Friday, October 4, 2013

Tablets in School: The Challenges of Diffusion of Innovation

Image by IntelFreePress CC BY-SA 2.0
This week for one of my classes we are reading--a LOT--about diffusion of innovation. I was assigned to write a reflection in response to a chapter from the book entitled Gaining Momentum: Managing the Diffusion of Innovation by Joseph Tidd. The chapter I read explained the foundations of different models of diffusion, and some of the associated problems.

I found the examples given in the beginning of this chapter to be a surprising variety from a great many fields. This is a good reminder that “technology” is much broader than just computers and other electronic devices. And certainly, diffusion of innovation isn’t limited to the realm of technology alone. The wide variety of innovative ideas the diffuse through a culture were even more intriguing to me as I think about the ideas of cultural acceptance of different approaches to teaching and learning--including online education or other technologically-mediated methodologies--that I hope to learn more about through my work in this program.
As the discussion in the chapter turned toward the technological, my mind ran to Apple as an example of the ideas being considered. I am, admittedly, a fan of Apple products, but I am not an early-adopter. I finally got an iPod Nano in 2007, after the iPod had been on the market for six years, and I have yet to replace it or upgrade, because it suits my needs just fine. I got an iPad a little more than a year after they were first offered. I still don’t have an iPhone (yet,) but I’ve had my eye on them for quite sometime.

I’ve heard it said before that Apple is a marketing company that also happens to make technology products, and while I think that is a little rough treatment, I understand what the people who might feel that way are saying. Apple is very good at creating demand for their products. The discussion here of Frank Bass’s marketing model of diffusion (developed back in 1969!) makes sense: the early adopters are most affected by marketing and media, while later adopters (like I tend to be…) are more influenced by word-of-mouth communication with the early adopters. I know I am affected by Apple’s marketing (they are successful at getting me to think “I want that new iThingie!”), but not affected enough to purchase them as an early adopter. The later adaptations of the Bass model only make the iterative nature of Apple’s releases make more sense. For instance, I’m now looking at the iPhone 5C thinking this will be my next Apple purchase. It’s an incremental difference from earlier versions of the phone, and the cost of this version is part of what is drawing me. I’m not enough convinced that the differences of the 5S merit paying twice the money compared to the 5C, but I’m convinced of the usefulness of a smartphone for more than just a toy--and it’ll beat the pants off of the prepaid (no-contract) dumbphone I’m currently using!

The author discusses Everett Rogers' earlier work on the nature of innovation, he highlights five conditions that affect the rapidity of the diffusion of innovation: relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability and observability. Here again, I’ll use Apple as an example. 
  • Relative advantage: Apple generally is able to tout their products as having a relative advantage: they are far less likely to suffer from viruses, they are well-built devices that stand up to the test of time, they have beautiful design, and they seem to just “work”--all of which make them desirable alternatives to other technology tools. 
  • Compatibility: There was a time when Apple’s products were seen as incompatible with other operating systems, but Apple’s market share today is such that almost every software developer releases a Mac version (or iOS version) of their products as well, leading to a high compatibility. 
  • Complexity: Apple consistently--relentlessly!--strives to make their products intuitive and easy to use, which makes them feel less complex than alternatives. 
  • Trialability: With the growth of the Apple Store model (and hands-on models at stores like Best Buy), it is relatively easy for most consumers to get their hands on an Apple device to try it out for themselves. 
  • Observability: With the ubiquity of iPhones and iPads in particular throughout society (and MacBook computers, on our campus at least), the observability factor for Apple products throughout our culture is very high. In short, Apple’s marketing people--working in concert with their design and development people, to be sure!--are making it very likely for their products to easily diffuse throughout our culture.

One very interesting point the author raises is the question of whether diffusion of innovation is necessarily a good thing. I was a little taken aback by this idea, but as I’m reflecting on it, I see his point. He points out that much of the research into diffusion of innovation has been conducted from the perspective that such diffusion is a desirable thing, and that new innovations should be adopted as quickly as possible. One only has to look at the number of schools that are adopting tablets (iPads anyone?) without a clear path to how they will be used as an example of how this might be a problem. Will some of those schools weather this situation? Certainly. But other tablet projects  are likely to be seen as dismal failures, because the pressure to adopt the new technology is such that there is not a clear plan for implementation. This idea is further substantiated later in the piece as the author notes the risks associated with adopting technologies: if they are too “young” and unproven, the certainty of success is impossible to measure, which may mean costly mistakes. However, if the technologies are too “old,” the opportunities they provide may not be worth the investment. This is a balancing act for schools, many of which are cash-strapped. We can’t afford to choose wrong. Should we go with the sure thing that provides less benefit? Or should we go with the latest and greatest and deal with the fallout should it blow up in our face? I'll be curious to see what comes of tablet programs in this regard!

What do you think? Does it make sense for schools to adopt an unproven technology in the hope that it works? Or are these tools ubiquitous enough that there are only modest gains by adding them into schools in this day and age?

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