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The Importance of Getting it Wrong
August 27, 2009 - 9:27pm

We learning technologists love innovation. I'm convinced that the reason many of us gravitated to this field is that our brains seek change, and there is no better place to implement and witness change then at the intersection of education and technology.

But we need to keep in mind Christensen's observation in The Innovator's Dilemma that the initial disruptive innovation is usually of lower quality then the existing product or service.

One example that Christensen gives of a disruptive innovation is the shrinking of drive size in the hard disk industry. The initial smaller drive fell well short of the standard larger disk drives along the dimensions that minicomputer customers cared about - namely capacity, cost-per-megabyte, and access time. This smaller disk, however, was appealing to the emerging market (in the early 1980s) of desktop personal computers. As desktop computers replaced minicomputers the manufacturers of smaller disk drives were better positioned to replace the established disk drive makers who had been focused on improving the existing technology.

As a learning technologist I spend most of my time working with faculty on aspects of sustaining innovation in teaching and learning. We work together to improve course design and utilize technologies to improve the course experience within a well established course framework. We strive for continuous improvement and sustainable innovation. We are not trying to re-invent the classroom or the student learning experience.

In my own teaching this summer I was more interested in experimenting with disruptive innovations. I saw (and see) my teaching as a laboratory to experiment with methods and tools that are not yet demanded by the students (or my faculty colleagues), but that I believe will become essential as colleges work to re-invent themselves in a digital age of information abundance. The primary disruptive innovation that we experimented with in the class (and introductory to sociology class) was having the students produce voice-over lectures and video mashups rather than papers, and then post this work to a public YouTube channel.

Please check out the student work at:

The idea was that students would teach the concepts to learn the concepts. We used some of our precious classroom time to work together in groups on the media projects, with time reserved for walking around and discussing in-depth with each student group their understanding of the sociological concepts that they were working with.

In many ways the class ran very well. We created a warm and supportive learning environment. The students did great work. I think we covered the foundations of the sociology, and maybe got some people excited (and prepared) to take more courses.

But where we went wrong in the course was where the time and energy spent producing the media projects crowded out time and energy to work with the curriculum. The students excitement about using the tools (iMovie and YouTube) began to overshadow their excitement about the curriculum. The first thing learned from this experience was that when having classes create media projects (as opposed to traditional papers) it is necessary to set very hard limits on the numbers of these projects.

The students did 4 projects where they used media and visual tools to teach the core concepts of sociology. The course was designed for only one iMovie project, with the first 3 voice-over teaching presentations introduced as simple presentations using PowerPoint and a voice-over with the Techsmith's Jing product. However, the students quickly abandoned the simple abilities of voice-over PowerPoint with Jing for the more complex and creative features of iMovie.

The second lesson I learned was that in introducing new teaching methods it is necessary to enforce limits on students technological use, as they will gravitate to the more robust and time intensive tools if you let them. These tools are great for the product that students will produce, but the reality is that students only have so much time and attention and if they dive too deeply into the technology they will have less energy for other curricular aspects.

Would I have known all these things if I didn't teach the course? No way. We are constantly working with faculty to recommend media projects for their courses. We believe that media projects tap into multiple methods of learning. We argue that having students publish their work on a public platform like YouTube encourages greater student commitment and quality, as they are working for their peers as well as a professor. We believe that media projects incorporate lots of skills, such as writing and storytelling, skills that will be necessary in the job market. But unless we actually try to put these ideas into practice for ourselves it is doubtful that we will fully understand the pitfalls.

I strongly believe that turning students into creators and sharers with authoring tools such as Jing and IMovie and publishing platforms such as YouTube and iTunes will prove to be a disruptive innovation in higher education. I believe that assessment of student work will move from the traditional end-of-term paper to student work that is publicly available and often will have a media component. For this disruptive innovation to occur, however, we need to go through the initial growing pains and be okay with trying methods out that do not work optimally on their initial introduction. Institutions should carve out a space for learning technologists to teach, or partner with faculty interested in disruptive innovations, so we can insure that our colleges and universities remain relevant and vibrant in a digital world of abundant information.



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