I should be writing other things, but there’s a wave amongst some of the “innovation bloggers” at the moment that I wanted to ride for the purposes of – once again – trying to get those driving university e-learning (and learning and teaching more generally) to realise they have something fundamentally wrong. They are using the wrong type of process.
I level this criticism at most of management, most of the support staff (information technology, instructional designers, staff developers etc) and especially at most of the researchers around e-learning etc.
For those of you at CQU who still don’t get what Webfuse was about. It wasn’t primarily about the technology, it was about this type of process. The technology was only important in so far as it enabled the process to be more responsive.
Empathy-driven innovation and a pull strategy
What is empathy-driven innovation, well Tim provides the following bullet points about empathy-driven innovation:
- It requires a deep understanding of what the people that will use your innovation need and want.
Most organisational e-learning assumes that steering committees and reference groups are sufficient and appropriate for understanding what is needed. This is just plain silly. The people who reside on such things are generally very different in terms of experience and outlook than the majority of academics involved with learning and teaching. If they aren’t different at the start, the very act of being a member of such groups will, over time, make them very different. These groups are not representative.
What’s worse, is the support structures, processes, and roles that are created to sit under these committees and implement e-learning are more likely to prevent “deep understanding”, than help it. For example, different aspects of e-learning are divided along the lines of institutional structures. Anything technology related is the responsibility of the information technology folk, anything pedagogical is the responsibility of the instructional design folk and never shall the twain meet. As these folk generally report to different managers within different organisational units, the rarely talk and share insights.
E-learning is more than the sum of its parts. Currently, there is generally a large gulf between the academics and students “experiencing” e-learning, the technology people keeping the systems going, the instructional design folk helping academics design courses, and the management staff trying to keep the whole thing going. This gulf actively works against developing deep understanding and limits the quality of e-learning within universities.
- Using empathy for the users of our innovations is the best way to create thick value.
A deep contextualised understanding and appreciation for the context of the academic staff and students helps develop truly unique and high quality e-learning applications and environment. Without it you are left with copying what every one else does, which is typically pretty limited.
- We are creating ideas that entice people.
Almost all of university-based e-learning is based on push strategies. i.e. someone or group who is/are “smart” identify the right solution and then push it out onto the academics and students. They have to do this because their understanding of the context and need of the academics and students is small to non-existent. They decisions are based more on their own personal observations and preferences, or even worse, on the latest fad (e.g. e-portfolios, open source LMS etc.).
They aren’t creating ideas that entice people, they are creating ideas that people have to use.
Researchers are particular bad at this.
- Innovations that pull are inherently network-based.
The idea is that to engage in empathy-driven innovation, you have to have connections to the people using the innovations.
As argued above, it’s my suggestion that the structures and processes around e-learning within universities are such that they actively work against the formation of these connections. To have empathy-driven innovation you have to connect the folk involved in teaching, learning, technology and instructional design in ways that are meaningful and that actively strengthen the connections.
At the moment, at least in my institution, there is no easy way for an academic to talk to a technical person that actually knows anything about the system, i.e. someone who can actively modify the system. The technology person can’t easily talk with someone with educational knowledge to better inform technological change. Instead each group retreats to talking amongst themselves. The necessary connections are generally only there in spite of the system, not because of it.
The Webfuse Thesis
I’m somewhat engaged in this discussion because I have seen, for a small period of time, this type of empathy-driven innovation work in the context of e-learning within a University. This is the topic of my PhD Thesis, an attempt to describe an information systems design theory for e-learning that encapsulates this.
At it’s simplest, the Webfuse thesis embodies two aspects:
There are two broad types of process: teleological and ateleological. I describe the two types here. Empathy-driven innovation is an example of an ateleological process. The table in the blog post describing teleological and ateleological mentions Seely Brown’s and Hagels push and pull distinction.
University e-learning is always too teleological, it needs to be more ateleological.
Everyone focuses too much on the actual product or system when we talk about e-learning. With Webfuse the product was only important in terms of how flexible it could be. How much diversity could it support and how easy was it to support that diversity. Because the one thing I know about learning and teaching within universities, is that it is diverse. In addition, if you are to engage in ateleological (empathy-driven) design, you need to be able to respond to local needs.
Most importantly, the question of how flexible the product is, is not limited to just the characteristics of the product. Yes, Moodle as an open source LMS implemented with technology (PHP and MySQL) that has low entry barriers, can be very flexible. However, if the organisation implements with technology with high entry barriers and inflexibility (e.g. Oracle) or if it adopts a process that is more teleological than ateleological, it robs Moodle of its flexibility.