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 :).