Thursday, April 16, 2015

Learning is perpetual beta

Cyclic horns by fdecomite, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by fdecomite

Jay Cross has written an interesting article, Should Learning Content be in Perpetual Beta? The concept of perpetual beta is several years old now and typifies the innovation spirit behind a lot of the dotcom boom. Beta versions used to be test versions of a product that only a select few could use in order to iron out problems before official release. Only a fully tested product could be sold to customers. However in the rush to keep ahead of the competition companies started releasing beta versions for public use, generally for free, encouraging users to test and give feedback on the faults. Google became very clever at making these beta tests by invitation only and the chosen few felt privileged to be test pilots.

When something is labeled beta, you expect it to have errors and are happily surprised if you don’t find any. Finding and helping correct flaws is one of the psychic rewards of the implicit bargain which makes the customer a happy co-developer.

Today we're used to products never making it beyond beta; once the beta version is fixed an even cooler product sweeps it away and we start the process again. Perpetual beta flips traditional sales logic on its head. If the product is officially released to paying customers they will react negatively to any flaw. However if they are told it's a beta version they feel part of the development process and almost enjoy reporting problems.

For example, suppose I release a campaign or report clearly marked Beta. I invite you to partner with me to make things better. I summon your help. We bond. We are amigos. We sit on the same side of the table. If I’d labeled that same report Final, you’d have been all over me about typos.

Learning is also embracing perpetual beta by involving students in course design and resource development. Traditional courses are finished products before students register and they naturally expect everything to work smoothly. If there are flaws they'll soon react. However as more courses encourage student to become co-creators of both content and design this generates in turn a sense of ownership and responsibility in the course. The students' transition from consumers to co-creators leads to deeper involvement and learning.

All education is perpetual beta since there are always new discoveries to be made, new angles to examine and new questions to ask. Every course can be run as a voyage of exploration and discovery where the students and teacher refine existing content and add new elements that are then handed on to the next group for further development. We're seeing this iterative approach to learning not only in courses but also in the development of open educational resources and open text books. The most dangerous tactic is to claim that the product is finished.


  1. I am glad if the majority of Course designers and seniors are thinking this approach, it is just that some of professionals do not accept nor leave space for learning from users- in this case the learners. I suppose education is demanding for user acceptance, and think from the users perspective than the product perspective. It turns out that very little known about user behaviors in learning .. this is changing or appears to be changing now do you agree ..?

  2. Thanks for the comment!
    I admit to sounding rather too optimistic about student involvement in course design. It happens but is far from normal of course. I think education has a lot to gain by moving in the direction of co-creation and perpetual beta - it creates involvement and that generates more learning. As you say this is still largely unknown territory. We need to move courses away from the "charter holiday" concept where everything is planned in advance.