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Today, innovation is increasingly conflated with hype, disruption for disruption's sake, and outsourcing laced with a dose of austerity-driven downsizing. If any concept should be seen as an uncomplicated good thing in higher education, it's innovation. Defined by a common-sense notion of "doing things better" and burnished by the sheen of dazzling technological advances, what's not to like about innovation?

Yet as 2014 churns on, the glow is wearing off. Today, innovation is increasingly conflated with hype, disruption for disruption's sake, and outsourcing laced with a dose of austerity-driven downsizing. Call it innovation fatigue.

How did we get here? And if innovation is still something we are interested in fostering, what are the values that should animate it? What goals and strategies should we be pursuing if we want to reclaim innovation as a positive force as higher education continues to engage with digital and networked technologies?

Enter Disruption

To understand much of the disconnect between higher education and innovation, we should take a look at innovation's unruly cousin: disruption. Certainly, when surveying the rapid pace of change in digital and networked technologies and assessing the wreckage of organizations and industries that have, in one way or another, been swept aside, disruption as a descriptive term is not without merit. But unless we are prepared to rebuild from the wreckage and create something that represents a meaningful advance, it's difficult to see the value in disruption for its own sake.

Audrey Watters has noted the essentially apocalyptic flavor of what she describes as "the myth and the millennialism of disruptive innovation" - mythic in the sense that it prophesies "the destruction of the old and the ascension of the new" and constitutes a narrative that "has been widely accepted as unassailably true." When applied to education, disruptive innovation promises nothing less than "the end of school as we know it."1 In "A Future with Only Ten Universities" (referring to the Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun's vision of fifty years from now, as expressed in a Wired magazine profile), Watters laid out what might lie beyond "the end":

To get to 10 universities, higher education as we know it today will have to be "unbundled." Someone other than universities will have to provide the services that extend beyond "content delivery." Private companies will run football. Private companies will run tutoring. Private companies will run research. Private companies will run assessment. Private companies will run student housing, student daycare, student mental health services. Private companies will help guide students through their career paths. Thanks to big data, the University of Walmart and the University of Google will be particularly adept at this.2

The backlash to such a vision of disruptive innovation is driven not merely by self-interest but also by a sense that whereas the disruptions of the past decade or so have delivered faster and sexier communication devices, their effects on economic, societal, or environmental challenges have been superficial. Interestingly, the backlash against innovation is frequently expressed against the values represented by TED Talks. For instance, Benjamin Bratton has argued: "'Innovation' defined as moving the pieces around and adding more processing power is not some Big Idea that will disrupt a broken status quo: that precisely is the broken status quo."3

Will a countervailing vision of grassroots, generative innovation dedicated to strengthening higher education do better?4 If we think the open web and public education are ideas worth preserving, we have no option but to try to find out.

Innovations Lost

The early demographics of the web demonstrate the leading role that colleges and universities played in shaping not only the technology and protocols that defined the Internet but also the early culture of the world-wide web (as it was hyphenatedly referred to in the early 1990s).5 The 1993 publication by Kevin Hughes, "Entering the World-Wide Web: A Guide to Cyberspace,"6 offers a compelling, on-the-ground perspective of web culture at the moment of its inception. While at Honolulu Community College, Hughes created one of the first campus websites, including novel (at the time) ideas such as a virtual tour of a campus museum. In his guide, Hughes cited the first web-user survey, conducted by Georgia Tech Professors James Pitkow and Mimi Recker. Of the 1,300 web users surveyed:

  • 56% were between the ages of 21 and 30,
  • 94% were male,
  • 69% were located in North America, and
  • 45% described themselves as professionals and 22% as graduate students.7

Based on this survey, the early web was a phenomenon among a relatively young, male, educated, and North American-centric demographic. Additionally, according to Hughes, the survey suggested that the "largest segment roaming the World-Wide Web consists of four-year campus populations within the United States." Hughes also provided a breakdown of who surfed the web, based on "an informal comparison of host statistics from 15 government, educational, and corporate Websites in March 1994." According to his data, the vast majority of web traffic and the largest percentage of "Internet hosts" (computers connected to the network) were located at educational institutions.

Clearly, in the mid-1990s, college and university campuses were the epicenter of web culture, having designed and built out the entire Internet infrastructure from which the web emerged, as well as fostering the emergence of hacker culture.8 This is a powerful and compelling narrative of higher education as a laboratory for the future (even if its humble beginnings were demographically skewed toward the educated, male elite).

Where are we today, two decades later? Increasingly, the exploration of the digital communication revolution has been pushed out to the fringes of higher education, while campus technologists are expected to focus on providing tools as services to the entire campus. As institutional demands for enterprise services such as e-mail, student information systems, and the branded website become mission-critical, the notion of building and re-imagining the open web gets lost within a process-oriented attention to maintaining servers, intranets, and learning management systems as enterprise applications. The demands of sustaining infrastructure have continued to dominate institutional priorities, and the recent promise of Web 2.0 has been unevenly integrated into campus strategies: instances of broad, culture-shifting experimentation along these lines in higher education can be counted on one hand. IT organizations have started outsourcing enterprise systems in the hope of leveraging hosted solutions and the cloud more broadly to free up time, energy, and resources. The practice of outsourcing itself seems to have become the pinnacle of innovation for information technology in higher education. Meanwhile, IT organizations are often defined by what's necessary rather than what's possible, and the cumulative weight of an increasingly complex communications infrastructure weighs ever heavier.

Five Arguments against the Learning Management System

We've outlined how the energy and promise emanating from higher education animated the development of the early web and how it went sideways. The effects have been immense and perhaps irreversibly damaging. Just two decades later, the learning management system (LMS) — not the web — has become the default space where colleges and universities do most of their teaching and learning online. Higher education overall, perhaps concerned about the untamed territories of the open web and facing unquestionably profound challenges in extending its promise beyond the early adopters, cast its lot with a "system" that promised to "manage" this wild potential and peril.

Before stating our specific arguments, we want to dispense with the canard, too often put forward by educators, that "it's not about the technology" because "the technology is neutral." Of course the choice of technology does not itself make teaching good or bad. Good teaching can happen in spite of bad tools, and good tools do not guarantee a good outcome. But it is facile to think that the technology makes no difference.

Argument #2list icon Systems.

An essential problem is revealed in how we refer to this class of technology. Instead of supporting "learning enhancement environments" on an enterprise level, colleges and universities implement and mandate the use of "learning management systems." Thus, before we even begin to encounter the software itself, we privilege a mindset that views learning not as a life-affirming adventure but instead as a technological problem, one that requires a "system" to "manage" it. This mindset and its resulting values result in online architectures that prioritize user management, rigidly defined and restricted user roles, automated assessments, and hierarchical, top-down administration. Yes, creative and engaging learning can happen almost anywhere. But environments matter, and disturbingly often these systems promote formulaic and rigid instruction.

Argument #2list icon Silos.

Even after years of hype and widespread posturing about "openness" and "21st-century skills" as key values of contemporary higher education, most LMS implementations still lack elementary capacities to publish to and interact with the wider web and the public. By restricting online teaching and learning activity to these closed systems, colleges and universities make a mockery of oft-stated values such as social engagement, public knowledge, and the mission of promoting enlightenment and critical inquiry in society. There is a discussion to be had about where/when student interactions might merit or benefit from some degree of privacy and where/when we need to consider protections of identity and personal privacy. But that discussion happens too rarely; it is easier to default to locking everything behind digital slabs of access controls and inaccessible online spaces. Worse yet, this enclosure not only cuts the academy off from the wider world but also cuts students off from each other and the institution. Courses are severely limited in the ability to access other courses even within the institution (so much for "connecting silos"), and when courses end, students are typically cast out, unable to refer to past activity in their ongoing studies or in their lives (so much for "promoting lifelong learning").

Argument #3list icon Missed Opportunities.

Perhaps the greatest pedagogic shortcoming of the LMS is that even in an era when it is widely understood that we need to guide our students into an information age of immense complexity, promise, and uncertainty, we force them to spend countless hours on computers in a virtual environment that does nothing to equip them with practical web skills. All they learn is non-transferable dexterity navigating an environment unlike anything they will encounter outside of school. Every hour spent online inside an LMS is one in which students are not engaging the wider web in a spirit of critical inquiry. They are in a system; they are being managed.

Argument #4list icon Costs.

The expense of enterprise LMSs is an inexhaustible drain on institutional resources. Even when they are operating at optimal efficiency, the commitment required to maintain them represents an immense set of challenges. And any technologists who have been involved in a migration from one system to another, or in significant upgrades of the same system, can testify to how time-consuming and troublesome these processes will be. As Martin Weller argues: "This is serious business and I have a lot of respect for people who do it. The level of support, planning and maintenance required for such systems is considerable. So we developed a whole host of processes to make sure it worked well. But along the way we lost the ability to support small scale IT requests that don't require an enterprise level solution. In short, we know how to spend £500,000 but not how to spend £500."9 The myriad costs associated with supporting LMSs crowd out budget and staff time that might be directed toward homegrown, open-source, and user-driven innovation. Indeed, institutional leaders may refuse to support alternative systems, such as blogs and wikis, lest they draw attention and users away from the "serious" enterprise learning tool, diverting resources and endangering investments. If a technology is sufficiently large and complex, it can dictate policy, resource allocation, and organizational behavior far beyond its immediate application.

Argument #5list icon Confidence.

On most campuses, there is little genuine enthusiasm for LMSs. They are invariably described as "clunky" and "inflexible" when compared with the environments experienced elsewhere on the web. Gifted educational technologists are too often forced to maintain and support these unwieldy environments, only to find themselves blamed by instructors and students for the poor online experience. In a cruel irony, these beleaguered technologists may then lose the confidence of their communities and institutional decision-makers, who look to outsourcing and Silicon Valley for more desirable alternatives.

LMSs are seen as, at best, a "necessary evil." But perhaps they're not so necessary. Here we finally arrive at a concrete set of recommendations for first steps to reclaim innovation:

  • Do everything possible to minimize reliance on an enterprise LMS.
  • Explore ways to support activity and content development in environments that foster collaboration and also interoperability with a wide range of tools.
  • Before directing activity to a complex, locked-down system, ask: "Do we really need to do it this way? Is there a simpler, cheaper, open alternative that will do the job?"

These suggestions admittedly reflect a modest, pragmatic form of innovation. But as David Kernohan remarks, sometimes innovation can be "the art of circumventing large monolithic systems to actually get some stuff done."10

Can We Reclaim Innovation?

Twenty-five years after the birth of the web, innovation in higher education is still happening, in pockets. Take, for example, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which have become the poster child of innovation in higher education over the last two to three years. This approach was started by two Canadians — George Siemens and Stephen Downes — at the University of Manitoba in the fall of 2008. The professor (Siemens) and the government researcher (Downes) decided to put into practice the connectivism and connected learning theories that they had been writing about and experimenting with for years. Their 2008 course, Connectivism and Connected Knowledge (CCK08), christened the idea of the MOOC and provided a brilliant example of educational technology praxis using the open web. Significantly, these origins of the MOOC arguably mark it as the first web-native learning environment, as opposed to e-learning that grafts old-style distance learning onto online platforms. It's quite telling that a collaborative effort between a university professor and a government researcher (much like the collaborations at the beginnings of the Internet) would demonstrate the deep and powerful implications of the web for colleges and universities more generally.

Yet within a couple of years, the experimentation and possibility of the MOOC movement had become co-opted and rebranded by venture capitalists as a fully formed, disruptive solution to the broken model of higher education.11 The most distressing part of the story is that many higher education administrators and even IT professionals seem to have little or no idea where the innovation started. Colleges and universities all over the world are buying back the innovation that their ideals, missions, and people made possible.12

mooc mania

One encouraging result of the MOOC mania is the rising interest in open online learning, even if in this case innovation has become synonymous with how to scale a single course for many users. The more interesting challenge for an open learning architecture is how to scale agile and distinct environments across and among many courses — or even better, across several institutions and across the web itself. This moves us back toward a network of networks, a foundational principle of the Internet. MOOCs, currently being reimagined (and resold) by proprietary environments designed for scale and simplicity, lack the basic Web 2.0 premises of aggregation, openness, tagging, portability, reuse, multichannel distribution, syndication, and user-as-contributor. In most of the available MOOCs (and LMSs), students and faculty have no real control over their work, no sense of creating a distributed network in which they can utilize their own, existing online identities as part of any one course or even a campus community. These courses and systems are also distracting colleges and universities from the conversation that we should have been having since the late 1990s: how can we leverage open platforms and open access to augment our teaching and learning mission?13 Open-source, searchable, syndicated, and collaborative authoring systems can provide numerous efficiencies, such as publishing to multiple environments and ensuring interoperability and long-term digital preservation.

The idea that we can collaboratively build a platform that will frame the discourse and promote sharing is a promising aftereffect of the current MOOC backlash. Imagine what higher education institutions could do if they started approaching academic publishing platforms as collaborative, open spaces for community-authored materials. What if educational institutions start reclaiming innovative learning on the web?14

In the accompanying article "Innovation Reclaimed," we share some projects that are working toward the vision of educational institutions reclaiming innovative learning on the web.

Coherence and User-Driven Innovation

Rather than continuing to yell about the state of MOOCs and LMSs, perhaps it's more useful to turn to Jon Udell's ideas first expressed seven years ago. In his talk "The Disruptive Nature of Technology,"15 Udell laid out a vision in which K-12, colleges/universities, and open-source programmers are encouraged to help learners create "coherent personal digital archives" that seamlessly integrate with a wide range of institutional systems. Udell argued that these archives should encompass more than just a student's schoolwork; they should also include personal photos, videos, transcripts, X-rays, dental records, police records, and a million other digital life-bits.16 The archives should then grow into much larger, abstracted digital spaces in which people manage and maintain all their records and also decide how to push out their records appropriately to various destinations.

Although we're currently nowhere near this idea, how can businesses, educational institutions, and governments alike not consider the importance of giving individuals control over their digital archives? Or their learning analytics data?17 Open formats such as XML and RSS have opened the door, but they're just a first step to a solution that will require our insistence on and commitment to imagining coherent, aggregated hubs of content and functionality that we each can own and manage.18

The point is not that everything must be open source; rather, it's that we need coherence, and right now, coherence is too often offered at the price of ownership and control, of working within someone else's application. Education needs a movement that will provide the beginning steps to building and imagining an architecture for personal online archives that can be seamlessly syndicated and individually owned and controlled, all while providing the greatest amount of privacy we can imagine in a networked world.19 Tony Hirst, in a piece that looks back "five, six, seven years ago" when "the web used to be such fun," reminds us: "Open technologies allow users to innovate without permission. Open licensing is just part of that open technology jigsaw; open standards another; open access and accessibility a third. Open interfaces accessed sideways. And so on."20

How do we move forward? Again let's turn to Udell, who realizes how essential it is to understand technologies as "potentiality" (to graft a concept by Anton Chekov from a literary to a technical context). This is the idea that within the use of every technical tool there is more than just the consciousness of that tool, there is also the possibility to spark something beyond those predefined uses. The only real way to galvanize that potentiality is to provide the conditions of possibility — that is, a toolkit for user innovation. Udell notes: "There's a reason I keep finding novel uses for these trailing-edge technologies. I see them not as closed products and services, but rather as toolkits that invite their users to adapt and extend them." This vision of serendipity in imagining potentiality should be the very basis for experimentation when it comes to the web in higher education:

Thanks to the philosophical foundations of the Internet — open standards, collaborative design, layered architecture — its technologies typically qualify as user innovation toolkits. That wasn't true, though, for the Internet era's first wave of educational technologies. That's why my friends in that field led a rebellion against learning management systems and sought out their own innovation toolkits: BlueHost,, MediaWiki, WordPress.

My hunch is that those instincts will serve them well in the MOOC era. Educational technologists who thrive will do so by adroitly blending local culture with the global platforms. They'll package their own offerings for reuse, they'll find ways to compose hybrid services powered by a diverse mix of human and digital resources, and they'll route around damage that blocks these outcomes.21

Fortunately, Udell's description of a movement away from the predetermined learning spaces provided by the LMS inspires a third approach as an alternative to the all-or-nothing mentality that often frames this conversation. What's more, his vision of innovation won't necessarily be found in chasing the latest product or saleable idea but, rather, in revisiting "trailing-edge technologies," in finding novel uses for technologies that have been around for a while: wikis,22 blogs, syndication,23 animated GIFs, and Internet radio.24 This is what's so important about what Mike Caulfield refers to as a collection of "EDUPUNK technologies" evident in a variety of recent experimentations such as cMOOCs, ds106, FemTechNet, Open Course Frameworks, and P2PU. As Caulfield notes, the trailing-edge technologies deployed in such courses "engage their users, asking the users to experiment, remix, hack, and redistribute. They . . . encourage users to alter, and even subvert, given designs. Because they codify much practice in convention rather than code . . . they retain a fluidity that promotes experimentation."25

Rather than framing everything at the course level, we should be deploying these technologies for the individual.26 For far too long, institutions have been scaling academic technologies exactly the same way that they scale business processes. This approach ignores the user-driven revolution that the web makes possible for teaching, learning, and research by individual faculty, staff, and students.27

What's So Innovative about Open Publishing and Collaboration?

When one surveys the history of truly open education, bottom-up publishing, collaboration, and sharing in higher education, it can be puzzling to discover that higher education has been hesitant to embrace tools that offer immense upside with comparatively little risk or allocation of resources. In The Digital Scholar, Martin Weller outlines the immense opportunities presented by open publishing. Blogs, Weller argues, are "the epitome of the type of technology that can lead to rapid innovation. They can be free to set up, are easy to use and because they are at the user's control, they represent a liberated form for expression."28 Yet the number of institutions or organizations that offer significant support for grassroots scholarly open publishing has remained small, and recognition of such practices in academic culture continues to be sporadic at best, characterized by mistrust and ignorance and at times even by contempt.

In fairness, this sense of missed opportunity and misplaced priorities does not rest on higher education alone but also on recent developments across the wider web. Anil Dash addresses the perception of "the rise of billion-scale social networks and ubiquitous smartphone apps as an unadulterated win for regular people" and contrasts it with the significant "web we lost." It's easy to forget a time, less than a decade ago, when Web 2.0 services employed open APIs, when media and writing was posted in highly discoverable and eminently reusable formats, when "the expectation was that [users] could easily download a full-fidelity copy of their data." Dash concludes:

This isn't our web today. We've lost key features that we used to rely on, and worse, we've abandoned core values that used to be fundamental to the web world. To the credit of today's social networks, they've brought in hundreds of millions of new participants to these networks, and they've certainly made a small number of people rich.

But they haven't shown the web itself the respect and care it deserves, as a medium which has enabled them to succeed. And they've now narrowed the possibilities of the web for an entire generation of users who don't realize how much more innovative and meaningful their experience could be.29

Viewed as a whole, the web today bears little resemblance to the innately democratic and decentralized network that seduced and enticed us a decade ago. As the science fiction author Bruce Sterling has observed, it makes "less and less sense to talk about 'the Internet,' 'the PC business,' 'telephones,' 'Silicon Valley,' or 'the media,' and much more sense to just study Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft. These big five American vertically organized silos are re-making the world in their image."30 Alexis Madrigal responds that as a result of this realignment, the "technology will work perfectly within the silo and with an individual stacks's (temporary) allies. But it will be perfectly broken at the interfaces between itself and its competitors."31

Proponents and practitioners of the open web also bear responsibility for the missed opportunities in higher education. In retrospect, temperamental preferences for DIY culture, relentless tinkering and experimentation, and indulging the delightful paradoxes of ill-structured problems has not served to promote the adoption of open online tools in the wider culture. Whereas innovators and early adopters tend to have a relatively high tolerance for chaos, higher education as a whole does not (and arguably cannot). Railing against the academy's failure to embrace a perceived risk can be dismal fun for many of us, but an honest appraisal of our own missteps has to be in the mix.

It may well be that enthusiasm for DIY and "muddiest points" has prevented the development of approaches that offer what enterprise "solutions" promise (even if they fail to deliver). If we do not want to replicate the locked-down inflexibility of the LMS, that does not mean the only alternative is the boundlessness of a new and unmarked wiki page. There are times when "scale," "polish," and a commitment to actually making the tools as easy and intuitive as we like to claim can serve generative environments as well as tethered ones.32


On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man hailed as its creator, cited a series of threats to its ongoing survival: surveillance by security agencies; obsolete copyright laws and overreach by intellectual property owners; and balkanization of the web by corporations and by nations. He added: "Unless we have an open, neutral internet we can rely on without worrying about what's happening at the back door, we can't have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture."33

Bryan Alexander responded by asking: "Where is education? How are colleges, universities, K-12 schools, and cultural heritage institutions responding?" More specifically: "Will educational technologists and academic computing leaders help their communities participate in, and defend, the open Web?"34

Based on recent history, it may be difficult to answer Alexander's challenge with optimism. But as Berners-Lee affirmed during his reddit "Ask Me Anything" session: "It is up to us. It is an artificial creation, as are our laws, and our constitutions . . . we can choose how they work. We can make new ones. Our choice."35

Starting now. A technology that allows for limitless reproduction of knowledge resources, instantaneous global sharing and cooperation, and all the powerful benefits of digital manipulation, recombination, and computation must be a "bag of gold"36 for scholarship and for learning. It is well within the power of educators to play a decisive role in the battle for the future of the web. Doing so will require the courage to buck prevailing trends. It will require an at-times inconvenient commitment to the fundamental principles of openness, ownership, and participation. It will require hard work, creativity, and a spirit of fun.

It will require reclaiming innovation. Our choice.

What to Read Next

In the video above, the authors reflected on their experience collaborating on this article and their "Never Mind the Edupunks" piece from 2010. A companion article highlighting case studies of innnovation in progress is also available. Use the links below to read more!

Never Mind the Edupunks (2010) Innovation Reclaimed (Companion Piece)


  1. Audrey Watters, keynote at the 2013 Open Education Conference, "The Myth and the Millennialism of 'Disruptive Innovation,'" Hack Education, May 24, 2013.
  2. Audrey Watters, "Minding the Future" talk at OpenVA, "A Future with Only Ten Universities," Hack Education, October 15, 2013. See also Steven Leckart, "The Stanford Education Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever," Wired, March 20, 2012.
  3. Benjamin Bratton, "We Need to Talk about TED," The Guardian, December 30, 2013.
  4. Tannis Morgan points out that when it comes to disruption, "higher education" is too frequently described in universal terms, ignoring its diverse missions and communities: "When we say we are disrupting higher education, what exactly do [we] mean? What is the higher education that we are disrupting? What is the higher education that needs disrupting?" See "Disruption, Higher Education, and Other Vague Discussions," Homonym, April 18, 2013.
  5. Special thanks to Andy Rush for turning us on to a number of these early guides. Also be sure to check out Brendan P. Kehoe's "Zen and the Art of the Internet: A Beginner's Guide to the Internet," January 1992 (first edition).
  6. Kevin Hughes, "Entering the World-Wide Web: A Guide to Cyberspace," October 1993.
  7. Hughes's pioneering work resulted in his being one of only six inductees to the World-Wide Web Hall of Fame in 1994. In fact, Hughes might be considered one of the earliest innovative educational technologists to explore the implications of the web for teaching and learning in higher education.
  8. See Joss Winn, "Hacking in the University: Contesting the Valorisation of Academic Labour," tripleC, vol. 11, no. 2 (2013), for "an account of 'the university' as an institution that provided the material and subsequent intellectual conditions that early hackers were drawn to and in which they worked."
  9. Martin Weller, "Twitter Is Your IT Support," The Ed Techie, January 14, 2013.
  10. David Kernohan (@dkernohan) on Twitter, December 4, 2013.
  11. David Kernohan, presentation at ALT-C2013, "Education Is Broken, Somebody Should Do Something," Followers of the Apocalypse, September 10, 2013.
  12. In "Walking and Learning," Music for Deckchairs, March 5, 2014, Kate Bowles argues: "What MOOCs represent is a brand-driven effort to corral this massive, extraordinary, networked practice of wild, collaborative learning back from the open internet, and to return it to a stable, disciplined marketable state."
  13. See "Student as Producer" (website), University of Lincoln, United Kingdom.
  14. Our vision around the phrase reclaim is at least in part inspired by the documented work that Boone Gorges and D'Arcy Norman have been doing to take back their online presence from third-party services since 2011. While their approach is far more drastic than what we are advocating, Project Reclaim represents an ethos that is diametrically opposed to the innovation outsourcing that is prevalent in higher education IT shops at the moment.
  15. Jon Udell, "The Disruptive Nature of Technology," EDUCAUSE Seminars on Academic Computing, Snowmass, Colorado, August 7, 2007 (podcast).
  16. Udell expanded on this concept of "digital life-bits" five years later: "Picture This: Hosted Lifebits in the Personal Cloud," Wired, April 6, 2013.
  17. See danah boyd and Kate Crawford, "Six Provocations for Big Data," Social Science Research Network, September 21, 2011.
  18. The conceptual and practical work that Kin Lane (aka "the API Evangelist") is doing with using Application Programming Interfaces for more targeted, data-rich syndication would offer another powerful opportunity for the future of such aggregation.
  19. Martha Burtis and Tim Owens have developed the most sophisticated application of this vision to date with the UMW domain community's aggregation site. You can read more about the design of the community aggregation site here: Martha Burtis, "Visualizing & Exposing Domain of One's Own Activity," The Fish Wrapper, March 5, 2014.
  20. Tony Hirst, "Mixing Stuff Up," OUseful.Info,  the Blog…, April 3, 2014.
  21. Jon Udell, "MOOCs Need to Be User Innovation Toolkits," Strategies for Internet Citizens, October 11, 2013.
  22. Shout-out to the notion of "federated wikis" being developed by Ward Cunningham, who developed the first wiki, and Mike Caulfield and Tim Owens.
  23. Shout-out to the Candela syndication, transclusion, and OER work, built on WordPress, under way from David Wiley and Bill Fitzgerald.
  24. Shout-out to Grant Potter, Alan Levine, and others at ds106 radio.
  25. Mike Caulfield, "Educational Technology and the Sources of Innovation," e-Literate, October 23, 2013.
  26. Martha Burtis has spoken about repositioning the axis of instructional technologies from the course to the individual since at least 2007; see Burtis, "Q&A," The Fish Wrapper, January 5, 2007.
  27. See Leslie Madsen-Brooks, "True Innovation in Higher Ed Will Emerge from Faculty-Driven, Open-Source Projects, Not Start-Up Commercialisation," LSE Impact of Social Sciences, May 15, 2013. Scaling infrastructure at the level of the individual for teaching and learning on the web is the vision behind Gardner Campbell's article "A Personal Cyberinfrastructure," EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 44, no. 5 (September/October 2009).
  28. Martin Weller, The Digital Scholar: How Technology Is Transforming Scholarly Practice (2011).
  29. Anil Dash, "The Web We Lost,", December 13, 2012.
  30. Bruce Sterling, "State of the World 2013," The Well, December 26, 2012.
  31. Alexis C. Madrigal, "Bruce Sterling on Why It Stopped Making Sense to Talk about 'The Internet' in 2012," The Atlantic, December 27, 2012.
  32. We use "generative" and "tethered" in reference to Jonathan L. Zittrain in The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It (2008).
  33. Jemima Kiss, "An Online Magna Carta: Berners-Lee Calls for Bill of Rights for Web," The Guardian, March 11, 2014.
  34. Bryan Alexander, "The Web's Founder Calls for Action, So Where Is Education?,", March 17, 2014.
  35. Tim Berners-Lee, "I Am Tim Berners-Lee," Reddit AMA, March 12, 2014.
  36. Gardner Campbell used the "bags of gold" phrase in his OpenEd 2009 conference session: "No Digital Facelifts: Thinking the Unthinkable about Open Educational Experiences." As D'Arcy Norman observed, it "became the unofficial mantra for the rest of the conference" and beyond: Norman, "Bags of Gold,", January 18, 2011. It has also spawned remixes, poems, songs, and a video game, among other inspirations.

Innovation Reclaimed

Case Studies in Open Innovation

In our main article, we argue that those of us in higher education, rather than offloading our vision to venture capital-inspired "solutions" for education, should be using open architecture, through open-source applications, to reinvest in creative people, processes, and possibilities-that is, to reclaim innovation. This supplementary article is intended (1) to feature some of the work that the open educational community is doing to move that vision forward and (2) to let you see and hear, for yourself, some of the people who inspire us.

University of Mary Washington (UMW)

The University of Mary Washington (UMW) has adopted a broader vision for community publishing with the Domain of One's Own project, which in many ways embodies the vision of trailing-edge technologies.
This initiative offers students and faculty a domain and web hosting on a LAMP stack so that they can more deeply inhabit and interrogate the web. It is trailing-edge in that commodity hosting has been a reality for more than a decade, even though so few have built this into the services they provide their community. For some institutions, the idea of a domain and web hosting is most easily interpolated as an e-portfolio, but such an approximation is far too limiting. Domain of One's Own is a user innovation toolkit that empowers a community to embody trailing-edge, homegrown innovation that enables web fluency for an entire campus at the level of the individual-the only thing that truly scales! That is what's missing in these discussions: a technology strategy that actually empowers the individual. Higher education's ongoing overdependence on learning management systems (or siloed teaching and learning) for well over a decade has done little-to-nothing to move the needle on questions of computational thinking and some basic literacies for thinking like the web.

In contrast, Domain of One's Own provides a different approach. In October 2013, UMW President Richard V. Hurley noted: "We . . . appreciate that in this anxiety-ridden world, where many are concerned about jobs and careers, our students need to start earlier. This fall, we began urging all incoming freshmen to register personal domain names and get to work creating their own websites. Unlike Facebook, this will be a place to present one's professional image. Here they can collect their best papers, discuss what they are learning, archive their data, and exchange ideas with others who share their career interests. This project, which we call Domain of One's Own, is as far as I know unique to our university, but we would not mind if others joined us."

As of now the project is unique to UMW, but it did not spring from Zeus's head like Athena, fully formed, this past fall; it emerged out of almost a decade of open experimentation with web hosting, blogs, wikis, and other sundry social media. UMW invested in a well-staffed group of instructional technologists who were not tasked with minding the LMS store but, rather, were empowered to experiment and play with their own domain and web hosting, a success that begot UMW Blogs, the digital storytelling course ds106, and also Domain of One's Own.


For an overview of ds106, we can't do better than Alan Levine's EDUCAUSE Review article "ds106: Not a Course, Not Like Any MOOC."

The narrative at the heart of innovation at UMW cannot be objectified in a piece of software or a particular system; rather, in the words of Charlton Heston in Soylent Green: "It's people!" An investment in people in higher education might very well be the most innovative idea we've had in more than thirty years. And what's higher education if not a network of people with ideas? So why the hell would we use a closed, siloed tool to capture the essence of that network on the web?

With a thriving community-blogging platform powered by WordPress (UMW Blogs), some have asked: "Why do you need Domain of One's Own?" Unlike UMW Blogs, Domain of One's Own is not limited to WordPress. It is a platform for installing a wide range of open-source tools. Domain of One's Own is providing its community not only with a space to explore digital identity and reimagine digital curriculum but also with an open learning laboratory. It's not tool-specific. A reporter for UMW's student newspaper (The Bullet) recently asked: "Is UMW Blogs somehow threatened by the presence of Domain of One's Own?" Rather than being threatened, the latter is the apotheosis of the former. It represents the innovation and evolution that every college and university should be reclaiming and encouraging.

If you want to get a stronger sense of the work happening as part of Domain of One's Own, we strongly recommend you check out the community space that Martha Burtis and Tim Owens built to syndicate the content from more than 650 UMW faculty, students, and staff exploring this initiative. This aggregation hub features a variety of sites, as well as a customizable directory of sites, content from targeted categories, statistics, and a visual calendar that displays published posts by day. In other words, the UMW Domains community brings these various, disparate sites together into a cohesive and compelling online community that begins to capture the virtual life of the mind of UMW.

The Urgent Present and Future of Reclaim

As we wrote the article "Reclaiming Innovation," we drew heavily on the writings of Audrey Watters, in particular her critique and analysis of terms such as innovation and disruption. We have similarly been inspired by the work of the "API Evangelist" Kin Lane. As our piece went to press, it seemed like the perfect time to sit down with both Audrey and Kin to get a sense of how they are working to achieve the vision of "Reclaim," how it might develop, and why it is increasingly important.

  Audrey Watters & Kin Lane

City University of New York (CUNY)

Since 2008 Baruch College has been supporting Blogs@Baruch, a WordPress/Buddypress network managed by the Center for Teaching and Learning. Blogs@Baruch has been used by nearly 18,000 students, faculty, and staff to power more than 4,000 course sites, student journals and projects, publications such as the College's Alumni Magazine and the award-winning undergraduate news magazine Dollars & Sense, and active resource sites for the Writing Center and the Center for Teaching and Learning. The largest ongoing project on the platform brings together, every fall, over 1,000 incoming freshman who respond, on dozens of "Freshman Seminar" blogs, to three common writing prompts designed to encourage reflection on the processes of digital identity formation and the adjustment to the college experience. Their posts are syndicated into each year's "Freshman Seminar Motherblog," a process that fosters community across the incoming class, gives faculty and staff at the college an opportunity to know their students better, and encourages and empowers first-year students to take ownership of their online presence.

Baruch College

Baruch College also supports Vocat, a video annotation tool first developed by the College's Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute and now managed by the Center for Teaching and Learning.

Vocat facilitates feedback on recorded video by allowing evaluators to score, annotate, and have dialogue around the artifacts. This tool, built in collaboration with Portland's Cast Iron Coding, has been designed in constant dialogue with faculty, students, and administrators, responding to their needs and feedback in every release cycle. The current phase of development will allow assessment of artifacts other than video, will integrate the tool with commons course management systems through the integration of LTI, and will also allow users to surface Vocat data within instances of WordPress such as Blogs@Baruch. Plans are currently being made to share Vocat with other campuses.

Blogs@Baruch and Vocat emerge from a broader ethos of open-source software development and deployment at the City University of New York, which includes at its center the CUNY Academic Commons. The Commons provides a social publishing network that connects faculty, staff, and graduate students across CUNY's twenty-four campuses. It facilitates cross-campus collaboration, fosters conversations and projects around emerging trends in teaching and learning, and provides a platform for the exploration of new modes of digital scholarship (such as the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy). The Commons team has actively developed and broadly shared extensive WordPress/Buddypress code, benefiting hundreds of colleges, universities, and nonprofits through its "Commons-in-a-Box" project. Sister platforms to the Commons and Blogs@Baruch across the City University of New York include ePortfolios@Macaulay, the Open Lab at CityTech, and QWriting at Queens College. These projects constantly share code, strategies, and best practices with one another, reflecting the core belief that innovation in higher education must be proximate to and responsive to the students and faculty our institutions are meant to serve.

Thanks to Luke Waltzer for this overview of activities in the CUNY system.

University of British Columbia (UBC)

The Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology (CTLT) at the University of British Columbia has demonstrated how thoughtful structure, well-aimed support, and even constraint can allow for the adoption of open platforms that can reach thousands of people at a single university. The UBC Wiki has employed a "wiki gardener" to direct the furrows of collaborative activity and to maintain for course and documentation spaces a purposeful structure that improves the utility of the platform even as it promotes an ethos of more authoritative content creation. This screencast provides a quick introduction and tour of the wiki.

Description: UBC Wiki Math.png Among the most impressive examples of user-driven innovation on the UBC Wiki is the Math Exam Resources collection, which at the time of this writing features more than 1,100 solved problems sorted by 111 conceptual categories. The resources are built by students, who also identified specialized MediaWiki extensions that enhanced the platform's ability to render math equations and to enhance the usability of the solved problems--such as offering "hints" that can be quickly exposed when needed. The effort to sustain and grow the collection has been passed along by successive cohorts of students, who continue to identify new features and approaches to improve it. They have even developed their own Android app to access the questions.

The "wiki gardener" strives to enhance the open platform by subtle direction and light-touch editorial oversight. Similarly, to complement its relatively open-ended WordPress environment for the UBC Blogs, the CTLT supports a WordPress content management system (CMS) that offers not only enhanced, professional-grade web-management tools but also carefully placed constraints on theming and application, making adoption for mainstream users easier.

The scaled approach is financially smart: departmental sites that might cost thousands of dollars if they were developed and maintained by specialists-such as for the Latin American Studies program-can now be quickly built and sustained by their own user communities. In the instance of Arts One Open, an interdisciplinary course blending history, English, and philosophy, the CMS structure allows for the development of an open and autonomous structure offering an alternative and stark contrast to MOOC platforms such as Coursera. "Arts One Open is distinct precisely because of its emphasis on openness on all levels: using open-source software, opening up beyond the walls of the university and being quite transparent on how we're doing this and why we're doing this," says Professor Jon Beasley-Murray. And although the structure of the CMS implementation is more directed than most WordPress installations, there is still ample room for meaningful contributions by students and also for serendipitous surprises. The unpredictable nature of the open environment is singled out for praise by Beasley-Murray, who adds: "If it's predictable, it's not innovation."

rMOOC: Art + Reconciliation

When Thompson Rivers University Professor Ashok Mathur planned a month-long artists' residency in Kamloops on the theme of "Reconsidering Reconciliation," he was looking for ways to use open educational practice to extend its reach. These practices "can give access where before there was little or none. Many of our subscribers, by their admission, feel a bit isolated in their ideas, their communities. This is not to say they have no like-minded souls in their spheres, only that the multiple directions of this discourse on art/reconciliation can feel rather scattering."

The Art + Reconciliation site adopted the moniker rMOOC, grounded in the connectivist roots of open online courses, in that it "functions more like an online learning/sharing platform than a defined course with 'instructors' and 'students.'" As such, the site was built to make participation as accessible as possible. The site syndicates contributions from an array of sources, inviting contributions from multiple platforms such as Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram, and even publishing from e-mail. The site is not designed to push prepackaged learning at consumer/students. It's hoped that it will serve to facilitate, capture, share, and augment experiences.

The site lives on the hardware and service layer provided by Reclaim Hosting and was built under the direction of Alan Levine. A true open educator, Alan wrote up a detailed background and recipe for how he did it on his CogDogBlog.

Reclaim with Us

We do not pretend that the examples discussed here comprehensively catalog the extent of grassroots innovation being performed by educators. In the comments field below, please let us know about other work that embodies and extends the principles of a free and open web in higher education.


Jim Groom

Photo of Brian Lamb
Jim Groom is Executive Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington.

Brian Lamb

Photo of Brian Lamb
Brian Lamb is a Re-Director of Innovation at Thompson Rivers University. He blogs at


Thoughts and observations? Want to share stories about reclaiming innovation on your campus? Use the hashtag #ReclaimingInnovation or leave a comment below.

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 49, no. 3 (May/June 2014)