Swiffer, Gravity Forms, and Toolkits for User Innovation

I have been moving some stuff around in my basement in preparation for the container (an actual 40′ shipping container, not a Docker one) to land on Italian shores from the US. It will be the first time in almost 7 years that I’ll have all my worldly possessions under one roof. That means space is gonna be tight, so I am cleaning house and part of that entailed mopping up the basement storage area where I’ll park more than a few classic 80s video game cabinets. While mopping up the basement it struck me I was using a Swiffer-like mop. A Swiffer has a standard, low-cost handle assembly, but you have to buy replacement pads over the lifetime of the product. It is referred to as the “razor-and-blades” business model.

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This then reminded me of a talk Jon Udell gave years ago framing cPanel as an innovation toolkit for users. Turns out he is still blogging about simple web hosting, which makes me happy. In his talk he references Eric von Hippel work at MIT, who uses the Swiffer as a case-study wherein the lead users of a product (in this case Proctor and Gamble’s mops) can inform the development given their practical use cases and modifications that make it work for their particular case. von Hippel sees these lead users as crucial and encourages the idea of  “Toolkits for User Innovation.” Udell linked von Hippel’s work to what we’re doing with Domain of One’s Own as an idea for what can be possible when the tools are made available, and a culture pushing towards sharing the possibilities.

Whether or not they map directly, that got me thinking about the past month working with Tom Woodward to run a month-long flex course on Gravity Forms. This course was an early exploration of what Reclaim Edtech could be, namely a way of  thinking through tools we can help edtechs get familiar with that might help them in their day job. Gravity Forms, while a paid plugin, does open up a whole new world of building fascinating new tools within the WordPress platform. This is particularly attractive for edtechs like me that do not program. The tool does take some getting used to because it is basically coding with training wheels, at least the logic of it, but the thing that struck me as the course ended while Tom was showing of the work he was doing for a faculty member around Parallel Practice was that he had built a pretty amazing custom application for this faculty member within Gravity Forms. It was a small, custom tool that Tom, as an edtech, could use a simple, affordable plugin framework like Gravity Forms on top of WordPress to build it. In fact, that has been a common denominator for so much of the most impressive work in the DIY edtech community for many a year now, starting with Martha Burtis’s and Tim Owen’s handy work with Gravity Forms to re-think the design of ds106, then Alan Levine and Brian Lamb‘s SPLOT revolution, as well as Tom Woodward’s Tiny Teaching Tools. This is just a myopic look at some of the amazing people that represent those amazing pockets of hope and innovation happening in edtech, and those small, simple web hosting tools Jon bemoans in his post are actually something he could build too, right? I mean the good work is happening all around us, it’s just a matter of what we choose to focus on. There is no room for the grumpy old man in edtech, blog your way to freedom and turn down the expectations of the past and/or the future, just make art dammit!

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One Response to Swiffer, Gravity Forms, and Toolkits for User Innovation

  1. Alan Levine says:

    Just clean the floors, damnit! Kick the Roomba to the curb.

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