People are funny.
My last post was called “Is Ed Tech Hype in Remission?” It was about—surprise!—the interesting phenomenon of ed tech hype seemingly fading for the moment. I started the post by apparently breaking a little news. Civitas, the learning analytics company, had announced a new round of investment. A close examination of the details, coupled with some information from our sources, indicated that the company likely took a hit in valuation in that round. Since student success analytics has been a hyped product category, I used that bit of news as a jumping off point. And I used the phrase “fire sale” to characterize the downward valuation, although I was fairly clear that I didn’t even have enough information to confirm that it is a downward valuation. In and of itself, this downward valuation, if true—I’m fairly confident that it is—is mainly of interest to investors. I brought it up as an indicator the hype cycle in action rather than a signal of Civitas’ impending doom.
There were lots of interesting and nuanced reactions in the comments thread on the post, on Twitter, and on LinkedIn. Elsewhere, the reaction has been different. There was some press coverage, some of which was good, and some less so. These are pretty nuanced issues. The easy part of the story to cover is not about the hype cycle or how to think about solving education’s hard problems but about whether Civitas is doing awesome or terribly. Customers, ex-customers, and of course, competitors have plenty to say about that. Sales reps for Civitas’ competitors are already out on the streets, weaponizing that post.
Look, we have a sharp rhetorical style here on e-Literate. That isn’t going to change. We want to be clear, and we want to hold actors in this space accountable. But we also try to be nuanced. So here’s a tip for you: If you get a sales rep quoting us ripping one of their competitors, make sure you read the whole post. If it was primarily about holding that competitor accountable as a bad actor, that’s fair game. On the other hand, if it was an en passant observation made in the context of a larger discussion that wasn’t especially critical of the company—like my last post—then the use of our comment is more a reflection on the sales rep than of the company we were commenting on.
Civitas has a lot of mindshare in the student success platform market category. That market category was overvalued, not mainly because of anything Civitas said or did but because higher education and ed tech investors alike have had a tendency to look for technological magic bullets. In fact, Civitas has sometimes actively resisted that hype trend, even to the point of choosing a name that can be interpreted to mean “community.” The only choice they made that I focused on in my post was their decision to market themselves as a software platform. Which was part of my point. One reason a company inclined to name itself “Civitas” might focus on selling itself as a platform company is because the market (and funders) can only make sense of them as a technological magic bullet. It’s a systemic problem.
This wasn’t what I intended to write about, but it happens to fit perfectly with the main subject of the follow-up post I was planning to write. It was on my mind to say something about another sharp section of that post:
One could argue that we hit peak ed tech hype in 2012. The Year of the MOOC. Remember how there were only going to be 10 universities in the world, and only one lecture for every subject, given by the very best lecturer in the world? Remember how everyone was going to get a Stanford education for free?
Yeah. Good times.
Since then, the hype cycles have been shorter and less intense. Sure, there was the whole adaptive learning bubble (or “personalized learning,” as it is inaccurately called), but a lot of that was the knock-on effect of a flood of Gates Foundation money. I never got the sense that there were many True Believers in adaptive learning as a magic bullet. There are still some True Believers in learning analytics, but it’s a small group. In fact, the OER True Believers club may now be larger than the learning analytics club.
Mostly, people seem to be approaching all of these things—learning analytics, adaptive learning, OER, inclusive access, etc.—with a little more sobriety. These developments are all getting attention, but not a lot of hype (though not always for lack of trying). The general attitude among educators and institutions seems to be more like, “Huh. So that’s a thing now. Good to know. What can I do with it?”
Gone are the days—at least for now—when provosts or presidents emerged from their offices all across the country and proclaimed, almost in unison, “Hear ye, people! I hath spake with the good people from Coursera, and they have shared with me the miracle of recording lectures in four-camera studios and giving away the courses for free. Huzzah! Huzzah! Let us be fruitful and make MOOCs with great haste!”
It’s true that some of the stuff that happened around MOOCs was objectively dumb. Phil has a good run-down of the research from both now and then. There were schools that rushed into projects and people—most infamously, Sebastian Thrun—who displayed astonishing hubris. Many of the people at the heart of MOOC mania, whether or not they were actively or intentionally participating in the hype, were really, really smart, and some of them had the best of intentions. I never got to know Thrun or Anant Agrawal—I’ve briefly met them both—but I’ve spent some significant time with Coursera’s Daphne Koller and Andre Ng. I like them both. A lot. In fact, I worried that the two of them, but especially Andrew, were too idealistic and too focused on doing good in the world to hold onto the reins of power in a VC-owned company with the kind of growth expectations that were put on Coursera. (I was probably right.)
And the truth is that, in 2018, universities are still building, delivering, and experimenting with MOOCs. Students are still learning from the courses, and we are still learning from the form. There was and is nothing wrong with experimenting with MOOCs to see what we can learn about new ways to reach new students or better serve some of the students we reach today. Just as there is nothing wrong with experimenting with student success analytics to see what we can learn about new ways to identify students who need help sooner or find new ways to help them (or to enable them to help themselves).
But why does experimentation come with the insanity so often? Why were MOOCs accompanied by MOOC madness?
I don’t know for sure, and I suspect that the full answer is complex and related to pre-rational aspects of our thought processes as they evolved over millions of years. But here’s one simple and obvious part of the answer: 160,000. That’s roughly how many students took an early MOOC in artificial intelligence offered by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. It’s no coincidence, I think that the four founders of the pioneering MOOC organizations—Thrun, Agrawal, Koller, and Ng—are all computer scientists. For one thing, they all could do the math fairly quickly to recognize how long it would take them to reach that many students via more conventional means.
You probably should be knocked a little bit off your axis by the notion of reaching 160,000 students all over the world with one class, particularly if you are an idealistic educator. We live at the first moment in history when it is conceivable to enable every human being to have access to education equal to their intellectual potential. That is what “160,000” represents. The possibility of a new mission for higher education and the potential dawn of a new era for humanity. So yeah, some people lost their minds for a while.
It turns out that reaching all of those potential students effectively is not so simple, and doing so in a way that is organizationally sustainable is even harder. Heck, we haven’t even figured out how to fund educating all the people in our own states here in America. How are we going to fund educating everyone in the world? I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m saying that we should have known it wouldn’t be so easy. And we should have known that video lectures wouldn’t be the answer. (Yes, yes, I know, many of us did. The point is, people lose perspective sometimes. I have over 15 years of blog posts on this site, so if anyone wants to point out times when I did, I’m sure they could find plenty of examples.)
This is not a sufficient explanation for the ed tech hype cycle. I could list other subjects of hype that were…shall we say, not as understandably inspiring of irrational exuberance. But it’s a place to start. Educators typically want to do good. That includes educational professionals who happen to work for for-profit companies, by the way. In order to do so, they often have to deal with organizational psychology, business process management, budgets, politics, market forces, and a whole host of confusing and interacting systems that human minds are not very good at modeling. So we tend to latch onto simpler, and often shinier, explanations. Technology will save us. Evil companies are killing education. Education need to be disrupted.
But the thing about chasing the hype is that it is exhausting and expensive. After a while, it wears you down. That’s what I think we’re in now. A period of exhaustion. We have enough people who have been burned enough times in rapid succession, and who are trying to solve enough serious and immediate problems, that they just can’t afford to be burned chasing the next shiny thing right now. They have to focus on solving the hard problems, because those are the real problems that just might move the needle for their respective institutions. That’s good news for almost everyone, from the students, to the faculty, to the universities, to the ed tech companies that want to do the right thing.