Studying successful innovations until they fail

Design-based research relating to technology and education tends to convey a relatively optimistic sense that the development and deployment of new technology in educational settings will ultimately lead to some form of benefit, gain or longer-term improvement. Educational technology – and the learning sciences more generally – are areas of scholarship that celebrate success. As Kevin O’Neill (2016, p.499) puts it:

“It can sometimes seem as though we expect the literature on DBR (design-based research) to be made up largely or entirely of success stories. From the state of our literature, it appears that as a community, we think of publication as a way of recognizing not only good scholarship but also designers’ achievement of their intended goals with learners. The ideal story arc for a DBR article, in this conception, is one in which the hard-working, well-meaning designer persists in the face of adversity (including the resistance of benighted clients), refining his or her theory and practices in tandem and ultimately making good” (O’Neill 2016, p.499).

Yet, as O’Neill reminds us, ultimately all designs will fail in one way or another. As such, it is important to pay close attention to understanding how even initially successful designs in education eventually break down. To this end, he points to Mike Cole’s mission statement of “Studying successful innovations until they fail.” 



O’Neill, D. (2016). Understanding design research–practice partnerships in context and time. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 25: 497–502