I am using an elaborated “diffusion of innovations” model as the basis of my strategy for the Extended Classroom initiative at Warwick. The model is called the “organisational learning and design loop” and emerged out of my PhD research. The loop illustrates an ideal pattern through which people come to integrate new practices and continually use them – with the emphasis on finding innovations that fit well and endure (stick) over time, in a context that helps them to spread as widely as possible. There is also an additional reflective dimension that leads at least some people into becoming “informed advocates” (spreading innovations) and “design participants” (growing our capability for further innovation). So it is both a design loop and a learning loop – creating and embedding design innovations, and creating fresh knowledge about people, the organisation and the world. Advocates help to spread the practice to more people and into more uses. Design participants feed back into the design process, thus growing our capability for effective designing and innovation.
The Extended Classroom initiative has three aims:
- To encourage the widespread adoption of better technology-enhanced practices for learning, teaching and the student experience – where “better” means fitting better with our key design values (appropriate flexibility, widening participation, diversity, academic excellence, global-mindedness, sustainability, Student as Producer amongst others).
- To encourage broader participation in the enhancement of learning, teaching and the student experience, including participation in the design process.
- To encourage a more “platform-centric” approach to developing and delivering service and technology provisions, especially joining-up physical and digital spaces.
To achieve these aims we need to bring many more people through the loop with many new practices. Or in other words, we need to help people to become effective adopters of Extended Classroom practices, then informed advocates and onto being good design participants.
The current proposal is that this can be more effectively achieved through a well designed and supported staff-student partnership approach. This would help individual students and staff members to become Extended Classroom Champions – that is to say, they would themselves be good at all stages on the loop, and good at helping others through the loop.
If we are to effectively design support for this, we need to understand:
- how each stage acts as a precursor to the next;
- how people proceed through the stages most effectively (learning from best practice in a range of industries);
- how they can get a reflexive appreciation of their progress through the loop, improve it, and use their experiences to help others.
I am now working on a more detailed understanding of these three questions. Here are some basics.
Personally, I know that I don’t always get the best out of technology. For example, international phone calls – I recently had a conversation with a student in which she told me about some of the many options available for saving money. So I’m aware that there are better systems available, but I haven’t got enough knowledge and understanding to make a soundly informed choice. That’s not good. But it gets worse. Often within an organisation word gets around that there’s a new innovation, and it really is the way to go for everyone. The rumour circulates as an awareness. And as people make sense of it without the aid of informed advocates or good communications, the story gets a little twisted. I’ve even known of cases where a relatively mundane tool becomes the swiss army knife of people’s dreams. However, a more likely outcome is that the innovation fails to gain enough attention to even register in the conscious deliberations of many people. We are all overloaded with tasks and communications. I have observed how such busy people will make snap decisions, often barely conscious, to ignore a message that shows any likelihood of demanding too much time and energy. Worse still, too many academic technologies are tainted with the suspicion that even showing a small degree of interest will open a nasty can of worms. Look away now. Nothing to see here. Carry on as before.
So in the organisational learning and design loop, awareness is bad. Instead we need to build recognition as quickly and widely as possible.
Our Extended Classroom technology cards are designed to boost recognition. We give the technology (and its associated practices) a simple, catchy, meaningful and honest name. We associate the name with a simple idea of what it is and what it does. And we add to that clearly stated value propositions. And all of that is designed to hook directly into common needs, concerns, values and ambitions. So the mental process is for example:
“oh yes, Lecture Capture, that’s where a lecturer requests for the lecture to be automatically recorded, they choose if they want video, chalkboard, visualiser, and the recording just happens automatically, and then they get to decide where they want it to appear, and it helps students to understand the lecture better, as they can listen to it again and again, it makes great lectures unmissable.”
And the word spreads. Fresh people hear the same story from multiple sources, with the same clear and meaningful messages. That’s a first good step to widespread adoption. Although it might also be a first step towards larger numbers of people saying “what? no, that doesn’t work for us” which is also a good thing to hear expressed clearly by well informed people. It might mean that there is a genuine mismatch between the innovation and its potential users/uses. Or it might mean that it is being mis-communicated (although we have to be careful not to make the politicians mistake of assuming the latter).
3. Sufficient Understanding
In Diffusion of Innovations (2003) Rogers described the basic conditions that enable adoption. We need to see: (1) relative advantage, (2) compatibility, (3) complexity, (4) trialability, and (5) observability. Effective recognition goes some way to achieving a sufficient understanding of relative advantage. But in most cases we need to do more, especially in helping people to understand how an innovation is compatible or incompatible with existing practices, projects, values, concerns and ambitions. That’s why people like to try things out, or at least get a strong sense of what adopting will really be like. Our job (as academic technologists or Extended Classroom Champions) is to help people to get this sufficient understanding of fit. However, if an innovation is too complex, difficult to trial, and hard to observe, then building sufficient understanding is difficult. Many innovations in education are, unfortunately, hard to understand without trying them out for a length of time. So we need some quite clever and sophisticated strategies and methods to make this happen.
If the groundwork of building sufficient understanding has been done well, the pathway to adoption of the innovation should be relatively smooth. People are only human, and will need support to learn new techniques and to make them as habitual as needed. One of the most common range of problems that we encounter arises from unexpected incompatibilities with other people – for example in a teaching team, or amongst unexpectedly diverse students (who definitely are not all digital natives). Further incompatibilities can arise much later on, for example when a course is handed over to different teaching staff. There are then issues that need to be resolved, support that needs to be provided to enable a process of co-adaptation, in which people change their capabilities and practices, and sometimes modify the new practice to fit better and to make it more adoptable. Again, clever strategies are needed. But also, continual care and consideration.
Adoption is not the end-point. A new practice needs to stick for a length of time that justifies the effort of creating and adopting it. Ideally, people gain a sense of trust and care for the practice – what Jonathan Chapman (2005) calls “emotionally durable designs”. It mitigates against both inertia and innovation-churn. We call this phase continuation, although in reality it can be difficult to distinguish from adoption/adaptation. Some technologies and practices are especially difficult to continue, requiring continual input or even points at which they demand higher degrees of attention. This is especially problematic when we have to do something that is quite difficult, perhaps requiring us to follow a tricky procedure, but we do it very infrequently. The “module rollover” process is a good example. It happens once a year for most modules, even less frequently for modules that do not run every year. The responsible academic or academic support person has to archive content and activities from a previous year’s running of a module, knowing what to archive and what to lose. And they need to reconfigure the module for the coming academic year, with different students and teachers, and variations. The Academic Technology team have in response designed technology features and support processes to help people to continue the practice year after year, and where necessary, to help hand over the activity to new people as the module personnel changes.
The module rollover process also illustrates the value of ensuring points at which reflection on practice occurs. It is a good point in time for academics, students and support people to reflect on what works and what might be done differently, as well as on the workings of their organisational learning and design loop. They are facilitated in doing this. However, with many practices, little time is put into such reflection, and it is not built into generic practice or the design of services and tools.
6. Informed Advocacy
But reflection is essential for achieving the next level, at which we might say people become Extended Classroom Champions. Informed advocates are able to tell realistic, meaningful, truthful stories about the use and value of a practice. They have intimate knowledge, gained from first hand experience, observation and reflection. And furthermore, they can advise on the best ways to adopt, adapt, continue and reflect. These people are essential for spreading the practice more broadly, as well as continuing the practice in places where it is already in use (the can help to induct new practitioners). However, this does not necessarily happen as an emergent force of nature. We have to facilitate, support and reward the network of informed advocates. We have to ensure that the right people speak to each other at the right time. And we have to ensure that hard-won knowledge remains fresh.
7. Design Participation
Now, having been through the loop in a supported manner, and having reflected and learned about new practices and the process of achieving good fit, stick and spread, we should have people who can feed back into the review, design and development of practices and technologies more effectively. Of course people at all stages should be participant designers, but we can improve and accelerate the loop by growing a community of more sophisticated design participants. What makes for a good design participant? There are many attributes, the nature of which has been subject to much research and theory in recent years (the IDEO Design Thinking approach is an especially sophisticated model). Technical understanding is clearly important. Thinking big picture and small detail at the same time is essential. Open-mindedness and creativity help. But in making the leap from continuation/reflection through informed advocacy to design participation helping us to build an accessible and adaptable University as a platform, then perhaps the most important capability is empathy.
Chapman, J. (2005) Emotionally Durable Design. Taylor & Francis.
Rogers, E. M. (2003) Diffusion of Innovations, 5th Edition. Simon and Schuster. Kindle edition.