Breaking the Mold: An Educational Perspective on Diffusion of Innovation/Change Agents and Education

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By Jessie Christensen

Change agent is defined as a person who is advocating the growth and adoption of an innovation. This is not specific to a person that has been called upon to fill that role. In this case, the change agent need have no connection to the company behind the innovation, save an interest in spreading the given innovation to their surrounding community. Using this definition, any person can become a change agent when focusing on the spread of an innovation for the benefit of the surrounding community. In Christensen’s chapter, she examines why a change agent is necessary and what a change agent does. She ends the chapter discussing educators as change agents.

The Change Agent[edit]

Looking at the Words[edit]

The first thing that it is important to understand about the topic is what it is that a change agent is exactly. It is made up of two easy to understand and fairly common words: “change” and “agent”.

One definition given by Merriam – Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary for the word “change” is as follows: “to make different in some particular; to make radically different; to give a different position, course, or direction to” (2003). In the same dictionary, one definition for the word “agent” is as follows: “something that produces or is capable of producing an effect” (2003).

Putting the terms together, gives you this: something that is capable of producing an effect that has the potential to transform. It is a rough definition at best, but now the truth of what a change agent is able to be can be understood much more easily.

The Change Agent in Various Models[edit]

The change agent is a component of several models in social science discussing the diffusion of innovations.

Primary among these models is Everett M. Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations. For much of this chapter’s information about change agents and their role, the author will be relying on this model. The model breaks down the aspects of diffusion into several important pieces, of which one is the change agent. Rogers defines a change agent as “an individual who influences clients’ innovation-decisions in a direction deemed desirable by a change agency” (1962). In other words, the change agent is a person seeking to bring about some sort of change in their targets on behalf of some organization, program, or business. This can be anything from the adoption of cleaner habits to the adoption of iPads in everyday life. Products and ideas are both presented in this case as being the change in the definition. The idea for the change agent is to spread that change favorably (or not so favorably depending on the goal) and encourage (or discourage) the spread of adoption of said change.

No other diffusion model directly addresses a change agent per se within their own wordings, but many do say that leadership is necessary in order for an idea to be properly spread. Ely’s Conditions of Change call specifically for a need for leadership. He states the following: “Even though individuals act alone, especially in classroom endeavors, they need the inspiration and continuing support of individuals whom they respect. These individuals, often called leaders, provide initial encouragement to consider new ideas; they insure that the necessary training is given and that the materials to do the job are easily available; they are available for consultation when discouragement or failure occur; and they continually communicate their enthusiasm for the work at hand” (1990).

In some cases, leadership and the change agent can prove to be one and the same. In other cases, the leader is just a primary target for the change agent. Either way, the two terms are closely related and can be important to an understanding of what a change agent is.

The Change Agent in Terms of This Chapter[edit]

For the purpose of this chapter, the author takes an approach that has some in common with the models outlined above, but much in common with the dictionary definition that was given above. The author uses the term change agent to mean a person who is advocating the growth and adoption of an innovation. This is not specific to a person that has been called upon to fill that role. In this case, the change agent need have no connection to the company behind the innovation, save an interest in spreading the given innovation to their surrounding community. Using this definition, any person can become a change agent when focusing on the spread of an innovation for the benefit of the surrounding community.

Why the Change Agent is Necessary[edit]

Rogers describes the diffusion process as “the process in which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system” (1962). The diffusion process is heavily dependent on the communication process, as is made clear in that definition. The change agent is another way in which communication flows. Often, they play the role of spreading information about an innovation to others who do not necessarily know of it or are trying to find out more about it. The communication can come from a number of sources and do not necessarily have to include a change agent. However, the addition of a change agent to the equation can speed up and assist the process just based upon having someone that is actively trying to push along the adoption of an innovation.

What a Change Agent Does[edit]

According to Rogers, when individuals begin to be made aware of the existence of an innovation, they enter what is known as the innovation-decision process. Within this process, there are five stages: knowledge, persuasion, decision, implementation, and confirmation. Within the persuasion stage of the model, “an individual…forms a favorable or an unfavorable attitude towards the innovation” (1962). This is one of the most important areas for a change agent to work in. The main role of the change agent is to help spread awareness and interest in the adoption of an innovation. They need to be aware of the people to which they are trying to spread the innovation. Rogers states that “at the persuasion stage and the decision stage, an individual seeks innovation evaluation information, messages that reduce uncertainty about an innovation’s expected consequences” (1962).

The objective of the change agent is to connect with their target audience, help identify needs to the innovation in question, identify possible blocks, and help the target audience to overcome those blockages in order to answer those uncertainties described above. The way in which they accomplish these goals is really heavily dependent on their ability to communicate and identify with the people to whom they are trying to spread the innovation. Rogers identifies the basis of this as skill as targeting, which “is the process of customizing the design and delivery of a communication program based on the characteristics of an intended audience” (1962). If the outcome of their efforts is successful, then the target individual will form the opinion, whether positive or negative, that the change agent intended for them to take. This same idea is true even given that the definition of the change agent is read slightly differently than the way that Rogers presents it for the sake of this chapter.

Educational Perspective[edit]

There are many innovations that have swept through the educational system or are in the process of doing so at the moment. Currently, there is a big push to use more technology in the classroom. More than that, the world is changing to begin to revolve around the use of and access to technology. The world is entering into what Jenkins et al. refers to as a participatory culture. What is meant by a participator culture is a culture including “relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby it is known by the most experienced members is passed along to novices” (Jenkins et al. n.d.). Those emerging cultures are, of course, those found through the internet. Examples include Facebook, podcasting, YouTube, Wikipedia, etc. Those areas are becoming not only very important for an active social life, they are also becoming essential professional skills as well.

Additionally, there is yet another important skill set emerging as essential to being a functional adult and it is also being requested to be brought into education. Those skills are known as media literacy skills. “The goal of media literacy skills is not to memorize facts about media or even be able to make a video or PowerPoint presentation. Rather, the goal is to explore questions that arise when one engages critically with a mediated message – print or electronic“ (Thoman & Jolls, 2004). There is a great call to foster those skills within schools and technology is being brought in in order to help. There are various kinds that are being talked about and many scholarly articles emerging about how to use technology and how many successes have been met with their implementation.

Among the new activities and tools that are being gradually being introduced into the educational system are educational simulations (ex. SecondLife), alternative and augmented reality games, webquests, production activities (ex. making podcasts), and blogs and wikis (Jenkins et al., n.d.). Those are going through the diffusion process currently and it is actually a very interesting study looking at how those ideas are spreading. Technology is not the only topic that is subject to the diffusion process within education. Different styles of teaching and different curricula are also subject to the process.

Change agents in education are those who are doing new things in the education system and trying to spread those ideas outwards. Principals or teachers who push ahead ideas to the rest of their school and districts are the change agents in this situation. Often they help to push along an innovation and help the other members of their area to help them feel comfortable and encourage them to adopt an innovation.

Educators as Change Agents[edit]

The Role of Teaching and the Role of the Change Agent[edit]

Teachers are always on the lookout for how to improve things for the students that they teach. They are also looking for ways to improve their own craft and the school around them. Some can be resistant to change, but many are now very worried about appealing to the parents that are pushing for more technological involvement. Becoming a change agent fits right in hand for the push among teachers to improve their quality and to prove themselves. Even in Rogers model it is stated that “many different occupations fit our definition of change agent: teachers, consultants, public health workers, and salespeople” (1962). Teachers are listed right there among those possibilities. Therefore, it is not out of line for a teacher to step up and fill that role. The most important factors to being a change agent are still present within the profession of teaching: dealing with and having an influential position among people.

For real change to take place, teachers often have to extend the changes that they make beyond their own classrooms to justify and solidify the changes that they make. In this case, many already play the role of the change agent without even realizing that it is happening. Many times, the teachers that embrace and understand the technologies and innovations have the opportunity to take on an additional role such as that of the IT Coordinator. In many cases, the role of teacher and the role of IT Coordinator are viewed as two very distinct and separate things. However, there is more in common with them than one might think. According to Davis, “IT coordinators are a special member of the ‘keystone species’ of teachers with an extraordinary ability as change agents to spread or retard innovation” (2008). This implicitly links teachers and the educational change agents to each other. They can function in the same realm and touch the groups. Now, this does not mean that teachers need to give up their classrooms in order to be change agents. Often the role of the IT coordinator is a different job, but it does not have to be viewed that way. Teachers can take on aspects of the IT coordinator and assist in that type of the effect on their educational community without abandoning a teaching background.

Why Education Needs Change Agents[edit]

The first important point to make is that the education system, as it is now, is designed to resist change as much as possible. The system has for nearly a hundred years become very fixated on efficiency and “Taylorism” (in other, words the belief in a one best way to do something for all people). Rees states, “as curricula standardizes around high-stakes exams, teachers become, in essence, educational delivery systems rather than skilled professionals“ (2001). This is slowly beginning to change, but as can be easily seen, the system can be very stubborn and resistant. There is finally beginning to be some leeway, so there is an ever increasing need for those to push it along.

There are needs for some of the tips and skills that many change agents usually use in their work. The educational system is going through a time of intense transition as technologies begin to come to forefront of everyday life. That has been causing many clashes within and without the education system. Collins & Halverson describe the problem this way: “…School fosters just-in-case learning while technology fosters just-in-time learning. There are many reasons why schools are uncomfortable with new technology. But technology is becoming central to all life” (2009). This is a very key fact that is turning many school systems on their heads. There is a huge influx of innovations beginning to flow into the school systems in order to try to account for this change.

Technology diffusion is the same as any other type of diffusion process. It has a lot in common with the process described by Rogers. As stated by Straub, “…technology adoption is innately social, influenced by peers, change agents, organizational pressure, and societal norms. The process of technology adoption can be altered through these social interactions” (2009). Many innovations will be unable to spread without the usage of change agents and the same is really true within the education system, just based upon the importance of the social aspect in the diffusion process. Any little bit of added influence, socially, is invaluable to the furtherance of a cause.

It is equally important is that the change agents are most helpful at appealing to educators if they are also an educator themselves. It is very important in the diffusion process that the change agent and the target audience be identifiable and the presented message be culturally sensitive. If these objectives are not suitably met, then the message entirely fails and the target audience will not take the stance that is intended by the change agent. In order to make sure that the message has the best chance of being favorably received, the change agent should have as much in common with the target audience as possible. Therefore, in order for the changes to be most effectively spread to the education systems, educators make the best change agents within it.

Being an Educator and a Change Agent[edit]

There are many skills that are inherent to being a change agent which an educator is going to need in order to be most effective at spreading awareness and influence of innovations. Many of these are skills that successful educators already possess. Dormant lists in an article a number of skills that are important in order for a change agent to be successful. These include consulting skills, power, and empathy (Domant, 1986).

Consulting skills are described as encompassing “clarifying, negotiating, goal-setting, listening effectively, and so forth” (Dormant, 1986). It is easy why these are important skills to have simply based on one of the root goals of the change agent, which is to help communicate needs and the like to a target audience. Any teacher is already possessing in a majority of these skills. Teaching is a profession that calls for a great deal of interpersonal skills. Whether those are the primary focus of the individual or not, the skills are there, putting teachers at a distinct advantage over some others in becoming effective change agents. As with a day in the classroom teaching students, the target audience should be viewed as a new type of student. To this new student type, the teacher is teaching about and introducing a new tool. It is just the same in the sort of way as encouraging a math student to approach a word problem using a new formula to which they have not been introduced to yet. The new student needs to be gently supported into the idea, given the full access to information and the ability to explore.

The second thing that the article recommends as a skill for a good change agent is power. This might seem like a fairly negative requirement to be pulled into the discussion, but it is not necessarily what it seems. As Dormant says, “in order to bring about planned change, you must exert direct or indirect control, and control implies power” (1986). There are many different kinds of power and teachers, as professionals, should be able to understand that much as well. Power does not mean a tight-fisted control. It can simply mean the possession of knowledge and the ability to pass that on. So just by knowing about the innovation and having the ability to persuade others of its usefulness is a kind of power. Teachers, who possess those necessary skills, do have some power as it is described by Dormant.

The third point that is brought up is that a good change agent should have skills of empathy. Empathy is something that is essential to the role of the teacher. In order for a teacher to be effective, they must have a degree of empathy among their students. They are able to identify with and convey messages to their given group in an effective way. Again, those are the same skills that a change agent will need. An important point that fellow teachers will be able to identify with when it comes to integrating or adopting an innovation (particularly technology) is the need to fit in with the framed Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPACK). This means that teachers need to be able to balance teaching skills (the pedagogy), lessons (the content), and the technology in a way that they can work together. It is important that this be happening with all three areas coming together (Mishra & Koehler, 2006).

Just based on the information that has been presented, as an educator, approach the role of being a change agent, the way that one would approach the role of a teacher. The time commitment may be greater, but the change is hopefully beneficial to the community at large. Do not be afraid to get up and try to spread the innovations that are beneficial. Educators have the skills to be effective change agents, if they use those skills correctly. The schools of tomorrow are dependent on the change agents of today. Educators can shape their field. On the cusp of such extreme changes, there is no better time to step forward than now.


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