Student uses Siri to do research.

The Innovation Curve in Education is 10 Years Wide

And whatever you start now will take five years to become systemically functional. How are you planning for that?

Our Middle School principal, Martin Jones, caught this student making short work of a small research assignment in school today:

Teacher: Find out the population of Canada in 1862.
Student: Siri — What was the population of Canada in 1862?
Siri: Checking on that…It looks like the population of Canada in 1862 was about 3.27 million people.

One of the great powers of technology in the classroom is that it frees up energy that could be used for more meaningful and challenging work than merely digging up information.

Maybe we should call it liberal technology, after the idea of the liberal arts: learning that freed your from ignorance, for the pursuit of human excellence. I made this short video five years ago, asking how teaching might change when all the information one needs is available right in your pocket:

This little three-way exchange between teacher, student and Siri, is a benchmark event, a sign of how far innovations are penetrating into our day-to-day, of how we are going on our new bicycles.

Innovation follows a normal curve of adoption

The initiative was the student’s. She’s an early adopter, on the curve of adoption, above. But the teacher, a conservative, easily accommodated her* and that is significant. Early adopters are relatively easy to find. Getting ideas to scale into the mainstream, well, that takes time.

More than I thought, actually. This event, among other recent and similar stories, has me revising the scale of the curve of adoption. A year ago I was saying it was about 5 years wide. That is, I would have said that an idea originated by innovators takes about five years to reach the sceptics. That was based on my observation that the sorts of conversations that took place at a tech conference in 2010 (it’s safe to say the people there were all innovators and early adopters) were being repeated by sceptics in 2014. But I assumed that having the conversation equated with taking action.

I am coming to think that the curve is more like a decade wide, at least. That would be the case if the velocity of adoption is constant. It may be that innovation slows as it hits increasing resistance amongst conservatives and sceptics. On the other hand, it may be that we don’t need to worry about achieving 100% adoption. Depending on the innovation or idea, it might not even be healthy. When everything is in flux, a good sceptic or a little institutional inertia is good to have around as they act as a sober, second thoughts.

This has implications for strategic planning in schools. A decade is a long time, even in the relatively slow-moving field of education. I want to know, What can we do to shrink the width of the curve? Can it be shrunk? And what can we do now that will help the conservative and sceptic sections of our communities five to seven years from now?

*The teacher sent the student into the hall to talk to Siri not because he was dismissing the activity, but because Siri wouldn’t work in a noisy classroom. This raises interesting questions about how we might work together in a classroom and use voice search tools. We can’t have everyone doing the same activity at the same time…)