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.

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20 thoughts on “MOOCs need to be user innovation toolkits

  1. 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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  3. In the meantime, MOOCs have become overengineered solutions to the wrong problem. (Especially the so-called “xMOOCs” like edX and Coursera, as opposed to “cMOOCs” such as those created by Cormier, Downes, and Siemens.)

    The LMS scene is indeed shifting, but not really in the way we all hoped. In that sphere, “learning” is perceived as a linear process and the “learners as products” frame is taking over.

    Part of it might have to do with corporate training. Adobe Captivate Prime is meant explicitly to be a system to manage employees’ learning, which has become very significant business. Nothing wrong with that. But students registered in a formal program aren’t employees in those programs. And most learning in the world happens outside of formal programs. MOOCs tap this latter crowd, to a fairly large extent. But the discussion still revolves around “systems”. Cue D’Arcy Norman’s “Law of eLearning Tool Convergence”.

    Some may perceive that the battle is between proprietary solutions and Free Software, or that it’s all about interoperability. There’s a lot of work being done in those directions and it’s fascinating. But there’s a disconnect, here, between “systems” and truly decentralised approaches to learning. Standards may help, including Caliper, HTML5, Open Badges, ePUB, and Open Annotations. But only if they’re appropriated.

    Such a disconnect can lead to Christensen-style “disruption”. There’s a lot of “nonconsumption”, out there. And a lot of fun things which are perceived as “just toys”, at this point. Around the time this post was written, a business owner interviewed during a market research ethnography project used the term “toy” («jouet») to describe those 3D printers which were gaining traction in different spaces (as opposed to the real prototyping machines this person sold). One might say that the 3D printing enthusiasm has since faded and that we’re later along the Gartner-style hype cycle (Rolin Moe might say the same about MOOCs). But this very attitude, that toys won’t take over, is exactly the type of linear logic which is missing the point. Toys can indeed cause disruption. A key feature of disruption, though, is that much of it is unexpected. In addition, disruption often goes in multiple directions, adapting to diverse contexts.

    Which is where the Von Hippel’s (and Schrage’s) view of innovation becomes so interesting. By its very definition, innovation involves usage. Something can be novel, but it’s only innovative if it’s used. In many cases, people finding new uses for old things is a more effective way to innovate than careful and meticulous design meant to encompass every single use case (often in the name of “quality”, “production value”, or excellence”). Some MOOCs do afford unexpected uses. But MOOC developers often try to prevent this type of innovation, consciously or not.

    Technological appropriation goes through several phases and hacking things together is an important one. Ultimately, people may not need the tools associated with the technology they’ve appropriated. Unlike Rogers’s pattern for the “diffusion of innovation” (or Christensen’s view of nonconsumption), there’s a lot of “non-use” at the end of the appropriation process. If learners are able to appropriate knowledge and develop competencies on their own, without a MOOC, LMS, or even a degree, their eschewing those tools doesn’t mean they’re laggards or that they represent a ripe market for a new tool.

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