Breaking the Mold: An Educational Perspective on Diffusion of Innovation/An Interview with Ann Thompson

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Dr. Ann Thompson

By Belén Pardo

Belén Pardo designed, facilitated and compiled an interview with Ann Thompson. Thompson is a University Professor of Curriculum and Instruction and the Founding Director/Senior Advisor for the Center for Technology in Learning and Teaching in the School of Education at Iowa State University. Thompson is Past President of the Society for Information Technology in Teacher Education and the editor of the Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education. She has published more than 40 articles and 3 books in the area of technology in teacher education. Thompson has served as the principal investigator on contracts and grants totaling more than 5 million dollars. Her grant projects have focused upon collaborative work between teacher education and K-12 schools in the area of technology use. She is currently a member of the Iowa Academy of Education and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education Technology Committee. She has been an active leader, presenter and reviewer for American Educational Research Association for more than 25 years.

B. Pardo: How do you define “innovation” and “adoption”?

A. Thompson: I can see those are two different things, so I am going to start with innovation. As we think about innovation, and as we think about our careers as people who have been attracted to the area of technology, we are the kind of people who tend to like new ideas. We like change, and if we didn’t like new ideas, we wouldn’t be doing this. When we prepare courses, we don’t have a choice of using last year’s yellow lecture notes because in technology it´s ancient history. We wouldn’t be doing this if we weren’t intrigued by innovation and change. When you think of the word “innovation,” we think of big new ideas, ideas that are unique and different. For me it also suggests something exciting. With innovation, you get the idea of adaption, where the adaptor really embraces the idea that says “I am going to give that particular idea or that innovation a try.” I really like the word “innovation.” I like to work with innovated people. I enjoy students who come in with new ideas and say “why don’t we try this this way?” or “have you thought about doing it this way or that particular way?”. I think that students who ask these questions are going to be very effective change agents. In one way, we could think that innovation is part of us because we are studying technology and how it is used in education. This is really what innovation is about; looking at things in different ways.

B. Pardo: From your point of view, what is needed in order to innovate?

A. Thompson: It is actually a challenging question because when you think about yourself as the seller of a new idea, the person who is going to cause or help innovation in your program or in your classroom. I think it is hard to say these are three things that you need in order to innovate, but I will give it a try. I think that one of the most important things for an innovator to think about is to understand his or her audience or participants. If you are going to innovate a new idea, obviously you are going to be working with people. I think one of the most important pieces is to know the people with whom you are working because different groups of people would respond very differently to new ideas.

Recently I saw an old friend in a meeting at Washington DC. We were at a meeting with people who have been leaders in technologies. She said to me, “Do you remember the day that we sat in the airport and my plane was late?” I actually did remember it because at that time, she was a new Dean at X College in New York. Previously, X College had been a leader in technology and education, but they were not working on technology very much anymore. So her idea was that as a leader, she was going to X College to get the technology working again. She told me about this and how she is going to work with the faculty. I asked her, “How are you going to be doing that?” She said, “I am going to require that the entire faculty attend these workshops and work in the area of technology.” I said, “It won’t work!” And she replied, “What do you mean it won’t work?” And I said, “What you really have to do if you know your audience and you know your faculty, but you have to take a going-around-the-edge approach and work voluntarily with a few faculty members.” In other words, you want your innovation to change opinion over time. With this particular audience, a top-down approach is not going to work in terms of innovation. As we were talking and laughing about it, she said “I really wished that that early morning, I would have listened to what you had said because it turned out to be a mess.” She was an innovator, and eventually she was able to say (which is an important characteristic of a leader) after her first year “this is not working, and we’ll have to do it in a different way.” This is an important aspect of working your innovation into practice.

I think that another part that has to do with technology is patience. Early studies suggested that if we were interested in technology, integration takes a typical teacher or faculty member about five to seven years to truly embrace technology, and work at the edge using technology to bring about change. As we think of ourselves as change agents, we have to be patient. It is an important part in a change agent, to take pleasure in little changes, rather than expecting everyone to change at once. I recalled when I was the Department Chair; I was very interested in having faculty use technology. In fact, having computers in faculty offices was kind of an unusual thing, and I was able to find some money to do that. At the time, I remember the secretaries came to me and said “so and so, and so and so, and so and so, don’t even know how to turn it on, and I think you should take the computer out of their offices.” As an innovator that isn’t what you want to be doing because if you do, for certain they will never use technology. This also reinforces this point about patience. And you don’t expect that because you put technology in someone’s office, things are going to change in a week or even in a month. And at the same time I also want to emphasize the fun of innovation; that we are in an interesting and intriguing area that it has the potential to make school a better place for kids and to make universities stronger in term of students' education. So in addition to being patient, and in addition to knowing your audience, I think you still want to be retaking the enthusiasm and the fun of a new idea.

B. Pardo: As many innovations keep changing in time, and as they have been adopted, what is considered the starting time and the ending time for the entire innovation and diffusion process?

A. Thompson: It is a long time if we are really thinking about changing an educator’s behavior. It is very hard to say “if you do it, you are going to be all set in three years” because it isn’t really the way human beings work. But my approach to technology with faculty and with teachers is a little bit like picking away a rock--if you stay with it, if you are patient, if you know your audience, and if you listen to your audience--I think we have seen case after case where people's behaviors have definitely changed, and where they have embraced the innovation. I remember when I was Department Chair and I was talking to the secretary about scheduling classes and she said, “I have this problem, no one wants to teach in N108, and that is one of our classrooms.” And I said, “What is the problem with N108?” She said, “there is no technology available in N108.” And I really wanted to do the happy hands because what it demonstrated was that the culture had changed. We had created a culture where there was some expectation from faculty to use technology in their classes, and in the end they were doing it pretty much automatically. Now, how many years have passed between the time when computers were given to the time when they didn’t want to work without technology? It is hard to say, but I would say maybe between five to seven years. So patience is a piece of it. And the problem of not having patience is that you get frustrated, and then you are not a very good leader because when people are not changing as fast as you want people to change, you lose the relationship and you really lose the chance for a change. There is a very interesting book called The Tipping Point that has to do with change.

The big point is that with major changes, what happens is that we tend to start slow. An example is Hushpuppies, a kind of shoes; at first when they introduced Hushpuppies, it seemed they were the kind of shoes that no one wanted to wear to work or people didn’t really wear comfortable shoes. Then a few people started embracing this new idea in shoes, and then a few more, and a few more, and pretty soon you get to the tipping point, and you say “oh, look at that.” So when you get to that point, it seems very easy because the change happens very quickly. I think all of you can think of examples of innovation, in school, in our culture that started slow and then it reached the tipping point. And I guess for me, the fact that no faculty wanted to use this room, that was my tipping point and it felt like the culture had changed; we crossed over that tipping point.

B. Pardo: What are some tips to remain patient when frustration occurs?

A. Thompson: Actually it is one of the most important things we have to do because as I said, if we get frustrated or demonstrate that frustration, a lot of people are going to get off the ship; especially with teachers and faculty. It has to be a voluntary thing. Probably the most important thing is to take pleasure in these small successes. Sometimes I say in my head, if this helps one student, then I am going to think of this as a success. That also helps me with my own frustration if it is not going as quickly as I wanted. Just like the Dean at the airport, she did get frustrated the first year; but she was also able to laugh at herself, and say “people told me I was not the only one; people told me that this was not going to work.” In the end, she didn’t give up on her vision; she didn’t give up on innovation. X College did reemerge as a leader in the technology area; she just had to take a little turn in making it happen.

B. Pardo: Is there a point when as a leader you have to say, “You take a seat or get off the bus”?

A. Thompson: I have never had to do that. Well, let me think this through. One of the challenges of leadership and higher education is realistically that you cannot force people. I have friends in business and industry, and it gets to a point that everyone seems to say “everyone is going to do this” and that kind of made me smile because faculty do have choices. Your only choice is to be an opinion leader, and in my particular case, I really had only one person I gave up on, and it was just getting frustrating. I just thought it would be OK without this particular person, and then he retired. Yes, I forgot because I am very good at painting it with a positive brush. But he also became some kind of isolated because he was unhappy, and everyone else was moving in and having some excitement about the innovation.

B. Pardo: Can you explain how current technology changes in cloud computing, mobile devices, social media and other areas are advancing the growth of education?

A. Thompson: Mobile technology, social media and cloud computing, another interesting question. My basic thesis is that no technology advances education. New technology provides new possibilities for teachers and for classrooms, but the technology itself isn’t enough to create changes and opportunities for students. Cloud computing is a good example. I am excited about the possibilities of cloud computing and I have been in this business long enough that I remember in the early days when the big challenge was that the school couldn’t buy the software. Even if they had computers, they couldn’t really use them very much. So I am thinking about software that you have to buy and save all your money so you can have a site license; all this really slowed down the adoption of the innovation. Cloud computing is not a total answer, but it is making tools and experiences much more available for classrooms around the world. And I find this very exciting, however that by itself is not going to change anything. We still have to work with teachers so they understand the possibilities in cloud computing. So they can take advantage of the fact that they have access to a lot of different possibilities. I was reading yesterday that there is a librarian in the SOLON Community Schools and on Fridays in the afternoon, she has “happy” hours for the teachers in the school, and what she is doing is locating and sharing different low price apps that could make a difference for the teachers. So on Friday afternoon they have “happy” hours and I love that!

Social media has a fabulous possibility. I was looking at a research report that talks about teenagers and their use of technology. Can you guess how many text messages the average teenager sends in a day? It is above 100 and it has gone up exponentially in the last two or three years. Now, do you know how much time it takes to send four hundred text messages and what it means in terms of their communication? And I am also worry about what they are not doing while they are sending these text messages. This gives the sense of the popularity of social media, and the fact that young people today have very different experiences with social media and with communication. Our job as teachers is to figure out ways on how to use this attraction in positive ways with kids in school. I was in a hotel lobby last weekend in Washington, D.C., and I was looking for someone in the lobby, and every single person had some sort of device in front of them. They were all doing this, that or the other thing, and it was just this sort of moment in time for me to realize that things have really changed; people don’t talk to each other anymore, and back in the old good days we didn’t do these things. This is what it is now, and we are not going to change it. Our job as innovators is to accept it, and then figure out the exciting possibilities that can make big differences for teachers and schools.

Mobile computing is the same thing. If you think of kids on a field trip being able to collect data, and really being able to get out and around, and take pictures and just get out of the confines of the classroom, exciting stuff, but none of those things by themselves will change what happens in schools. Just like the computer itself, at first we thought “if only we can get enough computers in the schools, then everything is going to be ok,” and we discovered that was not the case. I think about it as the hardware, that was our first deal to get the hardware, and then the software was a big deal because schools could not afford it.

B. Pardo: What do you see as new innovations coming to education in the future, what do you predict?

A. Thompson: The reality is that I am not very visionary. I am a good listener, and I think that has been the story of my career. I had the privilege of working with people who are more innovating and visionary, more future-oriented than I am. I think that I can recognize a good idea when I see it. I am very good at listening and pretty good at structuring things. But if you are relying on me to tell you what is going to happen in ten years, I was the person that would say “I think that 64K in an apple is all about I ever need for the things I need to do.” It is hard for me to focus on a particular technology or particular innovation; and part of it is that I am really humble about the changes I have seen in my career. I would have never guessed or predicted the social media thing. Five years ago, I would have never guessed it would have the impact it has had. So it is very hard for me to identify one particular piece. I think some of the things going on is that we would be graduating teachers from teacher education programs that have really high degree scale in terms of knowledge and technology. I think they are going to be important innovators of the future. Because with the current teachers, we had to work very hard to help them get the technology scale, and many of them became innovators, but we are going to see things changing a little bit now as we are seeing young people who know technology their entire lives coming into the teaching profession. So I am excited by that, I am excited about the fact that people don’t say this is a passing fad, which a lot of teachers hoped for years, and it was a reasonable thing to say because they have seen teaching machines and all sort of things came in and then went out. But I think that we are really coming to grips with the impact of technology. I think in the area of distance education, we are going to see exciting changes. My guess is that the most exciting changes are going to be in blended environments.

Administrators would like to think that we are going to have one teacher teaching five thousand students and that is going to be an innovation. I think that the real innovation is going to be the use of technology to better connect students and professors, and to combine what we can do together in class with what can be done with technology. Some people pointed out that Khan Academy was about the community of property, but they called it the transitive property, this is a simplistic view of education that you have to tell somebody something and they do it. I saw a clip yesterday that the Khan Academy had put together, they called it: "The Transitive Property." It was nothing more than multiplying a negative number times a negative number and it becomes positive without getting into the reason for it. So I think any one approach is probably not going to be the answer. But the Khan Academy has really helped us in terms of thinking about what best could happen in classrooms together and what could happen online. I don’t think they quite have it in terms of the model of the role of the teacher, but they are getting close. So bad answer, but that’s because I am the first one that thought that 64 K was plenty for me!

B. Pardo: What type of technology has had the most success in the field of education?

A. Thompson: In general, I think of computer-based technologies with the ability to digitize has had an amazing effect in student learning. But if I have to pick one that I have seen over my career, one piece of it, that probably doesn’t get too much attention, is digital images, still images, video, and our ability to collect images and communicate with images. It is easy; teachers see that, and really come up with some great ideas about how to make learning more relevant, how to bring student lives into school. So just off the top of my head, looking at all the things, I would have to say that digital images had a profound effect and I think it will continue to have a profound effect in education.

B. Pardo: You are the co-editor of the Journal of Computing in Teacher Education (JCATE), how did this journal get started?

A. Thompson: Now it’s called the Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education. That was kind of a fun thing for us because it was called the Journal of Computing in Teacher Education; and that sounds pretty dated if you think about having the sense of teaching people how to use computers, where we are thinking much more about all sorts of digital devices in teacher education.

The journal comes out of a compound interest group, and I imagine most of you are familiar with ISTE. ISTE is the International Society for Technology in Education; it is the biggest journal of the Educational Technology Society in Technology and Education. The reason it is the biggest is that it appeals to classroom teachers; this conference typically has about ten thousand people there, so it is almost like a conference, and a little bit like a rock concert; there are so many people and so much excitement over technology. ISTE has all these special interest groups so there are teacher educators, principals, classroom teachers, and researchers that have been in those areas also. Almost twenty-five years ago, ISTE began this research journal which was the Journal of Computers in Teacher Education. The time was just right when people were very interested in technology in teacher education, and a community of researchers formed at that time. This is not the only journal that they published, but it is a place where people go who were interested in this topic. We published research articles that were practical. I had educators who told me that their copies of the Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education were all worn out because they had used them in their own teaching.

The journal has a large readership of about five thousand people, which for a research journal is a lot. I was having a conversation with a colleague last week; she and I are co-editors of this journal, and we were talking about the possibility of the journal going online. I think that the reality is that most journals would be going online, that is my prediction in the next five years or so. Although it exists in hard copy, I think that piece will change, and if you do research in the area in technology and teacher education, we are very interested in your work, and interested in your articles. I’ve been one of the editors of this journal for a long time, which is a real privilege in higher education, because in terms of being a change agent, you get a preview of what is going on. You get to know a lot of people, who are innovators and leaders in the field, and for me it’s been a fabulous part of my professional experience. What I am saying now, that’s my hobby, so think about the Journal of Digital Learning and Teacher Education.

B. Pardo: You have an article about the students mentoring faculty members and it is a program, too. I imagine that students would be interested in this type of project. How does the majority of the faculty react to this idea?

A. Thompson: People say that looking back over their careers, if you had one or two very good ideas, you probably had a successful career. For me this very simple idea of the faculty mentoring program was one my good ideas. It is an idea I had twenty years ago. When I was Department Chair, I had these faculty members and these computers, which they didn’t know how to turn them on. As Department Chair I had no money, so I was trying to figure out a way to help educate the faculty by using technology. We tried workshops that just didn’t work. With the busy faculty that had different interests, it just didn’t work. My “ah-hah” moment was when we got these graduate students who specialized in technology. At the same time, we had faculty members who really needed help with technology. So I started teaching a class called “Technology in Teacher Education.” The field experience for this class would be that every graduate student would be paired up one-on-one with a faculty member, and work an hour a week with that person on whatever that person wanted to work on. In this way, the faculty started to use technology, and it allowed the graduate students to get the experience of working with a faculty member learning about technology. The program has been going on for twenty years. Some people say, “The program has been going for twenty years, and you have been teaching this class for twenty years, so don’t they already know everything about technology?” The answer, of course, is “No!” There is always something new and different in technology that our faculty wants to find out about. There was a time when we used WebCT; then we moved to Blackboard; now we are working in Moodle Rooms, and the faculty are working now with “virtual reality.” Twenty years ago, faculty were working on how to send email. But over time, change theory, adaption, and diffusion took place as we started to meet individual needs. We were taking it slow and it has always been a voluntary program, but then it became a piece of the culture of the department.

I was actually Department Chair twice, and the second time the Dean came to announce to the faculty that I was going to be Department Chair, he asked if there were any questions. Someone asked, “Are we still going to have the technology mentor program?” I thought it was a great compliment. The program itself is very simple. We had students study the program over time; we had them study the effect on students and faculty. I think the effect on students, from my perspective, was an anticipated positive outcome. I needed to get the faculty going with technology, and this was a way to make it happen. Then the students started talking about what a fabulous experience it was for them. I responded, “Oh yes, this was a pretty good idea.” I didn’t think it was going to be a bad experience for them. Many of our former students would say that this program had been the most useful experience in their graduate studies; they got to know faculty members really well. The faculty are always faculty; they always want the students to do well. So the faculty members were not at all insulted that their mentors were students; they were also helping the students learn. The program was of mutual benefit to both the students and faculty.

For me it became a career change at that time, and the program got a lot of national and international interest. We had students who started several programs in Taiwan, in Ukraine, and also around the United States. I look back now and say it was one of my good ideas; but it was just a simple idea and not rocket science. If you think about change theory, this program is grounded in change theory. It makes real a lot of the things that we say about change. Sometimes they don’t make sense; for example, stages of concern or the faculty learning about technology. Those stages of concern were absolutely clear and it also created a non-threatening environment. One of the things we encounter with later research is that we always emphasize community in the program. It is not just ten students working with ten faculty members; we always started off with a group meeting where everyone told us what they’d be working on, and then we finished with a group meeting. The reason for that is that people are learning from one another. One of my favorite quotes from these meetings is from someone talking about using a particular technology where a faculty member said, “You know, if Marsha can do it, I can do it!” I really enjoy a chance of working very close with students.

B. Pardo: If after the adaption of innovation, there are no improvements of the original situation, how are you going to tackle with what is going on?

A. Thompson: If you are an innovator, you are going to fail; it’s just going to happen. Technology is truly going to make a difference in students learning. There are other technologies that aren’t, and I think that a big piece of that is to be open, just like you are open to researchers. We should be able to say “This didn’t work and I am going to have to go back to the drawing board and try again.” For example, the Dean of the X College went back to the drawing board, and was able to say “This didn’t work,” and what she did was voluntary and a softer program for the faculty. I think when people deal with new ideas, failure is a part of our world. We all know that just by using technology in classrooms; we know what worked and didn’t work for faculty members.

Years ago when I was in the teacher education program, I had a professor who said, “When you are teaching, if you don’t have one good failure a week, you are probably not trying hard enough.” So I have always played that back over my career. We are out there in the area of technology, and we are trying things, but things don’t always work. Sometimes we have bad days with technology, but we have this belief in change and in growth, so we tend not to talk much about it; we do not say I am the only one before of four to five hundred people.

I am really happy about the fact that you are focusing on leadership and technology.

B. Pardo: Dr. Thompson, thank you so much for your time.