Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Getting Over the Innovation Hump


Many schools are now 5 or more years into their BYOD or 1-to-1 programs and progress has stalled a bit. Early adopters, both students and teachers, continue innovate as they explore increasingly creative uses of the device. The majority have come on board and are relying on a smaller set of device functions, and are willing to continue learning and improving use. A smaller set are still critical of the program and are not integrating beneficial functions of the device in their classrooms. According to the Diffusion of Innovation Theory, which I've referenced before, this is normal. But it can still be concerning if the gap between the early adopters and the critics continues to grow and student experiences are vastly different from classroom to classroom.

It is healthy for any social system, such as a school community, to have critics who question and push everyone to clarify their thinking and improve their practices. But critics that refuse to budge can have a negative impact on both school culture and student learning. It can lead to a situation of "haves" and "have nots" in which a student's category depends solely on the teacher she has.

Once all concerns have been addressed, if there are still a few holdouts who are not utilizing the device at all there is a need for further action. Here are my recommendations:

Institution-Wide Norms

Start by setting up both acceptable and encouraged use guidelines for existing devices and new tools as they are rolled out. Every stakeholder  – teachers, students, parents, coaches, counselors, and administrators – should help create the norms and should clearly understand how the device can help the school reach toward its goals of educating and empowering every child. Guidelines that both establish boundaries and open doors are crucial. For instance, it is important for everyone in the community to be aware of the boundaries for safe social media use but also to know that social media can help forge connections with outside experts and resources to enhance the educational experience. School guidelines that clarify these norms are essential because they provide a solid foundation on which to build success.

Ongoing Proactive Conversations

If the school is constantly reacting to concerns or responding to crises, innovation can stall. Even when things are going well, educators should take part in consistent structured conversations to celebrate success and strategize about continued improvement. Here are some topic recommendations:

  • Hacks, Tips, and Tricks: In a recent informal panel at school, a middle school science teacher shared that he color codes the backgrounds of his digital handouts. A quick visual scan around the room and he instantly knows who is looking at the document with the green background and who might be off task. A room full of educators gasped at the genius but simple tip.
  • Best Practices: A few months ago an entire department met to talk about digital note-taking versus pencil-and-paper note-taking. Based on research and professional experience, the group of teachers agreed on best practices for when handwriting would enhance learning and when digital notes would best serve student needs. 

Circle Back

All guidelines, hacks, and best practices need regular revision. Incorporate reflection and revision activities into professional learning time. The educators in the room when that middle school teacher shared his color-coding hack are already scheduled to meet again in a month to share whether they've tried it and how successful it's been. Similarly, that department met again about a month after their note-taking conversation. The problem wasn't completely solved, but everyone in the group had taken at least a few small steps forward and was ready to have another solution-focused meeting of the minds.

All stakeholders, from the early adopters to the critics, should regularly engage in structured forward-looking conversations. Only then will the entire institution continue to meet the needs of an ever-changing student population who arrive at school with ever-more-complex devices in their hands. There is no quick fix or secret key to sustainable progress. These three recommendations should be implemented in concert and will result in a cultural shift. It will take longer than a month or a semester. If a negative dialogue is deeply ingrained in the school, it might even take longer than a single school year. The investment will be worth the effort to develop a positive school-wide culture and movement toward what is best for students.