The July 2014 issue of IEEE Spectrum (pp. 36-40) has G. Pascal Zachary arguing that engineering needs more heroes. "We live in a hero-worshipping society," he says (p. 38). And so "serious fields that lack serious heroes are seriously disadvantaged."
There is an implicit assumption in this logic that society is right to worship heroes, or at least that it can never be dissuaded from doing so and that engineers therefore have no choice but to play along with it. Zachary doesn't seem to consider the possibility that popular hero-worship might, in fact, be misguided nonsense and that engineers are steering a wiser course in eschewing it.
What might pass for engineering heroes in the popular mind illustrates the potential dangers of hero-worship. I'm pretty sure that most people think of characters like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs when they think of the champions of computing technology, for example. But, as Zachary himself observes, these people are really famous for having built up large companies, not for any engineering achievements. The technology itself was built by large teams of anonymous engineers doing work that most people care little or nothing about, and anyone entering an engineering degree thinking that they're going to spend most of their time making big business decisions is going to be sorely disappointed.
Zachary instead wants engineering heroes that attract people to the profession by allowing potential engineers to believe that "individuals matter in the course of technological history" (p. 39). Of course individuals do matter: but there are millions of them, all mattering in different ways to different people and different projects, and all contributing to advances in technology, knowledge and wealth without any single one of them acquiring a body of worshippers. One might as well be motivated by winning the lottery as be motivated by hero status. Indeed, does any profession really want to attract a bunch of narcissists expecting fame and glory for their efforts?
It may be that Zachary is looking for "exemplars" rather than "heroes"; some of his characters — Louis Pouzin, for example — aren't particularly famous despite the contributions they made to technology. I can see how an exemplar might usefully illustrate the life and work of an engineer without requiring any special heroism or worship. I and other teachers sometimes use personal experience for this purpose, since we have a much more intimate understanding of what happened in the projects we've worked on than of anything that might have been done by Nobel Prize winners or big-name megacorporations.
In fact, I've previously observed that what Spectrum describes as "dream jobs" might not really be so different from what I and and a lot of other teachers and engineers do to very few public accolades. Even the holders of Spectrum's dream jobs aren't famous, however fantastic their work may be. So who needs a hero?
I was little surprised this week to find The Conversation's David Glance writing of the MOOC [Massive Open Online Courseware] revolution that never happened. Firstly, I've previously associated Glance with revolutionary views of MOOCs. Secondly, the term "MOOC" has only been around a short while and it seems premature to declare the whole thing over, as Alan W. Shorter's comment points out. It seems that Glance has moved from Gartner's Peak of Inflated Expectations through to the Trough of Disillusionment during the two years or so that MOOCs have existed. Radio National's Antony Funnell also reported a sobering of rhetoric from MOOC enthusiasts including Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX.
One supposes that wild-eyed enthusiasts who scale the Peak of Inflated Expectations are setting themselves up for a fall into the Trough of Disillusionment when the technology fails to deliver on those expectations, as the names suggest. More sober commentators, such as those who appeared on Radio National, strive to go straight to what Gartner calls the Slope of Enlightenment, leading to the Plateau of Productivity. Gartner's Hype Cycle doesn't seem to account for technologies for which such a plateau might not exist at all — electronic cash, flying cars and videophones come to mind — but even identifying a technology as having limited value is enlightenment of sorts. It remains to be seen what sort of Plateau of Productivity arises from MOOCs, if one arises at all.
The commentary in both the Conversation and Radio National pieces identify two key points that seem to have been well-known to sober commentators from the beginning of MOOCs, but overlooked by revolutionaries. Firstly, as Gavin Moodie frequently points out, very few university entrants have the intellectual independence required to master a topic without the guidance of a teacher. I suspect that this also contributes to findings reported on Radio National that 83% of MOOC participants are already highly educated — presumably, these people have already become the "independent learners" who Moodie argues to be the only ones likely to benefit from MOOCs. Secondly, what MOOCs provide isn't actually all that new, as experienced on-line educators like David White (on Radio National) and Sorel Reisman can tell you.
None of this is to say that MOOCs are necessarily useless, or that they'll never arrive at some Plateau of Productivity in a niche for which they are suited. I found the course that I tried interesting and informative — but, having already gained a PhD, I'm hardly the kind of fresh new-model student that MOOC enthusiasts expect to abandon universities. MOOC developers and users just need a bit more toiling on the Slope of Enlightenment instead of admiring the scenery on the Peak of Inflated Expectations.