of my zipper status could be ‘disruptive’ as could a software or hardware malfunction . . .

  3. Now the hype seems to be 1-1 with computers, using cell phones in the classroom, interactive boards, “individualized” computer teaching software and a number of other tech based teaching “innovations”. None of these really make a kid who could care less about their education switch over to being a motivated learner. None of these can help a kid who comes to school hungry.

  4. The “wow” factor of technology is commonplace among teachers and admin. The fact that teachers and admin are “techno-centric” not “learning-centric” is doing real harm. They learning needs. And it geare either always running after the latest hype trying to fit learning around the tech or refusing it altogether. Little do you find reflective admin and teachers on how to choose the right tool to fit the learning needs. And it is getting worse with new “evolving” techs coming out everyday.

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