Grasping the future

We had an IEC departmental meeting yesterday, with all kinds of interesting ideas being floated about how to move forwards. (For outsiders: the Institute for Educational Cybernetics is the department at Bolton that hosts CETIS). I’m now sure there is room for new development of an approach to technology dissemination that we could consider.

This idea didn’t quite make it into the main discussion yesterday, which is partly why I wanted to blog about it here. Coincidentally, this morning via LinkedIn I see an article from yesterday on TechCrunch about Oblong, which I can use to help explain.

Yesterday Scott was talking about doing lots of “cool” stuff (tools, books included) so that some of them have a chance to take off and be one of the next big things — most of them probably won’t if we’re honest (like my book on Electronic Portfolios…). I was rather feebly trying to say that I can see a related gap that the IEC is in a very good position to bridge. Let me explain better and more clearly now.

When we have good ideas, part of the thing we have to come to terms with is that others often don’t get it straight away. If you think about it, this is pretty obvious — the insight you have is dependent on your current state of awareness, that you have spent quite some time building up. But then comes the real problem. It is much too easy to see the job of getting others to adopt your idea in terms of just persuading them. The wonderful presentation; the super-clear explanation; the appeal to how useful the thing is by referring to the amazing things that can be done: any of these may tempt us to believe it is the answer.

But, as anyone with teaching experience knows, it is often a much longer process. Even if calculus were really wonderful, you couldn’t persuade people who can’t even do algebra properly, with the most persuasive presentation in the world. They really can’t get it yet. But you can think in terms of progressive learning, through the stages of maths that have been worked on for centuries now. Similarly, there are many people you can’t just win over to, say, logic programming. In my direct recent experience, I could say the same about concept mapping, and in particular the diagrammatic conventions that underlie both that and RDF graphs, and indeed Topic Maps. A very similar story could be told of various technology specifications or standards. Take a look at RDFa, for instance, and the supposedly pragmatic decision by to adopt microdata in preference. “But you just have to understand it”, one might complain, “and you’ll see how much better it is!”

(Aside: to see how much better RDFa really is, see Manu Sporny’s blog.)

The vital and central point is that many technical people, I believe, misconceive of the task. They see it in terms of presentational effort, whereas they would be much better off thinking of the task in terms of learning and development.

We could hear echoes of Piaget here, perhaps. People have stages of their cognitive development. But I’m not a follower of Piaget (any more than of Marx) and I’m proposing not to follow any fixed scheme here. Rather, I’m saying that people — technical people in particular — if they are to maximise the chances of something they have created being adopted widely, need to look at the real potential adopters and create helpful models of what the relevant developmental stages are for those potential adopters, rather than for humanity in general.

And that brings me back to our potential role — the IEC’s role — here. We know about, we are in touch with, we incorporate several technical wizards and several far-sighted and innovative educators (and even a few who are both!) I think we can take on a mission to work out how to educate the innovators, the creators, the producers, about this task, this responsibility if you like, for working towards wider adoption. We could tell people about how important and useful it is, centrally, to plan out a sequence of stages, to motivate non-adopters towards adoption. Each stage needs to be graspable by, and motivating to, the audience. And it’s not necessarily only plain learning that needs to be mapped out, but individual stages of development (remembering the Piaget concept again), and that can take time.

Maybe this is part of the essence of the idea of “timing” of innovations. I’m saying that it’s not just good fortune, but some of it can be reasonably predicted, given a good model of people’s cognitive developmental stages, their experience, and the knowledge and skills they have accumulated. Just focusing on technology adoption, there could be a rich seam of research here, taking case studies of technology adoption, and working out why adoption happened, or not.

So back to the serendipitous example. Obviously adoption is greatly helped by well-placed articles (such as the one linked above) from reputable sources. But the article itself gives more clues. I quote:

“both Kramer and Ubderkoffler agree that consumer technologies like the Wii and the Kinect are perfect in helping to transition people over to these future concepts of computing.”

Then, a bit later:

“But first, Oblong knows they need to be able to bring relatively affordable products to market. And again, that’s what Mezzanine is all about. “Our goal here is to change how people work together,” Kramer explains in a slightly (but only slightly) less ambitious statement.”

So they are perfectly aware that getting people to adopt this new technology involves providing motivating experiences, and if they can’t afford them they won’t have them. They are also aware of the distinction between the future aspirational goal, and the humbler steps that need to be taken to approach it.

So, it looks like some people — probably the people who are going to be successful in getting their things adopted — understand these points well. My experience suggests that many more don’t. I can certainly say I struggle to keep hold of the central points here, and am easily tempted away to variations of the simplistic “give them a bigger prod and they’ll understand” way of thinking. But surely, shouldn’t part of what we offer as education in educational technology (or indeed cybernetics) be to get a more truly useful set of ideas more firmly into people’s consciousness?

In the end, what I think I’m saying is that we need to help the current enthusiasts / experts / technology evangelists grasp the reality about how, so often, the adoption process is limited or bounded by the stage of development of the potential adopters, and thus refocus their efforts towards formulation and envisioning respectful, plausible models of how their (no doubt) great innovations can be grasped and adopted, step by step in a future process perhaps, if not (the desired) all at once, now!

5 thoughts on “Grasping the future

  1. Hi Simon

    It’s hard isn’t it:-) but actually I think that we have passed a bit of a significant milestone (particularly in relation to web 2/web services) as it is much easier for the real users to actually try things without the same level of risk as say 10 years ago. I’m particularly thinking of using technology in the classroom. IMHO we’ll always needs some evangelising and I think we just need to continue to build and share “real” ways for people can actually use some (or all) of the cool stuff in their contexts.


  2. Thanks for this Simon. What I take from it is that we (IEC and others concerned with taking actions for change) need to conceive of ourselves, in part, as ‘teachers’. By this I mean the behaviours that good / adequate teachers exhibit: understand learners starting point; enthusing; inspiring; explaining; building learner confidence; and many more things we could list.

    This is a significant challenge as it might require us to dilute our self image of ‘expert’.

  3. Thanks, Stephen, yes! And I’d say we need to think of ourselves as teacher trainers too, where we are helping the experts to be the teachers…

    Or perhaps, if people prefer, “educators”? The word possibly sits better with me.

  4. Two possibly interesting thoughts have occurred to me as a result of this thread.

    (1) Re Stephen’s “This is a significant challenge as it might require us to dilute our self image of ‘expert’.” Part of my difficulty is that in most of my work I see myself very much as a learner working to push back the ‘unknown unknowns’, but I am increasingly labelled as an ‘expert’ by people from outside my direct field of engagement. The problem here can be that other learners (who happen to be managers or technologists or academics), those I perceive as partners in a process of working towards good quality information management solutions, see me as the ‘expert’, so they feel no need to engage with what they perceive to be technical issues. ‘It’s all going to be OK, because the expert will solve the problem’. So to follow up this thought, perhaps we need to clarify that we’re partners (educators perhaps, though that may be a stretch for myself) and not ‘providers of the answer’.

    (2) Perhaps we have a development of the Garbage Can Model of decision-making? Where we have traditionally (if that can be applied to the Garbage Can Model) three streams – problems, politics and policies – that have to coincide serendipitously to adopt solutions, we could posit a ‘technical education / appreciation’ growth medium in the garbage can that will have a subtle influence on politics and policies. This suggests that we do need an ongoing long term strategy of engagement with problem, politics and policies to create a more conducive environment for our contributions to solutions. It also means that rejection is not necessarily a bad thing – as long as there was positive engagement with the ideas.

  5. Indeed, thanks Alan for these interesting thoughts.

    With (1) I am in great sympathy :) However, I do think we have a responsibility to be, if you like, “servant leaders” to use that felicitous phrase. If our learning partners cannot, for some time, find a good way to partnership, we can strive to adapt to them better, and perhaps suggest ways of proceeding, based on our experience.

    (2) I find even more interesting as it seems new to me. I’m open to the idea (confirmed by experience) that decision making is messier than one would like. OK, messier than I would like! And, yes, approaches to addressing that could be very varied, from trying to achieve more order (as I am inclined) to (as you suggest) throwing growing media into the rubbish … if you don’t want to be the “expert” on that technique, maybe we can still be partners in addressing the challenge of technology (standards) adoption!

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