Innovation and The Freedom to Break Things

[Crossposting here from the Media Lab Director's Fellows blog]

This week we launched the Learning Creative Learning course with 24,000 participants. One one hand, I am thrilled that we have such a large audience, and especially that they come from all over the world. On the other hand, having so many participants makes experimentation much harder. The stakes get higher (or at least they seem higher, when I am reading through the hundreds of emails we receive from people who are so excited to join the course). Here is one group at a local school that watches the sessions together.

By far our most important goal for this course is to use it as an experiment! We intentionally chose open source software and tools like G+ that are available free of charge to anyone, to see how a more collaborative learning experience could be built on the web. We also invited others within the Media Lab community to tinker with us. And finally, we thought that more people should get access to the materials and ideas in this course–because too much of learning these days is not particularly creative.

We were hoping for a few thousands collaborators who would experiment with us and we were very clear that we expected things to break (in interesting ways) along the way. In the end, 24,000 people signed up, and what was designed to be a nimble sailboat has now embarked on a trip across the ocean.

The experience of the last few days made me think about some of the innovation principles that Joi Ito speaks about in his Media Lab presentations. “Emergence over authority” (which happens to be my personal favorite) is something we are already seeing in the G+ community. Participants are building tools to locate themselves on a global map, or share information about the many many sub-communities that have sprung up. We didn’t build any of these, but we feature efforts like this as much as we can, and we have been clear from the start that we welcome participants to extend the course in these ways. And the next time I am about to hit “Send” to fire off another 24,000 emails, I will remind myself of the “Risk over safety” principle. Because even though being experimental is harder with this many people, I am having an absolute blast and if things couldn’t break in big ways, it wouldn’t really be worth doing them.