The relationship between creativity and failure appears to be a complex one, with scholars debating the positive and negative effects of failure on the quality and the quantity of creative outcomes. Within this context, the concept of Intelligent Fast Failure (IFF) was developed as a teaching and learning tool that demystifies the role of failure by encouraging calculated and well-informed risk-taking and initiative, coupled with deep examination of each failure to support learning and increased chances of future success. The IFF concept has inspired many derivatives, including Fast Failure, Fast Forward Failure, and Intelligent Failure. In each case, the fundamental elements are similar – i.e., thoughtfully planned actions of modest scale that have uncertain outcomes, are carried out at an accelerated pace, and which take place in environments that permit effective data collection for later analysis.
The application of Intelligent Fast Failure has a rich history in face-to-face engineering classrooms, particularly in the context of design and technology-based entrepreneurship, but until now, it has not been studied in an online learning environment. With the rise of online engineering programs and courses, including Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the question of how to extend the principles of IFF to these new learning environments is an intriguing one. What is the best way to teach IFF principles in a virtual classroom? Which types of IFF activities and tasks are most effective when students do not meet with their instructor or their classmates in person? How should these tasks and activities be assessed to ensure the most meaningful practical applications of IFF?
In this paper, we address these questions through our examination of a simple hands-on task aimed at teaching the principles of Intelligent Fast Failure in the context of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) focused on creativity, innovation, and change. A simple hands-on prototyping exercise involving common household objects was designed and presented to a global community of online learners using the Coursera MOOC platform. We describe and analyze the evolution of this task over three offerings of the MOOC and discuss the benefits and challenges of each iteration. Given the potential resource challenges of many MOOC students (e.g., those in developing nations), careful consideration was given to the materials required for the task, along with the reporting and reflection requirements for the assignment. In the first iteration of the task, only a single sheet of paper was required, while the second and third iterations were based only on shoes. The MOOC students were asked to construct the tallest free-standing tower possible using only the stated materials and to report on their problem solving process and outcomes, including their approach to and experience with failure and the application of IFF principles.
Data gathered from the task outcomes and student reflections were analyzed with respect to gender and cultural differences, as well as correlations between the number of attempts/failures and creative performance metrics. Our results show that while the correlation between number of attempts and creative performance was statistically significant, the relationship was weak. In addition to these results, this research has value for engineering educators as a case study in the transfer, scaling, and evolution of face-to-face tasks in online learning environments.
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