MOOCs need to be user innovation toolkits

Next week I’ll be speaking at a conference on technology in higher education. The new online course platforms will, of course, be a central topic. I’m not an educator and I haven’t spent serious time using any of the MOOCs so how can I add value to a discussion of them?

Well, I’ve spent my whole career exploring and explaining many of the technologies that enable — or could enable — networked education. And while I was often seen as an innovator, the truth is that much of my work happened on the trailing edge, not the leading edge. The Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP) was already ancient when I was experimenting with ways to adapt it for intranet collaboration. Videos of software in action had been possible long before I demonstrated the power of what we now call screencasting. And iCalendar, the venerable standard at the heart of my current effort to bootstrap a calendar web, has been around forever too.

There’s a reason I keep finding novel uses for these trailing-edge technologies. I see them not as closed products and services, but rather as toolkits that invite their users to adapt and extend them. In Democratizing Innovation, Eric von Hippel calls such things “user innovation toolkits” — products or services that, while being used for their intended purposes, also enable their users to express unanticipated intents and find ways to realize them.

Thanks to the philosophical foundations of the Internet — open standards, collaborative design, layered architecture — its technologies typically qualify as user innovation toolkits. That wasn’t true, though, for the Internet era’s first wave of educational technologies. That’s why my friends in that field led a rebellion against learning management systems and sought out their own innovation toolkits: BlueHost,, MediaWiki, WordPress.

My hunch is that those instincts will serve them well in the MOOC era. Educational technologists who thrive will do so by adroitly blending local culture with the global platforms. They’ll package their own offerings for reuse, they’ll find ways to compose hybrid services powered by a diverse mix of human and digital resources, and they’ll route around damage that blocks these outcomes.

These values, skills, and attitudes will help keep a diverse population of universities alive. And to the extent students at those universities absorb them, they’ll be among the most useful lessons learned there.

13 thoughts on “MOOCs need to be user innovation toolkits

  1. carpetbomberz

    Learning Management Systems I think sucked most of the air (and budget) out of the room, so that a simple web server and it’s maintenance costs were seen as unnecessary. My university dumped our web server for course websites in 2008. We’re now all LMS except for the few who have dept. server space or roll their own outside the University provisioned services.

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