Monday, January 10, 2005

Re-Invention and Diffusion of Innovation

A while back, a colleague of mine and I wrote about Diffusion of Innovation theory and how it might relate to faculty development. Truth be told, we were familiar with Everett Rogers's work on diffusion of innovations and read a lot of secondary sources related to it, but neither of us had ever picked up the book Diffusion of Innovations and read it. I finally bought it recently, and I'm finding it infinitely readable for an academic book. And the most recent edition just came out, so it's got lots of up-to-date examples and includes references to recent adaptations of the theory, including Malcolm Gladwell's stuff (Tipping Point) and others.

One of the pieces I missed by not having read the book before is the idea of "re-invention." This is how an innovation is changed or modified by an adopter in the process of taking on the innvation and implementing it. Rogers says in the book that many researchers have largely ignored re-invention (so I don't feel so bad for missing it), and that much diffusion research has focused only on innovations that are adopted as developed.

What's interesting to me, working with teachers who are famous for "adopting and adapting" is that it's virtually impossible to track diffusion of innovations among faculty if you don't pay attention to re-invention. Teachers develop their own way of using an innovation so that it fits with their own approach and students' learning styles and abilities.

But it's not just that we should pay attention to re-invention. I think we should encourage it when pushing to have an innovation adopted. I think for the latent adoptors (which Rogers calls "early and late majority"), knowing that re-invention is an option may make the difference between adopting and not.

Let me take online courses as an example. I think most people who haven't taken or taught an online course have a mental picture of what an online course is, and that picture is either wrong or it's very fuzzy. Because early adopters have a high tolerance for ambiguity, they jump in and do an online course even though they aren't clear. For those other folks (I'm talking about teachers of online courses now, not students), we try to develop specific models and formats and templates for an online course--this helps give them a better picture and helps make adoption easier. But once adopted, a good teacher isn't going to want to stick with that format or template. The level to which re-invention is encouraged here could make the difference between that teacher sticking with it or not.

The more I write, the more I feel like I'm stating the obvious here. But this is a new insight that's emerging for me.

Earlier today, I was reading about "folksonomies" versus controlled vocabulary, and I think there's a similar re-invention dynamic here. But I'll have to write more about that later. Gotta get to work!


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