Fast innovation versus slow ideas

The Evergreen Education Group has been studying online and blended learning for 14 years, and the Keeping Pace report that will be released in two weeks is our 11th annual edition. As we consider the national digital learning landscape as of late 2014, we believe that key questions about digital learning include:

  • How fast is digital learning spreading across K-12 education?
  • Is digital learning creating transformational change, incremental improvements, or little/no change?
  • Should we expect to see broad, scalable, measurable improvements in the near future?

These questions can be examined from at least two angles. Researchers look at these questions from a position that should be as unbiased as possible, ascertaining what is occurring regardless of what they believe would be better for students, and leaving aside questions about how implementation could be better or faster. Advocates look at these questions with their advocacy in mind. Ultimately they want to know what is happening so that they can better shape the future, and ensure that broad, scalable, measurable change will occur.

Despite these differences, both sides benefit from creating a theory of action. If digital learning is changing the educational landscape, how is it doing so? If it is not, despite some demonstrated successes, why not?

A New Yorker article from 2013, Slow Ideas: Some innovations spread fast. How do you speed the ones that don’t? uses changes in medical practice to explore some of these questions in ways that hold lessons for education. It looks at two innovations from the late 1800s: anesthesia and new methods of protecting against infection. The use of anesthesia spread very quickly, while the use of anti-infection procedures did not. Why? The author, Atul Gawande, suggests reasons that have implications for the spread of digital learning.

In summary, he believes that anesthesia spread because its use was relatively simple, and its positive impact immediate (surgery went from requiring the restraining of patients screaming in pain to operating on motionless, apparently comfortable patients). Anti-infection efforts, in contrast, required multiple steps (disinfecting tools, changing clothes, and more) that involved numerous people who had to change their behaviors, and the results were not immediately obvious, because the infection would show up later. In addition, infection rates would only be known when the anti-infection efforts could be studied and compared to traditional practices.

Observers of digital learning can debate which types of digital learning resemble anesthesia, and which resemble anti-infection efforts. In my view, much of online learning (fully online courses and schools) is similar to anesthesia, while much of blended learning (especially as applied in existing schools) resembles anti-infection efforts.

Gawande doesn’t just describe these differences, however. He also explores implications for those who are trying to spread innovations. Ultimately, he argues that the solutions that are considered “scalable” often do not work.

“In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, “turnkey” solutions to the major difficulties of the world—hunger, disease, poverty. We prefer instructional videos to teachers, drones to troops, incentives to institutions. People and institutions can feel messy and anachronistic. They introduce, as the engineers put it, uncontrolled variability.

But technology and incentive programs are not enough. “Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,” wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread. Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.”

Although Gawande is not describing education and the spread of digital learning, his words describe the challenges of spreading educational innovations. This is particularly true as innovations spread from the early adopting teachers, who are willing to find digital content and tools on their own time, to the large majority of teachers and schools. A few articles and training videos, and even “train the trainer” methods, may not be enough to create the level of change that advocates seek. In Gawande’s opinion, methods are required that are less scalable, and more expensive—but ultimately will create the change that is sought.