Why Late Adopters Are Skeptical of Edtech (and How to Get Them on Board)

column | EdSurge Podcast

Why Late Adopters Are Skeptical of Edtech (and How to Get Them on Board)

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Aug 15, 2017

Why Late Adopters Are Skeptical of Edtech (and How to Get Them on Board)

There are plenty of “innovators” and “early adopters” of education technology out there, from educators who make the rounds on the ISTE and SXSWedu conference circuits to consultants and entrepreneurs who push for adoption of certain tools or practices. But what about those who are more skeptical?

The “ technology adoption life cycle,” inspired by the work of American communication theorist and sociologist Everett Rogers, argues that 50% of adopters fall into the “late adopter” or “laggard” categories. Despite making up such a huge percentage, late adopters and laggards rarely get invited to be a part of the edtech conversation. What do they need that early adopters don’t—and is it necessarily a bad thing to be a late adopter?

Technology Adoption Life Cycle. (Wikipedia)

To find out, EdSurge invited Bret Harrison—a fifth grade teacher from King City Arts Magnet School in central California with 28 years of teaching experience—to hop on the EdSurge podcast. Harrison falls somewhere in between the late majority and laggard categories; in fact, he describes himself as a “reluctant adopter.” Take a listen to the EdSurge podcast to hear his thoughts, or to check out the full Q&A, scroll below.

EdSurge: Bret, to start out, give us a quick summary of the history of technology in your classroom, where you’ve been for 28 years. What have you seen happen over that span?

Bret Harrison: Well, when I started teaching, we had one computer per grade level. It was an Apple 2E, and we really only had one bit of software, which was Oregon Trail. It was mostly just kind of a novelty at that point. After all, this is 1991. And it was like a prize. It was just something that we let the kids do if they did something right. It wasn't really something I used for instructional purposes.

Over time, we got more and more funding for computers—for a station that had three or four computers in it, which I managed to put some math practice software on. And now, nearly every kid has a computer. This will be my third year of a one-to-one classroom, where every kid has an individual computer. They have their own email addresses, and they know how to log-in to Google Classroom.

So, I've gone from looking down on technology almost as a toy to looking at it critically. Some of it's still totally is a toy, but I now, I use it to make pedagogical decisions. It's everywhere.

You’ve called yourself a “late adopter.” When it comes to technology, why do you fall into that category? What causes the skepticism?

I think it's mostly the way that I was introduced to education as an undergrad student. It was the Madeline Hunter School of Modeling, and everything that was delivered content-wise to students back in those days, prior to technology being common, was delivered by the teacher. The educator was the ringleader of the circus, and it was on them to pick the way that you delivered content to kids. That's a nice model, if you're comfortable with aiming at the middle of where everybody needs to be. And I never really saw technology up until around early 2000s as something that more powerful than just amusement in the classroom.

Honestly, it really took me being fortunate enough to be in a carpool with a guy named John Miller, who is probably the number one Minecraft educator in the United States. He is an absolutely fantastic social studies teacher who's figured out that he can take Minecraft, which is every 12-year-old’s favorite thing, and do 80 percent of his instruction with it. Just walking into this guy's classroom and seeing every single kid fully engaged with a computer… I just was shocked. At that moment, I said, "Obviously, there's a lot of power in technology." And I started to look at it more critically as something that I could employ in my classroom more effectively.

It took about ten years to where I was comfortable with an administrator walking into my room, who would look and say, “These [students] are learning because he is skillfully employing technology."

It sounds like this educator, John Miller, set an example for you. I'm curious—what other things get you on board with a new piece of technology?

It's a big "depends" for me, to be honest. It depends on anecdotal evidence. I have to talk to a teacher who uses it, see kids using it, get some testimonials from my colleagues about whether it works or not.... I don't just trust the software company when they say, "This is awesome." I want to hear people's experience with it.

I also want to line it up with my kids. My kids are 90%+ Title I, and many are English Language learners. I just want to make sure that whatever the software is, it's a fit for my kids.

What about the folks on your campus that are more of the edtech “laggards”—the folks that are last in the adoption line? What gets them on board with technology?

What's interesting is that I just came to this campus two years ago, and this campus is led by a principal who's 100% into one-to-one computers, Kindergarten on up. There's not really a person here I think that meets that “laggard” description… If somebody's reluctant or freaked out or not sure about how to do something, generally within a day or two, we can get some information to that person to help them get through it all. On the other hand, I transferred from a middle school a few years ago, and I would say that half of that staff wanted nothing to do with technology.

Half of the staff? Wow.

They looked at it as an extra thing they had to keep track of. Frankly, I think they were just intimidated. They were typically older people like me, but they were intimidated the younger teachers who were much more comfortable. We've been watching these people come into the profession for fifteen years—these people are on fire, who can effectively use technology all day long. And I grew up, and so did many of them, at a time where, unless you worked for NASA, you didn't need to use a computer for anything.

So, we've sort of gotten into our routine, our way of teaching, completely absent of technology. And now, the idea that I can introduce this new machine to my kids and be more effective is a tough sell for my generation.

Having said that, I think that many apps and software have improved over time, and I think word of mouth is bringing a lot of these people into the fold, as well.

You started teaching back in the '90s, so you've seen technology in education grow. What have been the high points—the big success—that you've seen? And on the other side, what about the low points?

Initially, for a lack of a better way to say it, I don't think districts have their technology locked down. So, it's kind of the wild west in the way that kids are smarter than teachers with understanding how to get around and do things with technology. You understand, I taught middle school for 12 of my 28 years, and we didn't really have an effective way of identifying who was doing inappropriate things with the computer network or dealing with them. It was an administrative challenge. I can suspend a kid for hitting another kid, but what do you do with a kid who inadvertently—or on purpose—goes to another website? It was a completely new legal thing that districts had to work around.

And high points?

High points, though, are easy. I have kids in our district that read at a sixth grade or seventh grade level; however, some read at a first or second grade level. So, how do you use a platform that accommodates that difference? ...I’m finding that [adaptive] software that understands the student's level based upon their responses or their response rate really helps.

If I had to point to a personal favorite technology, it’d be Khan Academy. It literally allows me to look over the shoulder of any kid in my room while they're doing their practice problems. Pull them aside, re-teach if they don't understand how to do something. I mean, I've always felt like a good teacher should be on their feet, moving around the classroom. But I can turn on Khan Academy and have 100% engagement. And I can see a kid struggling and individually show them where to concentrate to master it or to learn how to do the problem.

So, I mean, I'm a reluctant adopter in the sense that I don't like to just say, "Oh, here's Math Genius," or whatever the name of the program is. Sometimes, it’s just a babysitter that looks like math. But if it's really teaching the concrete concepts and the standards that my kids know, and presenting information that honestly would take me hours to prepare (such as volume of prisms in fifth grade), it’s worth it. ...I'll retire in ten years, and I can't even imagine how much cooler it'll be in ten years. But it's been awesome to watch it all sort of develop over time, for sure.

Bret, you qualify yourself as a "reluctant adopter." But I bet to the other late adopters and laggards out there, you actually sound like an early adopter. And so, I have one more big question for you—how do you think the messaging around technology should change to reach more people that are hesitant to use it in the classroom?

To me, a lot of administrators view technology as… something that helps gather data. Then, they can use it in whatever meeting they're going to, in order to present how their teachers and their kids are doing. But, to me, that's the totally wrong purpose for technology in a classroom. I had principals who felt that I had to sit down and enter 34 scores at the end of each day—and that's like 30 minutes of work, which adds up to literally hours and hours and hours of time that I should be spending preparing for quality instruction in my classroom. That is one of the things that sours teachers on technology. And that's what makes reluctant people more reluctant. It's just more work for me.

What teachers don't realize is if you really approach technology differently and you forget about the needs of administrators, and you start to focus on the needs of children, that's when technology really is powerful. And a lot of teachers don't get it, especially old guys like me. They don't trust the administration because the administration is the man and they have their own agenda.

One day, I sort of just forgot about that stuff. I mean, I know I'm a good teacher, and I was a good teacher before technology. And now, I think I'm a better teacher with technology.


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