The innovation behind Innovation and Commercialization

Andreas Wankerl and Gene Fitzgerald, the two instructors behind the upcoming MOOC, 3.086x Innovation and Commercialization, clearly practice what they preach. “We’ve always taken the attitude that we are delivering a product that needs to get better and better with each iteration,” stated Wankerl. “Putting this course online with MITx is just another step in that direction. Part of it is that we’re committed to bringing these ideas to a broader audience.”

Their ideas have already caught the attention of the White House, who cited their recent book as a key resource for bringing innovation to the U.S. market more effectively. Yet unlike many courses only recently converted to a MOOC, Innovation and Commercialization has been taught as a distance-learning course for more than a decade. It began as part of an international collaborative called the Singapore-MIT Alliance, and was further adapted for online use to allow MIT engineering students to more easily participate in technical exchange programs abroad.

Over that time, the instructors have taken special care to refine the material for their audience. “When we initially taught the course to graduate students, like many people teaching something for the first time, we probably made it a little too abstract and advanced,” said Fitzgerald. “But through student feedback, I think we’ve done an excellent job breaking down the course in a more didactic fashion, so it’s really quite understandable to anyone.” He added that writing a book on the same topic played a major role in helping organize and improve their ideas.

But migrating the course to MITx this summer still presented challenges, admitted Wankerl. “Designing the interaction and the exercises to match the pedagogy behind the course is difficult because it’s really not about filling students’ brains with information, or black-and-white answers. We are trying to change their perspective. That style of teaching works well with open-ended discussion, but computers don’t allow for improvisation or ambiguity. We’ve had to choose our examples carefully in order to be more precise and methodical.”

Working with the MITx staff, the instructors are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in online interaction. “We’ve already enhanced the course with a unique combination of historic reference and video material to give the students a better feel for how some major innovations actually happened, and we’ve found interesting ways to build assessments,” Wankerl described, “We’re using drag-and-drop exercises, and clever methods to allow students to demonstrate how they’re interpreting key texts. Our goal is to provide the student with a real sense of engagement.”

The course is an in-depth exploration of key dynamics behind the process of innovation. It begins by dispelling some incorrect assumptions around innovation, then gradually leading students towards a more complex understanding of its components. To illustrate their points, the instructors make use of real examples from previously successful and unsuccessful attempts at innovation.

“One of the course’s first lessons is to determine what actually constitutes a technology,” Wankerl explained. “We start by looking at a disposable fountain pen. It’s a wonderfully deceptive device because it seems very simple, but as we look at the pen’s different elements, we discover some surprisingly complex technologies in there. Most importantly, students can begin to allocate responsibility to the different parts—which ones fulfill which function.” Accompanying exercises give students unique feedback as they try to resolve a puzzling design detail in the fountain pen, using the text from a 1940 patent.

The course uses other colorful examples like the x-ray and the printing press to build a richer conceptual understanding of the trials of innovation. “It took over twenty years for people to figure out exactly how to profitably use x-ray technology in the market, and Gutenberg’s venture capital investors ended up cheating him. In many ways, the human process of innovation hasn’t changed much,” joked Wankerl.

While both instructors have put a great deal of thought into designing their course, their ongoing commitment to innovation is clear. “As soon as the course is over,” Wankerl stated, “we expect to be analyzing the data from how the students performed, and to see where we can make more improvements for the next time.”

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