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In my first post for this assignment, I talked mostly about ClassDojo and Clever,  classifying them as basically sustaining innovations, designed to help existing educational institutions do their current jobs better.  I also talked about Degreed and Dreambox and CodeAcademy and Goalbook and Knewton as disruptive innovations that are designed to create new approaches or even new institutions.  And in my second post, I spent a good bit of time trying to figure out whether Coursera sees itself as disruptive, sustaining, or some complex mixture.

I’m still not sure what I think about Coursera, but I appreciate the thoughtful comments from Heidi and @screenstorming on my last post.  I do think that disruption is harder than it seems … and, as Donna Murdoch pointed out in a Google+ thread today, the term itself is so overused that it’s starting to lose all meaning.

That’s a shame, because it can be a really useful term … and I think Christensen and Horn’s original formulation of disruptive innovation applies nicely to Instructure.  I saved them for last – partly because I have a personal connection with them, but partly because they seem to have developed a really intriguing blend of disruptive and sustaining innovation.  First, full disclosure.  My friend Laura Gibbs introduced me to the Instructure team in 2010, and I developed a demonstration site for some content I’ll be talking about when we get to my Idea(s).

At first glance, Instructure Canvas is “just” another entry in the crowded LMS market.  It has some intriguing features, it’s nice-looking, and it’s written in Ruby on Rails –  but there are lots of existing LMS products.  What makes Instructure stand out?  For me, it was the way that Devlin and his colleagues designed and marketed their product – exactly the opposite of legacy LMS vendors.  When we talked in 2010, he told how the team started out by talking with end users, finding out their least favorite features of the LMS products they were currently using.  Based on that feedback, the Instructure team built its product, then developed a community of passionate supporters by giving away free, cloud-hosted accounts to any teacher who wanted one.

By the time they approached IT departments and administrators to talk about contracts, they had a community of passionate users who were already familiar with the product and who wanted to be able to use it at scale.  And that’s when Instructure went after the LMS market in a big, exciting way, landing the University of Maryland and a huge corporate training account among many others.

In other words, even though they produce a sustaining product (another LMS? in 2012??), both the product and their approach to development and marketing are full of intriguing disruptions.  Most commercial LMS products, designed for IT departments and administrators, focus on locked-down security, but Canvas, which is designed for teachers and learners, maintains the necessary security within an overall atmosphere of   openness and sharing and community-building.  Canvas is open-source, like Moodle and other non-commercial LMS products, but unlike Moodle it has a small, focused development team and a sleek, professional look and feel.  And that’s why I think the Instructure team has managed a disruption and a blue ocean in the unlikely area of the LMS.

Of course I could be totally wrong, or your perspective could be totally different.  But I’m really impressed by the way that Instructure started out by … listening to potential customers and taking their concerns seriously.

When we get to my Idea(s), I’d really like that kind of feedback from you as well as from our early users and community members.  We think our ideas are powerful, game-changing, and fundamentally disruptive to both textbooks and school design, and our early users seem to love what we’re doing.

But.

Always in the back of my mind is this thought: we might be caught in an echo chamber (the way I fear Coursera is caught in the 20th-century university paradigm).  If our target market is dying, I want to know now, not in 5 years … and if it’s too small, or if there’s not enough interest in our Idea(s) as designed, it would be good to know now, in the early stages, when it’s still easy and cheap to make changes.

I’m sure somebody had a great idea for a category-shifting buggy whip … in 1918.  And somebody must have had a brilliant idea for higher-speed American passenger rail … in 1953.  I’m hoping all of us EdStartup participants have a much better sense of timing – and better results – than those poor, long-forgotten innovators in dying or dead markets.

What do you think?

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