Frances Bell

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A Dialogue for Shaping Educational Technology

This post was triggered in part by Stephen Downes’ response to Audrey Watters post, and in part by my experiences at and discussions around fedwiki ( Link to reflections).  For me, doing fedwiki has allowed me to try out ideas in the company of other ideas from and with people who think like me sometimes but also sometimes very differently, and that’s the joy of it. Sometimes we are influenced by a post and might build on it, sometimes we read and then ignore a post, and sometimes we just miss stuff.

Stephen Downes and Audrey Watters posts both touched on building educational technology.  I could think about what building means at fedwiki – there are people, guided by the inimitable Ward Cunningham building/ making code. At the fedwiki happening Mike Caulfield shepherds us and curates us as we mine ideas, explore what fedwiki can do – another sort of building of found ideas that (sometimes) collide and spark with each other.  Some of that is adapting information couched in a technical dialect into language that non-technical users could understand.

Considering the role of the ‘user’ in ‘innovation’ is not new, it’s just not as loud as the hurrah that surrounds ideas like ‘disruptive innovation’.   A rich body of work in Science and Technology Studies has built and accelerated in the 1980s but traced back to the 1960s and before.  If you wanted to read just one paper, my recommendation would be Stewart & Williams (2005).

James Fleck gave us a non-linear model that combined innovation and diffusion approach to technology that he called ‘innofusion’ by incorporating feedback into the innovation process. Fleck (1988) emphasised the reflexive relationship between innovation and use; and Williams & Edge (1996) portrayed the contingent evolution of innovation as a ‘garden of forking paths’, both cited in Wiegel, V. (2011)Hippel and Katz (2002) gave some good examples of how technology companies engaged users in innovation in the late 20th/ early 21st century and some ideas on how they could use toolkits to surface innovations from users.

Thinking about what building means in the context of educational technology led me to recall the onion model of computing that I studied on my Masters in IT in the late 1980s.

onionmachine architecture

Example of Onion model, similar to one I studied


I wondered in which layer building ‘counts’ in that model.  Are the hardware engineers the real builders and the programmers who write the applications not real builders?  Of course not, and if I thought that layer models were a good representation of what is going on then I could add a lot more layers to that model.

Web 2.0 seemed to bring the opportunity of valuing users’ contributions to content and features but there are prices (in terms of loss of ownership and privacy of your data)  to pay for the sharing and contributing that users do on ‘free’ platforms.  It is often said that on Facebook, you are the product not the customer.  Educators, like others have engaged in glorious creativity with the plethora of ‘free’ web applications available.  However, those who contribute their creative works to an online service may find that the service has disappeared overnight or transformed into something radically different, and less usable for their purposes.  Watters(2014) highlights the strong connections between technology innovation and education by highlighting examples of student work that evolved later into mass market products eg Marc Andreessen’s development of the Mosaic web browser.

As Audrey Watters and others have pointed out, disruptive innovation plays into the myth that the old is destroyed.  In the case of educational technology, the new technology that the entrepreneur has developed is often portrayed as fixing ‘broken education’.

Another way of looking at a possible future is of shifting the financial resources of a public education system from people-rich services like teaching to the tech industry where the services may be worse not better, and the people whose employment has shifted from the public to the private sector are poorly paid and constrained from doing what they can do better than ‘Teaching Machines’.  The history of Atos Healthcare’s contract with the Department for Work and Pensions makes for chilling reading from another sector.

It may be that fiasco stemmed mainly from political ideology but the separation of context from technology innovation is also important. Hippel and Katz (2002) identified the role of language in joint user/development innovation and that has come up at Fedwiki.

So I am proposing that building technology is more than the heroic story of invention that it is sometimes made out to be,. There can be a joint enterprise of getting technology that improves education through the experiences of learners, teachers and others who support them.

Dialogue about building and innovation in educational technology is already happening – I am curious to know how we can extend and enrich is – and (this is the really challenging part) enable practitioners of learning to shape the technology that can improve education and learning.

Please point me to rich dialogue spaces, share your ideas, and generally engage with these ideas and others.



Hippel, E. Von, & Katz, R. (2002). Shifting innovation to users via toolkits. Management Science, 48(7), 821–833

Stewart, J., & Williams, R. (2005). The Wrong Trousers ? Beyond the Design Fallacy: Social Learning and the User. In H. Rohracher (Ed.), User involvement in innovation processes. Strategies and limitations from a socio-technical perspective (pp. 39–71). Munich: Profil-Verlag.

Wiegel, V. (2011). Tracing innovation: an activity theoretical approach. In European Conference of Information Systems. AIS.

Williams, R., & Edge, D. (1996). The social shaping of technology. In Research Policy (pp. 856–899). Institute of Physics Publishing.

#fedwikidisruptiveeducational technologyinnofusioninnovationSTSuser

francesbell • January 18, 2015

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  1. dkernohan January 19, 2015 - 2:14 pm Reply

    Thanks so much Frances for writing this – a perfectly realised response to the “genius” myth in technology and learning.

    I’ve long been a fan of Von Hippell’s “lead user” ideas and I must confess a similar (though less expertly grounded in the literature) response was building in my mind, not so much to Stephen’s response to Audrey but to the way it situated “making” as a more important activity than writing or making sense.

    My (very limited) experience of working with people that build things suggests that the “lone genius bending users to their insight and will” myth is something that only a very few subscribe to. Hack days barely work without a sprinkling of articulate and experienced users who can critique and improve. Any functioning development team needs both.

    And – as a policy maker, not a technology maker, I think this distinction equally needs to be made in that space.

  2. Possible futures for innovation and technology in Higher Education – Frances Bell

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