I feel fortunate to the point of absurdity to be in a job I enjoy so much, but still feel uncomfortable with the title “Director of Innovation”. I deflect some of the manifest weirdness by recasting my role as one of a “Re-Director”. But in truth, I feel almost as uneasy with “innovation”, a word deployed in so many bizarre and frequently unpalatable ways.
And when I reflect on our little corner of education technology over the past decade or so, I keep being reminded of an old zinger: “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilization.” Seems like when it comes to the truly transformative uses of open and collaborative technologies, higher education went from ignorant dismissal straight to jumping onto what Mike Caulfield describes as “churnware hyped as innovation” without really giving the best stuff a fair shake.
But in all honesty, I feel almost as optimistic today for the potential to make a positive difference as I did in the euphoric days first encountering blogs, wikis, RSS and open culture. A lot of the good vibes coalesced while I was catching up on the media in and around Minding the Future / Open VA this week. I’ll try to capture some of what I find so encouraging in a few snippets and links (which will not come close to capturing all the ferment), and hope that something like clarity will follow. Synthesis is unlikely to visit me today.
Audrey Watters offers a succinct and inspiring mission I can get behind:
Resistance. Community. Open networks. Open content. Sharing. A place — on- or offline — that isn’t dictated by market forces. Local expertise. Local support. Leveraging technology to connect local learners and local expertise to the rest of the world. Care about students. Human connections. Wonder. Intellectual serendipity. But mostly resistance. A stronger and louder vision of what a more just and progressive and accessible future of higher education and technology should look like. It’s actually pretty easy to forecast the nightmare scenario of a higher education apocalypse. It’s easy to see signs of it in the headlines. The greater challenge, I’d argue, is to have a bolder and louder vision of higher ed’s future.
In response, Mike Caulfield expresses something that really resonated with me. “I feel it in my own work, which has shifted in the past three years from arguing against a status quo to arguing for an alternate vision of the future. I like the shift.” Being a naturally pessimistic fellow, I struggle with this shift. But there is no question that I feel healthier and more useful when I am arguing for (and working toward) an alternative future, even knowing evil will prevail. (Er… may prevail.) And there certainly is something fun to argue for, and much work to be done.
Where do I want to direct my efforts? Like a few other people, I had flashes when reading this passage from Jon Udell (shame he couldn’t make it to Open VA in person). Among other things, he reinforces my faith in seemingly “retro” ideas like open online collaboration and publishing, and open standards:
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, del.icio.us, 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.
It will come as no surprise to Bava Freaks that these words resonated with Jim Groom. And although he draws an astute connection between this ethos and the ongoing ever-mutating wonder that is ds106 in that post, his merry band of ed tech adventurers are more explicitly building “innovation toolkits” in their Domain of One’s Own and Reclaim Hosting. (And just as I was about to hit the [Publish] button, I see Jim has posted this talk delivered while inexplicably hiding from a blazing Carribean sun.) There are a number of budding projects here at TRU that have benefited directly and immensely from Reclaim Hosting, and I look forward to sharing some of this Kamloops flavour as it comes to a boil. I offer gratitude and admiration to everyone involved, especially Tim Owens, who I increasingly suspect of possessing supernatural powers.
I could go on about the ongoing inspiration I draw from others in the Open VA universe: Giulia, Tom, David, Gardner, Martha, Kin and Scottlo among them… But in the interests of brevity and serving my own selfish interests I’ll reserve my final shout-out for the venerable CogDog, who not only shared an abundantly human vision at Open VA, but offers up a proposal for building innovation toolkits for higher education — essentially a new focus for the work he has been doing so well for years.
I propose to build a suite of tool kits as extensions of the ones I have used or built for the ds106 open digital storytelling class but making them extensible for other subjects and organizations who would like to operate in a more “web-like” manner, using a distributed model where participants may create, publish in many places, ideally some are ones they manage.
Not least of what energizes me about Alan’s work is his willingness to work with us at TRU as a testbed for his ideas and his code.
This post only begins to cover all the stuff that has me feeling the opposite of Abject these days, but maybe it begins to capture why we may be close to reclaiming innovation. Maybe I’ll need a new blog name soon.