Innovators or Early Adaptors or just plain Late Majority?

In reading several blog posts and tweets over the last couple of months I have noticed that there were several writers who wondered why the use of technology had not developed further in education, why was education seemingly so far behind in our uptake of this wonderful new way of reaching students.  I had even put a comment or two down on David Truss’ blog regarding what I thought some of the problems might be.   Well it’s a good thing that we get time off to relax and read, I don’t think I have found an exact answer but I have found something that helps describe one reason for this.  I was inspired to write this after reading part of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Tipping Point. An excellent book that provided a lot of really interesting information about the spread of epidemics both social and viral.  It is well worth a read by any educator any time, for me one of the more big picture moments was his discussion about the development of specific epidemics.  To summarize in a the briefest of fashions Gladwell makes the argument that while there are three essential preconditions for epidemics:

  1. the power of few
  2. the stickiness factor and,
  3. context

each of these he argues are necessary for the spread of epidemics.  These are simple ideas that he describes in a very straightforward fashion and then illustrates with wonderfully interesting examples.  These three factors require three types of people:

  1. connectors – those who have all the contacts
  2. Mavens – those who collect huge amounts of information about things
  3. salespeople – those who make the new idea palatable for others

According to Gladwell these are the ones who are responsible for spreading social epidemics (as opposed to the biological kind).  When you read the book it suddenly becomes much easier to picture certain people in your life as the ones who fill these roles, although perhaps not to the level of the characters he uses to highlight his points.  After taking us through all these details Gladwell finally gets to looking at case studies and here is what I thought was important.  Gladwell looks at some very well know sociological ideas, including one called the ‘diffusion model.’  This was developed by looking at some corn growers in Iowa in the late 1920s and ’30s.  Apparently they looked at the speed at which farmers adopted an obviously superior type of corn.  Despite being introduced in 1928, it took until 1936 for the majority of the farmers observed to adopt this obviously better yielding variety.  It’s from this study that the terms that have been applied to technological acceptance so often today:

  1. Innovators
  2. Early Adopters
  3. Early Majority
  4. Late Majority
  5. Laggards

Essentially these terms are self-describing, but my thought about them was: ‘How do these terms describe educators?‘  In my experience having taught in only three schools, but with well over 160 different colleagues I can safely say that the vast, vast majority are wonderful caring people.  Some with a great sense of humour, and others with a great understanding of students, but where do we, as a collective, fit, on the scale above.  Clearly in teaching, like in society, there are people who are all over the board, a very few who are Innovators, a much larger number that would be in the majority, etc.   What stopped me though was the thought that every year we have a whole new cohort that joins us, ones that should be the Innovators, or at the very least Early Adopters.

So my next question is: ‘Why are our early term colleagues, seemingly not as quick to take up technology?  Why are they not the Early Adapters?’  This I believe is the crux of the issue and I would say that there are probably no easy answers for this.

  1. One of the answers would seem to be because first year teachers are (generally) immediately thrown into a sink of swim environment.  The goal for the first year is simply to ‘survive.’  While there is probably some merit to this approach it also means that someone arriving, new to the profession, with new ideas, is immediately overcome with a need just to get through to the next day.  They are the ones who get the classes no one else wants, the extra-curricular activities no one else wants, any big ideas seem to be swept aside pretty fast.
  2. There is a strong emphasis on anything but technology integration in education schools.  We are very interested in assessment, integration and other popular terms, but somehow we seem to miss this part.  I have worked with many student teachers (either in my classes or in my colleagues’) over the last few years and in retrospect it seems odd that I would be at the same level technologically as they are.  At least one should have been a standout.
  3. There are few educational leaders that grasp the potential yet.  There hasn’t yet been a significant generational shift in leadership where the people in charge see technology as a way to actually deal with issues many educational issues together instead of trying to deal with each issue separately.
  4. Our infrastructure is not, for the most part, late 20th-Century.  It costs a lot of money to run certain schools (heating, cooling, security, etc.), and that is money that is simply not available to chase newer technology.  This is definitely a problem when it comes to trying to put the technology in place for teachers to use.
  5. Maybe we need a great jolt in education, when you look at the farmers in the Iowa study, the greatest change occurred after the onset of the Great Depression, surely a motivating factor in any decision to institute a change, would be an economic reason to change.  It’s quite possible that too many of us just look the way education is going and say well it’s ‘good enough,’ so even if there are Innovators and Early Adapters, the context for change just doesn’t exist (to extend Gladwell’s argument).
  6. Our profession just doesn’t attract the kind of Innovators and Early Adapters that would seem so important in pushing these ideas forward.  They are instead attracted to other professions, and those that do make it in, find the climate to be unwelcoming, and so may leave in frustration.

These are just some potential answers, I’m sure there are a lot more, and there has to be hope out there.  I have never seen myself as an Innovator or Early Adapter, and yet here I am finishing a long and very serious blog entry, so there must be hope.  Maybe the wave is just starting, or as Malcolm Gladwell would say, the trend is beginning to reach a tipping point, and if that’s the case, for all those whose blog postings I’ve read, and that I’ve found inspiring, and who’ve asked this question, hang on a little longer, things could begin to change fast!  Certainly the advent of Twitter and the vast potential for cyber-Professional Learning Communities, seems to hold a lot of potential.

Now I think I need to start a second blog and migrate this entry there, since I never had any attention of making this blog a place for ‘grand ideas,’ more a place for solid ideas for education.


6 responses to “Innovators or Early Adaptors or just plain Late Majority?

  1. Keep your big ideas right here Greg, if you want to see innovation then ‘big thinking’ needs to go hand-in-in with ‘solid ideas’.

    Your list of 5 items is excellent, though I wonder if 2 more shouldn’t be added:

    6. We aren’t matching the tech-savvy student teachers and new teachers with tech-savvy mentors. (This is kind of an extension of #2)

    7. New teachers get the dog’s breakfast with respect to resources, they aren’t getting the classrooms that are fully decked out, or even an LCD projector for that matter. (This kind of relates to #3)

    A good friend of mine, Dave Sands, has been saying for years that it is students that will meaningfully change education and more and more I’m starting to understand his point. We are not teaching kids to be passive learners and as we require and expect them to actively engage, we will be left with no choice but to allow them to use the tools that allow them to lead the way.

    You ask, “Why are our early term colleagues, seemingly not as quick to take up technology?”
    Maybe our students just haven’t demanded it… (yet).

    • Awesome additions Dave, I really appreciate your input, on this. I sometimes wonder if this first year issue needs perhaps some more examination. I once had a debate with somebody about this and the fall-back position was always, ‘That’s just the way it’s always been.’ It’s a simplistic point that I think doesn’t recognize the potential of first year teachers. Not that they should be given all the high-end classes, but there are always plenty of other types of classes in any school. Finally you also make the very important point that they should be given a chance with the technology that will make a difference. Thanks for the support and the input.

  2. Very interesting post and a question that many of us struggle with every day. I agree that new teachers are so busy trying to survive that they put off using technology. It is often the more experienced teacher who knows curriculum, has good classroom management and has back up lessons that is willing to try something new.

    Also, in some schools computers just replaced paper. If I am doing the same thing I did on paper why should I use a computer. Paper is easier.

    Teachers need to focus on what information can now come into their classroom as well as what information they can now share with the world.


    • Thanks Jim, the feedback is appreciated, and your point about experienced teachers is true. My only thought on that, is that for many of us, having survived our first year, we become focused on what we used in the first year and not so much on what’s ‘new.’ The habits that form in that first year can be very hard to shake. I found myself in that trap for far too long, luckily I was given a chance to refocus on my practice, but not all teachers have that chance.

  3. I read Tipping Point a few years ago when we were in the throws of designing an organizational change through the implementation of a learning portal. Tipping Point does provide some insights into the type of people you need on your team for a large change effort.

    That said, I have a couple of comments for you. I think most change efforts experience an uphill climb, some climbs are longer than others. Once the change starts to take root and on a life of its own, things snowball. The use of technology in business for instance… I recall reading articles in the 80’s and 90’s where business was lamenting the millions invested in computing to obtain efficiencies. Lots of questioning of the wisdom of the value of these investments. Post 2001 dot-bomb, “most” businesses couldn’t survive without the use of technology – this is increasing. Education is still in the questioning and experimenting phase. It will tip…

    The cost of technology is directly related to the adoption rate in education. The cost is approaching zero in some areas. Many students and increasingly teachers are bringing their own digital devices. Many sophisticated applications useful for learning and teaching are becoming free or very low cost. Many more teachers are experimenting and through networks, sharing their learning. This is a positive feedback loop.

    I am starting to talk about this from an IT perspective in my blog ( — what do IT organizations in school districts need to reinvent themselves as to be relevant and able to support the new ways of providing/supporting educational use of technology. I believe a fundamental shift will occur in 5 to 10 years.

    Great post by the way!

    • Thanks so much for the feedback Brian, as this was my first post that really attempted to tackle a ‘big issue’ I was more than a little nervous, and I appreciate your ideas. I think I focused a lot on the here and now, and perhaps not as much as I should have on the medium term. Something which your most recent blog post seems to do quite well. Thanks for giving me something to think about.

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