Bold But Humble Innovation: A Philosophical Primer for #SXSWedu

london-600921_640As I prepare to head out for what I hope to be an amazing conference at SXSWedu, I decided to take the time to remind myself about a few of my core values when it comes to educational innovation and entrepreneurship. Without question, I am a champion of educational innovation, but one of my core values in this arena relates to innovation with humility and any eye toward genuine social good. As such, I write the following as a reminder to myself and and invitation for others to join me in bold innovation that is seasoned with humility and transparency.

If you are a champion of educational innovation, an educational entrepreneur, or an educational technology evangelist; I contend that it is a moral responsibility to investigate the affordances and limitations of one’s work. There are wonderful benefits to educational entrepreneurship. There are also side-effects, even negative consequences. The same is true to pretty much anything that we do in life. Maybe it is easier to go about one’s work without knowing the downside, but I believe that all work in education is a form of social entrepreneurship. It exists to do more than generate revenue (which is a perfectly good and admirable outcome in many contexts). It is about seeking and pursuing some form of social good. As such, this calls for us to devote just as much scrutiny to our social impact as we do to the financial reports. It calls us to be interested in digging down through perception to what is really happening.

In 2001, Larry Cuban published, Oversold and Underused, a critique of the growing investment in computers and technology in schools. The book garnered cheers from some and sneers from others who thought it was little more than the complaints of a University Luddite who masterfully cloaked his fears in academic language. It was so much more than that. In the text, Cuban shared rich cases about mass purchases of technology in schools with not only limited positive impact, but even some significant negative consequences.

A couple of years later Todd Oppenheimer wrote The Flickering Mind, a less academic but equally strong critique, pointing to what we he saw as, “the false promise of technology in the classroom.” Oppenheimer made his case by describing multiple instances of technology adoption in schools and how they failed to deliver on the stated promises.

The more we embrace life and learning in the digital world, the more important and valuable it becomes for us to engage in ongoing, healthy, scrutiny of where we are going, what we are doing, what is being done to us, and what we are becoming. As Marshall McLuhan explained, “”We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.”

I’m not arguing that we necessarily need to slow down, just that we leave room for questions, reflection, the relentless pursuit of data about the impact of what we are doing, and an ability to look at multiple sides and perspectives. I often find myself in meetings where I am advocating for an idea, and some might not agree with it. It is interesting how they sometimes seem confused or surprised when I agree with some of their critiques and add a few of my own. Why would someone join in critiquing their own idea or proposal? In my case, I do it because I believe that ideas have consequences, and that we are accountable for what we do. Even when we do it with the best of intentions, there can be unexpected negative results. As Neil Postman wisely pointed out, there are always winners and losers with a new technology, and that applies to new methods, strategies, philosophies, programs, ventures, products and services. It may make us feel better to ignore the negative impact of our work, but it does nothing to help us try to muffle or minimize those negative implications with the goal of maximum social impact.

Consider the nature of much political debate. How often do we hear politicians openly acknowledging or even personally pointing out the potential negative implications of one of their proposals? Some in media do not help the cause by polarizing people in their reports.

The same thing happens in education, even when it comes to publications and reports. When research comes out showing the low performance of some high school students in virtual schools compared to brick and mortar schools, how do we make use of that as advocates of online learning? Some might respond by ignoring it, minimizing it, or even trying to explain why it was not valid. It is certainly appropriate to assess the validity and reliability of any study, but taking the time to read and understand such research gives us wonderfully valuable information for online learning advocates. Why not learn from it and use it to create better online learning experiences with improved results? This example can apply to everything from micro-credentials to competency-based education, adaptive learning software to project-based learning, self-directed learning programs to blended learning initiatives and the maker movement in education.

My challenge is not that we hold up every new idea or ensure its demise by tearing it apart. We tear it apart to know what we are doing, to more fully understand the potential harm and help that comes from it. We critique to make it better, to genuinely and more fully understand the impact on real people with real needs. It would be malpractice for medical practitioners to ignore the most current research because it challenges their preferred methods. The same is true when it comes to educational innovation and entrepreneurship.

We can find some help from a less known area of study called media ecology. The Media Ecology Association consists of a wonderfully diverse and insightful collection of scholars who are, “dedicated to promoting the study, research, criticism, and application of media ecology in educational, industry, political, civic, social, cultural, and artistic contexts, and the open exchange of ideas, information, and research among the Association’s members and the larger community.” They represent a form of much-needed scholarship as we find ourselves in contexts that inch closer to propaganda and further away from a candid search for the truth and understanding.

Where do we go with these ideas? One step is to start or recommit ourselves to asking the tough questions, seeking answers to them, and creating time and space to talk through the implications. That also leads us to an obligation to act on what we discover. Another great starting point is to get informed about some of the thoughtful critics of our technological age. While there are new books coming out each year, I still find value in starting with some of the classics. Check out Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization, Neil Postman’s End of Education and Amusing Ourselves to Death, Marshall McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy, Water Ong’s Orality and Literacy, and Jacques Ellu’s The Technological Society. Many of these do not explicitly deal with education, but they are almost certain to help any thoughtful reader with developing a sensitivity to the types of questions that can help us as we explore the affordances and limitations of educational innovation and entrepreneurship.

With all this stated, I’m off to one of the most exciting education innovation events of the year!

One Reply to “Bold But Humble Innovation: A Philosophical Primer for #SXSWedu”

  1. Carla Casilli

    Hey Bernard,

    As usual insightful and though-provoking post. One additional area that I would suggest investigating—in addition to Media Ecology—would be Media Psychology. This is a growing field of investigation and research that examines the use and role of mediated experiences in our society. Not limited to any specific media domain but instead expansive enough to accommodate the new forms of media that have arisen and will continue to arise, Media Psychology provides informative and illuminating interpretations of the mediated world. And, not so coincidentally, it’s the area in which my Master’s degree is situated. It’s part of the APA and you can find info about it here: Many thanks for this great thought piece and happy SXSW Edu. I know you’ll run across lots of ideas, including badges, there.


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