AI,  edtech,  MOOC

Don’t look back in anger (or anything else)

Because I was too busy indulging in self-pity in my last post I forgot to blog about Udacity being acquired by Accenture to build a platform to take advantage of AI, blah, blah. Audrey Watters taking a rare foray back into ed tech to say “I told you so” reminded me to blog something. Audrey says it better, but that’s never stopped me before… There are lots of takeaways from this tale. Here are some that occur to me:

Self-Reflection is the real unicorn. Investors like to talk about unicorn companies, but it seems the real unicorn (as in, it doesn’t exist) is any sense of self-reflection or humility in the media or silicon valley narrative. Guess what? MOOCs didn’t disrupt higher education! Who could have guessed? Apart from everybody who knew anything about it. See also: Blockchain, Virtual Worlds, microcredentials, etc, etc. And yet, when outlets like Bloomberg report on this there’s never any “wow, we got that wrong folks!” It’s always, either the fault of the company or tech involved, or it was really a success and onto the next thing.

Low impact is the norm. It is, of course, not the case that all technology fails to impact higher education. The web, social media, online databases, even the humble VLE have all had significant impacts. But the number of over-hyped solutions to imaginary problems that disappear quietly outweighs these. Our default assumption should therefore be that any new tech will have a minimal impact, not the current view that every new tech will fundamentally change the entire ecosystem. I previously categorised technology, or rather the talk around technology, into rapture or useful pitches. We get too much of the former and not enough of the latter.

MOOC? What is MOOC? Maybe Udacity will claim a success in being bought out and perhaps turning a profit(we don’t know how much of the $1 billion supposed investment in AI went on purchasing them. 50c would constitute “part of”). But it’s the last meagre wave of the flag for MOOCs surely, after all that hype and promise. At JIME we recently put out a call for a special issue based on learning at scale and the legacy of MOOCs. When people who had been prominent in the MOOC research were approached by us, many of them responded along the lines of “I don’t have anything to do with MOOCs anymore and I don’t want to write about them”. It was as if this was a shameful period in their past, now it’s like “MOOCs? No, doesn’t ring a bell, did he play for Chelsea?” The focus of the special issue is learning at scale more generally but also what can we learn from over a decade of MOOC research (we now have lots of great submissions along these lines). This desire to abandon the past and move onto the next thing is another version of the self-reflection unicorn. It also brings me onto…

Education Technology is, like, over, man. To reinforce something Audrey comments on, the Bloomberg article begins “Remember education technology?” Wait, what?! I wrote a book railing against the amnesia in education technology and this quote would have been a summary of the “Why write this book?” section (Downes said I was wrong about amnesia, I just wasn’t looking properly. Hmmm). Remember the pandemic? What was it that kept education going on a global basis with about 3 weeks preparation? Oh, yeah educational technology. And for those at the back, MOOCs didn’t invent educational technology and are not synonymous with it. Do we have to repeat this, like, forever?

Yeah, but AI. The obvious comparison with MOOC hype is AI hype. So one could draw the conclusion that in 10 years we’ll be going “remember AI?”. I think that’s unlikely, it looks set to be a technology that will integrate into existing tech and is causing higher ed to ask fundamental questions of itself and practice. If AI does nothing else but get rid of the essay as the default assessment mode, then it’s impact is profound. But the MOOC lesson should at least give us caution over some of the more revolutionary, rapture type claims. I’m sure everyone will make sure they don’t make any over the top claims this time, eh?

Overall, the takeaway for me is that we should assume that generally tech revolutions in education end in a whimper, not a bang. Set your expectations accordingly.

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