Monday, May 1, 2017

Innovation through familiarity

Educational technology has mostly been used to simply continue doing what we have always done, the innovation element being that we can now do it digitally. We've seen this in the use of learning management systems, lecture capture, digital examination and e-books, all of which don't change the paradigm or challenge tradition but add important elements of access, flexibility and convenience. These have gained mainstream acceptance probably because they don't demand any radical rethink or major investment of time and effort. It seems that most of us feel daunted by change and if we are going to accept innovation it has to be wrapped in a familiar package and must not demand too much of our time. Take the computer. Even today we still use the qwerty keyboard inherited from the typewriter of 100 years ago despite many attempts at creating a more intuitive interface. We still refer to a desktop and put documents in folders. The new expressed in terms of the old to maintain a sense of security and minimise the shock of the new.

This is the theme of an intriguing article by Nir Eyal, People Don’t Want Something Truly New, They Want the Familiar Done Differently. He takes the example of how Americans learned to love sushi; instead of using Japanese names they made it out of familiar west coast ingredients and called it a California Roll. After that the real name could be safely introduced and now everyone eats it. This shows how defining the new in terms of the old is a wise ploy and Eyal therefore proposes the California Roll Rule: People don’t want something truly new, they want the familiar done differently. How many innovations have flopped not because of any intrinsic fault or lack of potential but simply because they were just a bit too new, the wrong side of familiar.

Unfortunately, our aversion to things that are outside the norm is particularly hard on companies producing radical innovation — no matter how beneficial they may be. If using a new product does not feel familiar, it faces severe challenges.

Innovation tends to be incremental and takes time. What often happens is that something new is first adapted (tamed) to something familiar. For instance a lot of educational technology is first used to continue doing what we've always done, reinforcing the classroom or the lecture. In some cases the innovation ends in a dead end without ever fulfilling its potential, in other cases it starts breaking new ground only after several years of "tamed use". The development of open education is a case in point, starting with enormous potential but then developing into rather traditionally designed MOOCs and even becoming integrated into the regular higher education system and losing some important aspects of the concept of openness on the way. Virtual and augmented reality have taken many years to break through and one factor behind mass market acceptance was reviving the Pokemon craze; the new in terms of something old. The challenge for any innovation is staying true to its original spirit and avoiding being tamed too much. However it's a delicate balance. If you're too innovative noone will accept you and if you adapt to the traditional too much you lose your innovative spark. Innovation through familiarity..

As the pace of innovation accelerates, human behavior, not technological restraints, will be the deciding factor of whether products are adopted or discarded. If new products and services are to positively impact our lives, they must find a gateway into our daily routines.

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