Taking the Hype out of the Hype Cycle

April 20, 2016 by Antonio Moreira Teixeira   Comments (0)

The history of educational technology has been mostly dominated by an overconfident optimism and sometimes even blind faith in the future. In our circles, the majority of speakers and opinion-makers still try to show educational technology development as a coherent narrative of sequential dialectical oppositions in which the new replaces the old, to use Manuel Castells' characterization of the Information and Knowledge society. However, our real history is not a straightforward succession of cumulative achievements. It has been a complex itinerary, a difficult navigation through many exciting possibilities, different promising scenarios and contradictory inspiring dreams, but also surprising failures and unanticipated obstacles, unavoidable errors and powerful fears.

The deconstruction of the progressive narrative in educational technology shouldn't lead us though to a cynical position. By the contrary, we should try to understand the phenomena on a wider and more holistic perspective. Innovation in education cannot be seen as just a simple application of a new method or the use of a new tool. It is usually the result of a cultural transformation process. This has also been the traditional understanding of EDEN and its community. In fact, we have never tried to play the role of the uncritical advocate of every each new educational technology development emerging. No, we don't see ourselves as preachers. But, as experts. In this way, we fulfil our mission by focusing on building a shared analytical understanding on the adoption and use of the different emergent approaches to educational technology, based on solid research and proven successful practice within specific cultural contexts.

In today's guest post, I've invited my good friend and colleague Mark Brown to reflect precisely on this topic. Mark is a much experienced and very well-known global expert in our field. I'm very proud that he's just joined EDEN's Executive Committee as I'm sure he'll make a great contribution to our Association.

In his critical analysis, Mark discusses the deterministic narrative used in educational technology discourse and suggests an alternative new ecological perspective which builds up on the metaphor of digital resilience. His point being the importance of focusing innovation on the internal transformation of organizational culture instead of imposing it to educational institutions from the outside.




The reality is that our field is full of hype. Neil Selwyn (2015) puts this even more bluntly by claiming that much of our ‘Ed-Tech Speak’ is full of B.S. Currently there is a lot of hypebole surrounding the potential of digital badges, flipped classrooms, learning analytics and of course MOOCs. The overselling of Ed-Tech is not new as there has been a long history of ‘talking up’ the transformative potential of successive waves of technological innovation (Selwyn, 2015). The language of predictions, promises and latest panaceas for the problems of education is an uncomfortable truth of our field. Despite best intentions we are still prone to the ‘fickle’ and ‘faddish’ at the expense of more serious critique. This is the untold story or often underbelly of Ed-Tech. Thus, more often than not there is an ongoing cycle of hype, hope and disappointment (Gouseti, 2010).

Over the years I have been guilty like many others of uncritically borrowing the Gartner Hype Cycle to help explain this repeating pattern. I usually illustrate the cycle by starting with the following quote from 1894 referring to the invention of the Wax Phonograph Cylinder:

“With the coming of the New Media, the need for print on paper will rapidly diminish. The day will soon arrive when the world’s literature will be available from The Automatic Library at the mere pressing of a button” (Uzanne, 1894; cited in McFarlane, 1997, p.173).

I often follow this claim up with a frequently cited quote from Thomas Edison (cited in Smith, 1913, p.24) referring to the evolution of the Vitascope:

“Books will soon be obsolete in public schools. Scholars will be instructed through the eye. It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture”.


FreeImages.com/Chris Green
Available from http://www.freeimages.com/photo/old-sound-1423005

To further establish this pattern of bold and typically failed predictions I draw on a lesser-known quote from Benjamin Darrow (1932; cited in Horrigan, 2016, p. 9-10) referring to the potential of radio:

“The central and dominant aim of education by radio is to bring the world to the classroom, to make universally available the services of the finest teachers, the inspiration of the greatest leaders... and unfolding world events which through the radio may come as a vibrant and challenging textbook of the air.”

Of course the story would not be complete without sharing early claims related to the invention of television:

“We will undoubtedly have lectures of every conceivable kind presented to us right in our homes, when practical television arrives, possibly a year or two off” (Short Wave Craft, 1935; cited in Horrigan, 2016, p.10).


FreeImages.com/ Gustavo Bueso Padgett
Available from http://www.freeimages.com/photo/old-t-v-1310765

At this point in the story I typically remind people of Larry Cuban’s (1986) book on the history of the classroom use of technology since 1920. Cuban claims that each technology goes through a successive cycle of bold predictions, initial enthusiasm and early implementation pilots followed by declining interest as more people question the technology and research findings fail to live up to the promises. Lastly, there is a period of rebukes and blame as teachers and traditional institutional systems are accused of failing to embrace change and transformation.

In a contemporary sense, this pattern of hype and hope is illustrated by the cover story in the March 2012 issue of Wired where Sebastian Thrun made the bold prediction:

“In 50 years… there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them” (cited in Krause, 2014, p.223).

While the MOOC story has yet to fully evolve according to the Gartner Hype Cycle they should now be entering the ‘trough of disillusionment’ before eventually reaching the period of ‘enlightenment’ as second-generation applications leave a legacy or lay the foundation for the next technological wave.



In the case of MOOCs, Google Trends data presented in the above figure for the United States tends to support the validity of the Hype Cycle. However, this depiction of the MOOC movement is overly simplistic and is not supported by a Worldwide analysis of Google Trends data, which presents a lumpier picture of the current level of interest, as illustrated in the figure below.



Putting aside the question of whether Google Trends provides a valid measure of the current state of the actual, my intention is to take some of the hype out of the Hype Cycle. When crudely applied to the adoption of Ed–Tech, in my view this model is overly linear, inherently techno-centric and fails to encapsulate the complexity of the change process, especially in large organisations. For example, when applied to MOOCs the model treats the innovation as a single entity, with limited appreciation of the wide diversity of approaches and crucial influence contextual factors play in the successful implementation.

The key point is that uncritical use of the Gartner Hype Cycle does a great disservice to our field. Instead I believe we need more nuanced, sophisticated and multi-directional models of institutional change and technological diffusion, such as the resilience metaphor taken from ecology. Martin Weller and Terry Anderson (2013), the latter an EDEN Fellow, illustrate through two insightful case studies the value of an ecological perspective on digital resilience. They point out that resilience confers a benefit to an ecosystem through adaptation and evolution to new environmental conditions whilst retaining core identity.


FreeImages.com/ Roberto Ribeiro
Available from http://www.freeimages.com/photo/brazilian-savannah-1250580

In complex ecosystems the characteristic of resilience, which arguably differs from the dominant metaphor of ‘resistance’ implicit in the Gartner Hype Cycle, means the species persists although it adapts and often gets better and better. However, it should also be noted that the failure to adapt and evolve might eventually lead to extinction.

In summary, I started this guest post by confronting the hype that still infuses much of our Ed-Tech Speak and briefly outlining the long history of oversold promises. In mapping the pattern of hype, hope and disappointment to the Gartner Hype Cycle my intention was to challenge many of our taken-for-granted assumptions about the validity and usefulness of such overly deterministic models of technology adoption. An ecological perspective building on the metaphor of digital resilience reminds us of the importance of innovating from the inside rather than sitting on the sideline, especially if we wish to foster an adaptive, innovative and sustainable culture of transformation. This is a perspective and ethos that very much underpins our work in thinking about shaping new education futures in the National Institute of Digital Learning (NIDL) at Dublin City University (DCU).


Cuban, L. (1986). Teachers and machines: The classroom use of technology since 1920. New York: Teachers’ College Press.

Gouseti, A. (2010) Web 2.0 and education: not just another case of hype, hope and disappointment? Learning, Media and Technology, 35: 3, 351-356.

Horrigan, J. (2016). Lifelong learning and technology. Pew Research Center, Washington.

Krause, S. (2014). After the invasion: what next for MOOCs? (pp.223-228). In S. Krause & C. Lowe (eds.) Invasion of the MOOC: the promise and perils of massive open online courses. South Carolina, US: Parlor Press.

McFarlane, A. (1997). … and where might we end up? In A. McFarlane (Ed.), Information technology and authentic learning (pp.173-178). London: Routledge.

Novak, N. (2012). Predictions for educational TV in the 1930s. Smithsonian Magazine, 29th May.

Selwyn, N. (2015). Minding our language: why education and technology is full of

bullshit … and what might be done about it. Learning, Media and Technology, 22nd April.

Smith, F. J. (1913). The evolution of the motion picture: VI – Looking into the future with Thomas A. Edison. The New York Dramatic Mirror.

Weller, M., & Anderson, T. (2013). Digital resilience in higher education. European Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, 16 (1), 53-66.



Professor Mark Brown is Director of the National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL) based at Dublin City University (DCU). Before taking up this position and Ireland’s first Chair in Digital Learning in February of 2014, he was previously Director of the National Centre for Teaching and Learning at Massey University in New Zealand. At Massey he was also Director of the Distance Education and Learning Futures Alliance (DELFA). He has played key leadership roles in the implementation of several major university-wide digital learning and teaching initiatives, including the enterprise-wide deployment of Moodle, the original design and development of the Mahara e-portfolio system, and the university-wide implementation of the Open2Study MOOC platform. Read more here.