“Demo or Die” or “Deploy or Die”: A Lesson for Education?

Academics learn early on about the need to “publish or perish,” a phrase dating back at least to the 1930s.1  Regular publication is a requirement for career advancement in research-oriented academia.  But the phrase is often used pejoratively, too.  For example, in a 1942 study of academia, The Academic Man: A Study in the Sociology of a Profession, Logan Wilson mentions it in the context of junior faculty resentment towards an emphasis on quantity over quality and a faculty belief that this emphasis results in only “lip service” being paid to good teaching.

Fast-forward to 1985 and the founding of MIT’s Media Lab.  The lab’s co-founder, architect Nicholas Negroponte, famously adopted “demo or die” as the Lab’s alternative to “publish or perish.”  The idea was to produce a steady stream of awe-inspiring demonstrations that highlighted the innovations under development at the Lab.  The demo only had to work once because its purpose was to attract corporate money to continue the Lab’s work and to inspire those companies to adopt and develop the innovations in real-world contexts.

A 2000 New York Times 15-year retrospective on the Lab noted that, “The constant demonstrations … is how the Media Lab survives: embarking on pie-in-the-sky research while simultaneously convincing companies that its ideas are worth the cost of sponsorship, which runs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for each company each year.” By ponying up the money for co-sponsorship of the Lab, corporations had the right to use any of the innovations produced there, including royalty-free licenses for patented inventions.  In this way, the Lab sought to attract the funding it needed to do its work, while remaining free of contracts to do specific projects for specific companies.

The idea of a “demo” long existed outside of the Media Lab and it has limitations on this generic level.  A 1995 Wired magazine article notes that a demo:

… isn’t a demonstration of a game or business application, and it hasn’t been commissioned for any ulterior commercial purpose. The only thing it demonstrates are the skills of its programmer – or, more often, the skills of a group of coders, graphic artists, and musicians who’ve grouped together. And the only reason it has been written is to show off.  Demos are the last bastion of passionate, crazed, enthusiast-only programming, crafted purely for the hell of it…

Those limitations spilled over to the Lab.  As one graduate of the Media Lab put it, “Occasionally, a demo evolves into a working product, a finished art piece, or a widely used technology. But the real product of the Media Lab is the demo itself. The demo is what gets sponsors, reporters, and the general public excited.”2

The Lab’s focus on demos was rife with difficulties.   That same New York Times 15-year retrospective also noted that the Lab’s “…professors, students and even a few sponsors are starting to wonder how it can remain an open arena for exchanging ideas in an age of start-up companies, competitive research and sudden riches for those who turn their innovations into products.”  Indeed, the clash of cultures was constant between academia’s open learning and the corporate world’s proprietary pressures.

The first decade of the century saw the implosion of telecom companies (many of whom were Lab sponsors) and a significant decline in the percentage of the Lab’s budget that came from corporate sponsors.3  As early as 2003, after layoffs and belt-tightening, the place was being written about in Wired as “The Lab That Fell to Earth” amidst questions about its sustainability, the seriousness of its media-genic “all icing and no cake” demo approach, and its potential “irrelevance.”  “Once rock stars,” the harsh article opined, “the Media Lab crew has become a geezer rock band – Lynyrd Skynyrd with pocket protectors.”

In the wake of further financial and organizational challenges, Joi Ito–ironically, a man without a college degree–was named the MIT Media Lab’s director in 2011.  A co-founder and chairman (2006-2012) of Creative Commons among many other digital technology accomplishments, Ito moved the Lab away from its emphases on demos.

Ito media lab
Joi Ito giving his TED talk in front of a picture of MIT’s Media Lab.

In 2014, Ito introduced a new motto for the Lab: “Deploy or Die.”  As he described in a Ted Talk (summary), the cost of actually producing some types of usable innovation has plummeted, such as with app development.  Sometimes, this enables the producers of innovation to take the next step to deploy their creations on their own, without the need for massive financial sponsorship from corporations.  “You have to get the stuff into the real world for it to really count,” he explains.  “We should be getting out there ourselves and not depending on large institutions to do it.”

Whether prompted by shrinking funding from corporate sponsors or (in Ito’s positive spin) by the expanding opportunities offered by the Internet, or by a combination of both, the move from “demo” to “deploy” is an interesting development as the Lab appears to be aiming its sights on increased relevance in the practical “real world.”

Though the parallel is far from perfect, hearing about this shift resonated with me in a different context: innovation in higher education. I’ve been struck with both the potential and the limitation of education innovation efforts that have the feel of “demos,” showcasing the possibilities of technological innovation to help improve education.

Our own shop here at ALT Lab has been involved in several such efforts, most notably the interesting cMOOC experiment Thought Vectors in Concept Space.  While resource-intensive to set up, such efforts can really display aspects of what is now possible in education, using widely available technology.  I think of these efforts as educational “concept cars,” designed to highlight new technology and ideas, though not necessarily intended to be put into mass production.  And that’s fine; the point is not to mass produce a single model but instead to suggest some of what is possible.  Instructors will hopefully adopt and adapt elements they find useful, bringing their own ideas, interests, and applications to the mix.

concept car
A 2015 Bugatti concept car: Not coming to a dealer near you any time soon.

Whether thought of as “demos” or “concept cars,” such experiments in educational innovation need to happen.  They can inspire others and push the boundaries of what is possible.  They are a valuable counterweight to the inertia that affects us all as we routinize teaching and, potentially, fall into the rut of repetition and habit.  As such, they are invaluable, mind-expanding demos.

But to be successful and sustainable over time, innovations have to be deployed in the “real world” of non-experts, not just demoed within the community of education specialists. This process introduces entirely new challenges for educational designers and edtech professionals.  It introduces the hurdle posed by the often-hated “S” word: scalability.  It pits exciting innovation against the mundane but powerful realities of limited faculty time and resources in the face of teaching large numbers of students. Those structural realities will not be wished away by the promise of awesome educational demos.  Instead, if innovation is to survive in the “real world” it must be made accessible and intuitive to non-experts.  It must offer benefits that are clearly worth the cost of entry.  It must address the needs and concerns of those who will be using it.  The dilemma, of course, is to find the sweet spot that makes innovation accessible to more than a relatively small cadre of specialists, while maintaining the integrity of the effort.

Sometimes I suspect that innovation diffusion or transfer is undervalued. It’s not sexy or particularly exciting, in itself.  But, still, it is a necessary part of the process.  We must respond seriously to such issues as the need for privacy in some course situations, the importance of detailed targeted feedback (also sometimes private) on student work, and the need to manage assessment and grading–especially in large classes taught by instructors with full teaching loads.  Though mundane, these are real issues that require us to get down into the weeds of course design and technology development to cobble together solutions that meet faculty and student needs. (For example, Tom Woodward grapples with one such challenge around commenting.) Successfully addressing such questions, concerns, and needs will be a key factor in determining whether or not educational innovation gains a foothold more broadly in higher education.

Commercial publishers are active in this area, focusing on developing platforms on which to deliver 21st century courses either online or in-person.  Their focus is on things such as intuitive easy-to-use interfaces, learning analytics, gamification, and automatic grading.4 Their ideas live or die by their rate of adoption in the marketplace. (Successful deployment?) There are lessons to be learned from these approaches, even as we avoid some of their obvious limitations.

So demo or deploy?  I find myself valuing both of these models and resisting the attempt to make it an either/or choice.  Instead, when it comes to educational innovation, perhaps we should work to “demo and deploy”?  And perhaps we need to stop seeing these as conflicting approaches but, instead, understand them as the yin and yang of a well-balanced and sustainable approach to change.

yin and yang

  1. Eugene Garfield.  1996.  What is the Primordial Reference for the Phrase ‘Publish or Perish’? []
  2. Quoted in Brendan I. Koerner’s “The Lab That Fell to Earth,” Wired, May 2003. []
  3. MIT Media Lab Names New Director.”  New York Times April 25, 2011. []
  4. Full disclosure: one of my textbooks is available on such a platform. []