Power laws of innovation in education

John Thackara presents the power laws of innovation. I will hang out the “Thackara’s laws” to the wall of my research group’s working space.

I am sure the world would be much better place if the people working with “educational systems”, “learning/teaching/educational technologies”, “computer supported collaborative learning” and “knowledge management” – for an example – would remember these laws:


Power Law 1: Don’t think “new product” – think social value.

Power Law 2: Think social value before “tech”.

Power Law 3: Enable human agency. Design people into situations, not out of them.

Power Law 4: Use, not own. Possession is old paradigm.

Power Law 5: Think P2P, not point-to-mass.

Power Law 6: Don’t think faster, think closer.

Power Law 7: Don’t start from zero. Re-mix what’s already out there.

Power Law 8: Connect the big and the small.

Power Law 9: Think whole systems (and new business models, too).

Power Law 10: Think open systems, not closed ones.

(Source: Power Laws Of Innovation by John Thackara at the Doors of Perception)

This makes me think are we following these in our projects? Often we do, though it is sometimes very hard.

Law 1: Even in the field of learning and education “selling” the social value is often more difficult than selling a new product. I must admit that sometimes we have sold a new product for the financers. However, in the sale pitch we always emphasise the “social value” of the product. 🙂 So, I guess we anyway always at first think the “social value” and only then “the product” – I hope.

Law 2: Even if you are able to think the social value before “tech” many people, of whom some can be close stakeholders in your project, are not. So, again sometimes you must think also the “tech”, as that is what number of people wants you to talk about. Anyway, again I would claim that we always think the social value before “tech”. Huh!

Law 3: Presence of human agency in the field of learning and education should be pretty obvious. I think we are following this law relatively well. It is hard to imaging us designing something – a product, service or process – without the people (in our case often teachers and students). However, I know that there are many learning technology projects that are almost by purpose designing people out of the situation, because it makes it easier for them.

Law 4: We use all possible free/libre/open source development tools and existing platform to design our own products, services and processes. Our outputs are difficult to own exclusively by anyone. The GPL used in our projects takes care of this matter.

Law 5: I would claim that peer-to-peer (P2P) thinking has been in our group’s way of thinking since the beginning in 1997. Since then we have been using the famous quotation from Lev Vygotsky: “All higher [mental] functions originate as actual relations between human individuals”. Vygotsky’s idea of zone of proximal development is an early conceptualization of seeing the value of P2P in learning. However, when we think about P2P in learning we should remember that to learn we need more advanced peers to work with, and respectively we also need less advanced peers to work with.

Law 6: I probably would need a bit more explanation to fully understand this. But I know that we definitely are not “fast thinkers”. We started to develop the Fle3 learning environment in 1997, and I think in a couple of years it will be usable – at least the way we think it should be used. To be honest it is usable, but it could be better, and there are many things we would like to develop. Not to change but develop. Maybe this represents “thinking close”. At least it is not “thinking fast”.

Law 7: Remixing is what we do all the time. We have never started any project from zero. On the other hand I am afraid that sometimes we have not choose the right “samples” for remixing and have failed. Remixing is art – you can’t just do it and be a master. We are still learning.

Law 8: I think we do this, too. In the LeMill – Learning Mill we are trying to connect number of big media (e.g. BBC, Yahoo) companies’ open content with locally hosted material repositories. The local repository can be in the schools’ server room (or in my bed room) with content made by teachers and pupils of the school. When someone at the school is in a need of some open content (that is not already in the school’s server) she may consult for instance Flickr image database or some other source of open content to get some pieces. I could give a similar kind of example from our MobilED project or from the UNESCO projects.

Law 9: We do our best to think the whole system. The business model issue is more difficult when you anyway work primary for academia. We of course think sustainability issues. We would love to see that our products, services and processes would have a life of their own also outside the lab. Sometimes they do.

Law 10: Open systems good. Closed systems bad: Whatever the system is a society, educational system, innovation system or operating system. No doubt about this. 🙂

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