(Originally published on pbk.com December 2017)

At the beginning of 2016, my former Instructional Technology Team at Houston Community College and I opened the Design Lab at the HCC Alief campus. It was designed to prototype the MakerSpace we were developing at the West Houston Institute. This space, which occupied a repurposed computer lab, used surplus furniture, and only required about $20,000 in new equipment, was designed to give us practical experience in running a MakerSpace. It became so much more than that.

Within months, students using the space developed everything from an augmented-reality sand table to drones to senior engineering projects for the University of Texas-Tyler Engineering program. The space quickly became the first stop on every campus tour given by our president and soon thereafter attracted the attention of the chancellor, the trustees, and the local community. Most importantly, the space completely changed the conversation at the campus and the larger college around what NextGen learning should look like.

D-Lab when it was opened

What does the example of the HCC Design Lab teach us? Many of the projects we undertook at HCC used what is called the “Lean Startup” method. Under this methodology small experiments are tried out with the expectation that a high percentage of them will fail and iteration is assumed as part of the process. The strategy essentially argues that you “build” something small, “measure” its impact, and “learn” from your mistakes to “pivot” quickly leveraging the advantages of technology.

The Design Lab itself was a lean startup project but even within the D-Lab itself we undertook many experiments, particularly with regard to the mix of equipment in the space. The most expensive piece of initial equipment we purchased was something called a Z-Space Tablet. This system allows you to use 3D glasses technology to view and manipulate objects in space. We thought this would be a cool piece of technology that would be used by students to do 3D visualization before sending the items to be 3D printed. The problem was that no one ever used it. It was too complicated and clunky for the neophyte user and 2D screens worked fine, even for 3D projects. So we quickly moved it out of the D-Lab and used its space for other projects. In its place, we purchased a $300 vinyl cutter, which quickly became one of the most popular parts of the tool package we presented to users.

The Z-Space was a failure for our purposes and we quickly moved on from it. We saw a need for a new kind of tool in the vinyl cutter and quickly pivoted around to getting one. Both of these decisions were made using the Lean Startup method, leveraging the falling costs of technology, and observing how the students in the space behaved. Both could be considered failures of the original design. Both represented what Lean Startup practitioners call “pivots” and both were necessary failures that allowed us to achieve success in the space. Note the specific mention of the vinyl cutter in the Houston Chronicle.

The D-Lab a little over a year after it was opened

Sustainability and Next Generation learning share one trait in common: they both represent cultural changes in the way we deal with teaching learning and the very spaces that we construct to do them in. Cultural changes are hard by definition. People fall into established patterns of thought and action that are very hard to dislodge. Doing this at scale is exponentially more difficult. The Lean Startup method presents a strategy that be used to make incremental instead of wholesale changes to an organization.

It is easy to underestimate how hard cultural changes are going to be. Active learning represents a significant cultural shift from traditional practice. It’s asking a lot for an educational community to suddenly pivot to NextGen teaching and learning. Further complicating this is the reality that we do not have a shared understanding of next steps on the path. We have an imperfect understanding of the nature of the technological changes sweeping through your classrooms and society as a whole. We also have an imperfect understanding of how humans learn. We can see general trends and certainly understand that teaching and learning need to change but there is no general agreement on how to get there.

The D-Lab presents a useful model for how to approach this problem. Experimentation has to become the norm as we feel our way into the future. However, experimenting with a $150 million high school is not really an option. Nor will it work very well because the scale of change is simply too large for most organizations to digest. Instead, the Lean Startup path is to make changes on a much smaller scale: a single classroom or lab, an out building, or a library makeover. The investment is much smaller and it is easier to retrain a core group of faculty or staff to maximize use and effectiveness of the space and to allow them to experiment with new modalities of teaching and learning.

If the D-Lab is any guide, demonstration spaces will also form a catalyst for change when the rest of the school sees the impact of what’s going on. With all of the pieces in place (a much easier proposition on a small scale), there will be demands for duplication or scaling of the activity. In my decade redesigning and experimenting with innovative learning spaces at HCC this is precisely what my team did. Not everything was as successful as the D-Lab has been but the costs of failure were much more easily digestible than it was on larger projects. And we learned crucial lessons that we applied to subsequent efforts. Furthermore, over time this built a community of support and also started to change the culture of the institution as faculty and staff more readily accepted entrepreneurism and felt empowered to attempt it themselves.

Without small scale projects such as the D-Lab and others, we would never have built the West Houston Institute, which was recently named a finalist for the SXSW Learn by Design Award. As we discussed in a recent Knowledge Base Article, the West Houston Institute is designed to be one giant Lean Startup incubator which will adapt and reconfigure itself and its programs to meet changing demands and also to act as a teaching tool for its students and visitors in methods, skills, and mindsets to carry them into the world of the future.