Design by appropriation

The problem with systems and software that are designed for education is generally that they are designed for education. Education as a target market has some significant baggage when it comes to design – there’s always a tension between educational design and system design, and things generally end up as a compromise between the two that completely satisfies neither. The educators aren’t satisfied because their lack of knowledge of system design leads them to have somewhat unicorn-like ideals about what a system can and should do, and system designers aren’t satisfied because their lack of knowledge of educational design leads them to have somewhat unicorn-like ideals about what educators can cope with. Designing systems specifically for education also results in an invisible bias, where users’ concept of what that system can do is shaped by the system. LMSs are probably the guiltiest examples of this on all fronts.

To my mind, the strongest design is coming out of companies that have nothing to do with education and never intended for their product to be used in our sector, and we’re missing a trick if we’re not exploring how we can appropriate them. There are some very cool possibilities that come about if we borrow ‘outside’ systems and start repurposing them into education*.

You’ll likely have noticed lately that I’ve been doing a lot of work with WordPress (the self-hosted version), which is just a blogging platform. Designed to let people write stuff on the internet and that’s it. Conveniently it’s open-source so a lot of people have written plugins for it that make it into other things that still don’t have anything to do with education – e-commerce, creative portfolios, business websites etc etc. It’s also free and stupidly easy to use. But most significantly, what it is is a blank slate. It was never designed for education. Which means we are free to appropriate and interpret tools and functions as we like. As an example – most universities have a catalog of courses and units on offer, which prospective and current students ‘shop’ through to build their degree. These tend to be developed in-house as standard information repositories that hold not a lot more than unit codes, descriptions and outcomes. However – the world of online commerce is light years ahead of the game in terms of how you sell stuff to people online. People designing e-commerce platforms know customers want shopping carts, cross-sales info, reviews, package deals and to know what popular products are. Imagine a course catalogue that was more like shopping on Amazon – adding potential units to your cart, seeing other students’ reviews of the course, one-click adding of units commonly taken concurrently etc etc. Ten minutes spent installing WordPress and an e-commerce plugin and you’ll have exactly this structure ready to go. Coffeecourses are a rudimentary example of this, with the added bonus of all the course content also being hosted in the same WordPress site, using category tags as unit codes.

It’s not just WordPress. Bucketloads of beautifully designed non-edu-specific tools can be found on the interwebs. I should specify though that I’m talking about fundamental structural appropriation, I’m not just talking about setting up a Pinterest board for your class. Appropriation for design, for building things. I know it’s a long way off in terms of being supported on an enterprise level, but there’s still a lot we can do with niche and flagship projects. Next time you need to create something, before you reach for your standard edu tools, take a look outside the edusphere; there’s a web full of stuff just waiting to be cowboyed.

*The eagle-eyed among you will spot this as fairly textbook edupunk, but I’m coming at it from the ‘hey let’s do cool stuff’ point of view, not the ‘screw you and your restrictive enterprise systems, I’ll do it myself’ ethos. How spurious you take that distinction to be is entirely up to you :).



6 thoughts on “Design by appropriation”

  1. Totally agree Sarah! I’ve found that so often edu systems are just so compromised and limited because they’re marketed at the sector. The gap between systemic and academic realms to me highlights the lack of good project methodology and a lack of understanding regarding user experience. Edu and tech companies have to try harder – because it’s possible to create good systems for both.

    I too am a big fan of WordPress and currently looking at it for two diverse projects I’m working on due to how flexible it is. One is a hub around mobile learning the other is looking at a cross platform publishing tool. Both are proof of concepts but it’s impossible to find that same flexibility in anything tech related. And even if there was – no chance of getting it setup internally :)

    I am finding though while my motivation is ‘hey let’s do cool stuff’ or ‘lets make something better’ you kinda have to take the ‘screw you and your restrictive enterprise systems, I’ll do it myself’ attitude to actually get it done. It points to this weird relationship that edu has with tech at the moment – on guard and protectionist of their turf rather than getting together and working things through. A significant cultural change has got to start soon.

    1. I agree with the ‘I’ll do it myself’ thing, but I do try to not be so anarchic and do stuff in conjunction with IT rather than in defiance of it :).

  2. This post starts off so promisingly. System design requires specialist skills that educators don’t have. Education requires specialist skills that software developers don’t have. Those are both valid premises, but they don’t lead to the conclusion you claim: that educational software is inevitably crap.

    There is a simple solution: get educators and software developers to work together to build cool stuff. The Open University has been doing it for years and the recipe works.

    I am also unimpressed by the example you choose to use to make your point: an online prospectus. Wow! Lots of exciting learning going on there, I am sure.

    So, you seem to be saying that most software needed for education (e.g. a word-processor for producing lecture hand-outs or writing essays) is generic. Using generic software for your prospectus might make sense too (until you start considering the arcane rules we make about which combinations of courses a student can add to their shopping basket if they want to complete a particular degree). Just because most required software is generic, that does not mean it all is.

    If you want some examples of good specialist educational software, I suggest you look at Peerwise ( or STACK (

    1. If you read carefully you will notice that I am not claiming all edu software is crap, I’m simply pointing out that there are some significant tensions and issues and that I think stronger design can be found outside of edu spheres.

      You make a fair point, a course catalogue is hardly an enthralling example of learning (which was also not my point), but education is not just about teaching and learning and we could stand to start rethinking the organisational and administrative processes around the traps also.

      I will counter by saying that I am equally unimpressed by the examples you give, which seem to me to be excellent examples of the point I’m making. I also don’t agree that lecture handouts or essays are ‘needed’ or require a word processor. However your point that cool things can be done when educators and developers work together is a good one and I hope we start to see a lot more cool stuff happening (although I suspect we have wildly different criteria for what constitutes ‘cool’ :)).

  3. I’m wondering whether “not designed for education” is the key distinction here.

    Wondering whether “well designed” is the key and that systems not designed for education tend to be better designed. Or perhaps, the systems we end up gravitating toward have been filtered through the sieve of the real world market, a process which weeds out the dross.

    Whereas education is such a small market we have to put up with whatever crap we get. There is perhaps an observation to be made here about the quality of the filter provided by the selection process for systems at most education institutions?

  4. Well put David.

    The problem comes when you have requirements that are specific to education (small market). Then you are stuck with the solutions that exist which meet those requirements, but which have not had the same budget invested in them as the generic solutions.

    The danger is the occasions when people or institutions think they have special requirements but don’t really. We can précis Sarah’s original as saying that that this happens in universities more often than we would like; we should be alert to that, and try to stop repeating the same mistake in future.

    Still, some parts of teaching and learning can be helped by technology in ways that a mainstream software will never cover. In these situations, we can only every have software produced at lower budget. That does not have to be bad. The best art house films are actually better than Hollywood blockbusters, although there are many more terrible low-budget films out there.

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