My high school calculus teacher once asked the class, “When do you know that your new shoes have just become your normal shoes?” Answers varied: “when the majority of the shoe shows wear or dirt,” “when you buy a newer pair of shoes,” “when the season changes.” I mused, “When you’re no longer excited about wearing them.”
Like finding Flyknits on markdown, everyone loves something sparkly, new, and functional. This tendency to revere and promote what is most current is not only incredibly human; it’s ubiquitous, particularly in regards to technology.
It’s indisputable that advances in technology have made indelible marks on the way we communicate, organize, and learn. Some of these changes have been incredibly positive: the internet has made it possible for anyone with an iPad and Wi-Fi to access torrents of information about subjects as varied as plant evolution and Persian poetry. Online communities provide some of the best informal learning and/or safe spaces for people invested in particular subcultures. While equitable access to web-enabled technologies and resources remains a domestic and international issue, the fervor with which people have embraced computer-based technology in their personal and professional lives is mirrored in the burgeoning ed-tech industry.
The evidence suggesting “gadgets in the classroom don’t improve learning…hasn’t stopped the educational technology market’s steady upward climb.” Not only has the overall market value risen to over $8 billion in 2014, rising school expenditures in ed-tech products have encouraged investors to pour money into related startups.
This has led to a corresponding shift in the way that schools interface with ed-tech companies. In lieu of the lengthy but standard request-for-proposal process, many companies now benefit from demonstrating products in classrooms before they launch. Innovation centers, both public and nonprofit, exist to match schools and ed-tech companies based on mutual need.
Fundamentally, all this investment, hard work, and good intention exist to promote innovations that promise to solve, or at least ameliorate, some of education’s most intractable problems. But, amid all the buzz, we might recognize a tacit but tangible notion that ed-tech solutions are universally good and should be widely adopted, sans alteration or rejection, as an example of pro-innovation bias.
Pro-innovation bias is not a new phenomenon. Everett Rogers coined the term in his 1963 capolavoro, Diffusion of Innovations, but it remains an understudied facet of innovation theory today – probably because it’s a total buzzkill. It’s that voice inside your head that, facing something with a lot of promise, tells you not to get your hopes up or to proceed with caution. It’s not fun, but it does give good advice.
Namely, that implementation matters.
The success of any new endeavor, technological or otherwise, is undoubtedly shaped by how well it aligns with the culture of your organization. If you’re a teacher with students who love working in groups, think about the capacity of your technologies – be they devices, physical spaces, or applications – to promote collaboration in real time as opposed to reward individual success. If you’re an administrator in an informal professional environment, consider how formal performance reviews might impact employees, as well as the way you prefer to manage. These kind of mismatches – individual tools in collaborative environments, formal evaluations in informal environments, processual reforms in innovative spaces – tend to curb the duration and degree to which people use new things.
Also, resources matter. A shiny set of new laptops is certainly a boon to any teacher or administrator, but there must be logistic support in place to ensure that the laptops are kept in working order and that their users – including students, teachers, coordinators, and specialists – know how to use them effectively and efficiently. Certainly having the funds to cover technical support and training is an important component of implementing technology successfully, and yes, schools are notoriously resource-scarce, but simply communicating a clear plan of who is responsible for what goes a long way toward alleviating frustration down the line. Is there a go-to person on staff for technical issues? Do you have a colleague who is familiar with the app you’re using? Can go to her if you have questions? Do you know how to access training materials, and do you have them on hand? Is there a well-understood process for reserving time with devices?
Finally, innovations with lasting power tend to be flexible. With personalization and modification, innovations can become optimized for your or your organization’s use. It’s important though, in this process of mutual adaptation, to strike a balance. Too little modification and the innovation ends up controlling you. Too much modification, and you may compromise the parts of it which promise the greatest reward. Think about those formal performance reviews. If you administer them by the book, your run the risk of alienating your employees. Conversely, if you don’t take them seriously enough, you run the risk of communicating that performance isn’t important.
None of this is to say that technology doesn’t have a space in education. Clearly, we’re in favor of it. But next time you’re considering changing things up or wondering why everyone stopped using that note-taking app three weeks after you introduced it, maybe it’s worth assessing whether you’ve introduced the wrong thing or implemented the right thing wrongly.