Technology innovation and the adoption dilemma

One of the things I have been paying more attention to recently is the extent to which much of the IT professional development we offer to faculty, primarily attracts the early adopters. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s nice because we receive early confirmation that the ideas, tools and practices we are putting on the table are actually of interest to someone else…albeit the numbers of folks is usually rather small. It’s a curse, because it leaves us at a loss for taking the next steps to attract and engage the next wave of potential adopters…faculty who may be sitting on the fringe, interested but unsure about what the new technology or practice might offer them.

We tend not to think about this until the numbers of faculty showing up for a particular workshop dwindles to almost zero. Then we start scratching our heads, wondering why more folks don’t “see the light” that we see. Workshops often work well for the early adopters. As a group, they are easy to work with because they are already interested in learning and exploring, and come to the table with a strong dose of being self-directed when it comes to technology.

For those of us involved in faculty development, I think early workshop success can be misleading and can lead to a false sense of success, reinforcing the perceived need to run workshops and training sessions. Don’t get me wrong, workshops are a necessary evil. They serve an important function of providing initial introductions to new tools, act as conversation starters, and provide faculty with the important opportunity to network with colleagues. But these are largely hit-and-run events, and can’t sustain adoption of new practices on a larger scale.

At the same time, the world in which we live, teach and learn in is becoming increasingly complex. Change is rapid and the sheer amount of information generated is overwhelming. Early adopters of technology innovations – instructional technologists included – often pick this stuff up quickly and then move on to something else. The question becomes how we can sustain our enthusiasm and interest in a particularly useful technology while it takes time –sometimes several years -for the second wave and late adopters to also find it of value? Bill Buxton, a Principal Scientist at Microsoft Research and the author of Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design, recently talked about the concept of the long nose of innovation. In this piece he describes how much innovation is often of low-amplitude and takes place over long periods of time, sometimes as much as 10 years.

I think this creates a bit of a practice dilemma for the instructional technologist working with faculty members interested in exploring technology to support learning. As we take the time to learn about the next emerging tool – Twitter, Ning, Facebook, blogs, podcasting wikis, etc. – we forget that the vast majority of faculty we encounter in our work will not likely adopt these tools for years, if at all! By the time the long nose of innovation runs its course, entire new chapters of internet history will have been written. From this perspective it seems that most technological innovations in education are limited to the early adopter, constraining potential change on a wider scale.

With the mad rush to the “next best thing” how can we pay more attention to and provide more support for the deliberate consideration of the instructional value of these tools to the folks who don’t see it the way early adopters see it? It takes more time. Change is slow. Workshops and online tutorials are not for everyone. The idea of “bringing it to scale” may not have a logical and linear progression, that includes a neatly designed workshop series, or community of practice, or whatever, that will bring along others to engage in similar practices.

Has the pace of innovation outstripped our capacity to exist simultaneously at multiple points on the adoption curve? Perhaps we need to slow down a bit ourselves, find a balance. A balance between engaged participation, deliberate reflection, and importantly a continuous and embedded critique of what we are exploring. I guess it’s that last part that seems to come late in the game…usually just before we head off exploring the next greatest tool that will change education and learning…forever.

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