How hype trumps reality: an online learning cautionary tale from ASU

Why do some fads develop, become prominent, and then slowly fade with many people barely noticing that the fad is no longer a thing? One reason is that news outlets tend to prominently cover launches, reporting on and repeating the promise of new technologies, products, courses, etc. But if the new “thing” doesn’t pan out as planned, the ensuing media coverage tends to be much smaller than the launch reporting. The average person remembers the launch and the promise, and doesn’t see the reality-based follow-up. Here’s an account of one such situation showing how this phenomenon occurs.

In April 2015, Arizona State University announced the creation of the Global Freshman Academy, which would provide a path for any student to take introductory courses as free online MOOCs, receive credit for passing the courses, and then have the option to enroll in ASU. The university partnered with EdX, one of the major MOOC providers.

“Leave your G.P.A., your SATs, your recommendations at home,” said Anant Agarwal, the chief executive of edX. “If you have the will to learn, just bring your Internet connection and yourself, and you can get a year of college credit.”

That quote presents an exciting vision, and numerous high-profile media outlets picked up the story. Here are four of the top six news articles showing up within the first 10 Google news search returns for the search term “ASU global freshman academy” within the date range of April 1-30, 2015:

  1. Promising Full College Credit, Arizona State University Offers Online Freshman Program (New York Times)
  1. Arizona State University Offers Full Freshman Online Curriculum: School seeks to expand student base and improve college attendance (Wall Street Journal)
  1. Arizona State University to offer freshman year online, for credit (Washington Post)
  1. Arizona State, edX to offer entire freshman year of college online (Fortune)

It was an exciting and well-publicized launch. But more recently comes word, via Inside Higher Ed, that “Less than 1 percent of the learners in the massive open online course partnership between Arizona State University and edX are eligible to earn credit for their work, according to enrollment numbers from the inaugural courses.” More than 34,000 students registered for the MOOCs, and 323 are eligible to earn credits.

ASU calls the outcome a “positive first step,” and it may well be so. ASU has been innovative and dedicated to the idea of providing access to a world-class university to a wide range—and large numbers—of students from a variety of ethnic, social, and economic backgrounds. This is a laudable goal and ASU should not be faulted if some of its efforts don’t immediately create positive results.

But the point of this post isn’t about what ASU is doing and whether it’s been successful—this post is highlighting how media reports generate hype cycles. Now that the first results are in, here are the top ten results of a current Google news search* for “ASU global freshman academy”—the exact same search as mentioned above, but with no date range specified:

  • Only two of the ten articles, including the top hit, are about the low completion rate. The sources are Education Dive and Times Higher Education.
  • Seven articles are about the Academy generally and pre-date the release of the completion numbers. They are all positive and still emphasize the pre-launch hype.
  • One article is about the Georgia Tech masters degree that is built around online courses; the article mentions ASU’s Academy.

This is how a wide range of people—from the general public to legislators and members of education boards—get the impression that MOOCs are having far more impact than they actually are. The announcements of beginnings, and predictions of success, are headlined in the major media outlets. The stories of promises as-yet unfulfilled are relegated to the back pages and the minor outlets, if they are published at all.

*I did the Google searches about a week ago, and the results are slightly different now—but the same pattern holds.