“I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill, and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.” –Sebastian Thrun, 2012
Now that we’ve begun to talk of MOOCs retrospectively, the time has come to update my previously published survey of the history of hype and wishful thinking that has for more than a century surrounded distance-learning technologies. I am adding a new entry to the list. I suspect it won’t be the last addition.
Mail: Around 1885, Yale professor William Rainey Harper, a pioneer of teaching-by-post, said, “The student who has prepared a certain number of lessons in the correspondence school knows more of the subject treated in those lessons, and knows it better, than the student who has covered the same ground in the classroom.” Soon, he predicted, “the work done by correspondence will be greater in amount than that done in the class-rooms of our academies and colleges.”
Phonograph: In an 1878 article on “practical uses of the phonograph,” the New York Times predicted that the phonograph would be used “in the school-room in training children to read properly without the personal attention of the teacher; in teaching them to spell correctly, and in conveying any lesson to be acquired by study and memory. In short, a school may almost be conducted by machinery.”
Movies: “It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture,” proclaimed Thomas Edison in 1913. “Our school system will be completely changed in 10 years.”
Radio: In 1927, the University of Iowa declared that “it is no imaginary dream to picture the school of tomorrow as an entirely different institution from that of today, because of the use of radio in teaching.”
TV: “During the 1950s and 1960s,” report education scholars Marvin Van Kekerix and James Andrews, “broadcast television was widely heralded as the technology that would revolutionize education.” In 1963, an official with the National University Extension Association wrote that television provided an “open door” to transfer “vigorous and vital learning” from campuses to homes.
Computers: “There won’t be schools in the future,” wrote MIT’s Seymour Papert in 1984. “I think the computer will blow up the school. That is, the school defined as something where there are classes, teachers running exams, people structured into groups by age, following a curriculum — all of that.”
Web 1.0: The arrival of the web brought the e-learning fad of the late 1990s, as universities and corporations rushed to invest in online courses. In 1999, Cisco CEO John Chambers told the Times‘s Thomas Friedman, “The next big killer application for the Internet is going to be education. Education over the Internet is going to be so big, it’s going to make e-mail usage look like a rounding error.”
MOOCs: The New York Times declared 2012 the “the year of the MOOC.” “Welcome to the college education revolution,” wrote the ever-hopeful Friedman in a column heralding massive open online courses. “In five years this will be a huge industry.” The MOOC “is transforming higher education,” declared the Economist, “threatening doom for the laggard and mediocre.” Academics were equally bedazzled. “There’s a tsunami coming,” said Stanford president John Hennessy. Opined MIT president Rafael Reif: “I am convinced that digital learning is the most important innovation in education since the printing press.” Harvard’s Clayton Christensen predicted “wholesale bankruptcies” among traditional universities.
All of these mediums and devices have come to play valuable roles in education and training — which is something worth celebrating — but none of them turned out to be revolutionary or transformative. There may be a deeper lesson here, a lesson about how easy it is to overlook the intangible virtues not just of classrooms but of presence.
Image: detail of John Tenniel illustration for 1865 edition of Alice in Wonderland.