Diffusing Educational R&Amp;D Innovations to School Organizations

Stanley H.L. Chow, Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development, San Francisco, California
C.L. Hutchins, Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development, San Francisco, California
Linda A. Sikorski, Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development, San Francisco, California
[ to cite ]:
Stanley H.L. Chow, C.L. Hutchins, and Linda A. Sikorski (1974) ,"Diffusing Educational R&Amp;D Innovations to School Organizations", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 01, eds. Scott Ward and Peter Wright, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 497-504.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1974    Pages 497-504


Stanley H.L. Chow, Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development, San Francisco, California

C.L. Hutchins, Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development, San Francisco, California

Linda A. Sikorski, Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development, San Francisco, California

Much of the criticism leveled at education in general and at educational research and development in particular focuses on the apparently meager impact of innovations on improvement in educational practice. Explanations of this phenomenon are numerous. For example, we are reasonably sure that the educational consumer generally lacks appreciation for research and development. Case studies developed at the laboratory show that most educational consumers do not consider rigorously applied cycles of field-testing and revision of products to be a critical factor in favor of R&D products. Evidently, many developers operate under the misconception that good ideas, after thorough testing and validation, will automatically sell themselves. This misunderstanding does not imply, however, that educational R&D should abandon or lessen its rigor. But it may well mean that we will have to develop a more systematic approach to marketing to educators the concept of R&D itself before we can expect success in marketing individual R&D products.

Another reason R&D efforts have seldom had the desired impact is that in the past they have generally focused on improving product design to the exclusion of other marketing decision variables, such as distribution and promotion. The resulting anomaly is that, although a given product's effectiveness and usefulness can be clearly demonstrated, distribution agents may decline to handle it for economic and/or other reasons. Part of the problem also lies with the limited state of our knowledge as to how innovations in education can be effectively diffused. This area of research has remained relatively uncharted. We hope that the new National Institute of Education will provide the necessary leadership and will support research efforts which could examine the most important aspects of the problem.

The impact of innovations can be optimized, in our opinion, by studying the relationship of innovative behavior to three classes of variables: user characteristic variables, innovation attribute variables, and diffusion strategy variables. For each of these variable sets, we believe the research literature is uneven because it has ignored the social/institutional nature of schools and has treated the innovative process as though it were similar to mass consumer behavior where the individual has relative autonomy in responding to simple messages about relatively simple products. Furthermore, we believe diffusion strategies will be more effective when combined and then applied differentially for different innovations and different subgroups of target users. In other words, optimal payoff may be realized through examination of the interaction effects of user characteristics, innovation--attributes, and diffusion strategies as they relate to innovative behavior and as these variables are influenced by environmental constraints.

User Characteristics Dimension

The unevenness of diffusion research efforts in-education is evident when one examines what has been reported in the literature. Studies dealing with diffusion of educational innovations have traditionally focused on one dimension - user characteristics variables and, more precisely, individual user characteristics. Historically, the interest in educational diffusion research stems from what has occurred previously in the fields of agriculture, medical sociology, and industry. Diffusion studies in these fields have been concerned with innovations whose consumer is the individual adopter. For example, an individual farmer or doctor was the adopting unit for a new corn or new drug. With this perspective, educational diffusion studies have also chosen the individual as the unit of analysis. Studies in this area, with the exception of work by Mort and his associates (1964), have focused on characteristics of the innovative teacher (Rogers & Shoemaker, 1971; Lin et al., 1966; Jenkins, 1967; Lippitt, 1967; Zimmerman, 1970), the innovative principal (Griffith, 1963; Goetz, 1965; Hinman, 1967; Currie, 1966) and the innovative superintendent (Carlson, 1964; Klingenberger, 1966; Henderson, 1968; Lawrence, 1968).

However, few products from the educational research and development community are amenable to adoption by individuals alone. The Wisconsin R&D Center, for example, has developed an organizational system for elementary schools that replaces the traditional, self-contained classrooms with larger non-graded units. A teacher-training program, called minicourses, developed by the Far West Laboratory, requires teacher release time for short microteaching sessions where a teacher evaluates her own performance on videotape. Adoption of these innovations and most others requires adjustment of organizational behavior patterns, reallocation of staff and resources, or even organizational restructuring. It is unlikely that any single individual within the school system will be able to initiate, adopt, implement, and maintain these innovations without group consensus and group action. For this reason, it is important to examine the organizational dynamics of schools as they relate to decision-making and to postulate organizational variables as a major set of independent variables influencing both the rate and the amount of adoption of educational innovations. This refocusing does not discredit the role of the individual. Indeed, we know that certain gatekeepers within school organizations may exercise great influence. On the other hand, the educational diffusion researchers can ill afford to ignore organizational data. Depending on the innovation in question, the unit of adoption and hence the unit of measurement may very often be the organizational unit within the educational market rather than the individual educator.

Studies examining organizational variables have been rare in comparison to studies on individual variables. Ironically, these diffusion studies are even more rarely disseminated. Many appear as unpublished dissertations or as final reports submitted to funding agencies. The few studies that do exist have reported rather modest findings. They suggest that the following organizational variables may be promising: per capita expenditure (Mort, 1964; Carlson, 1965), size of the adopting unit (Baldridge & Burnham, 1973), participation in decision-making (Lin et al., 1966; Schmuck et al., 1971), amount of external contact (Klingenberg, 1966; Fullan & Eastabrook, 1970, Scarbaugh & Hawkins, 1973), and open climate of schools (Eibler, 1965; Marcum, 1968).

It is evident that we need to continue trying to isolate more organizational variables that can be shown to be more powerful predictors of innovative behavior. The literature on innovative organizations suggests other variables, such as structural characteristics, organizational autonomy, etc., that have been demonstrated to be related to innovative behavior. However, these variables have yet to be demonstrated in the educational setting.

Innovation Attributes Dimension

The relationship of innovation attributes to innovative behavior is the second dimension to which educational diffusion research will have to address itself. Innovation attributes have been examined with reference to a variety of innovations in a variety of contexts (Rogers & Shoemaker, 1971; Lin & Zaltman, 1973). Education, unfortunately, has contributed very little to that literature. Given the existing state of knowledge about educational innovation attributes, it seems helpful to use those innovation attributes reported in the diffusion literature (Lin & Zaltman present such a list of attributes) as the basis for developing a generic list of attributes pertaining to educational innovations. Such a generic list will help to ensure the consideration of all relevant dimensions of educational R&D innovations. It can be particularly helpful when used in conjunction with the concept of product categories, an idea commonly employed in marketing. Within each product category, such as timepieces or detergents, the marketer can depict attributes that are common and salient to its members. Educational R&D innovations may be similarly categorized on the basis of innovation functions, target audience, and clusters of generic attributes unique or differentially relevant to each function and target audience. This approach provides an opportunity to examine a variety of innovations and of target diffusion efforts without significant loss of information.

For individual innovations, attributes may be examined in terms of their relationship to user requirements and resources. We can assume that adoption will not occur if there are substantial discrepancies between requirements, tendencies, and resources specific to a potential user and to the orientation and nature of the innovation. This analysis of discrepancies provides an interesting approach, particularly for complex innovations involving a large number of requirements. However, it has certain intrinsic limitations. Though the existence of discrepant conditions may explain non-adoption, their absence, on the other hand, may not necessarily explain adoption. In these instances, we can proceed to examine other change-related innovation attributes that by themselves may not significantly influence decisions, but in particular contexts and in interaction with other variables may be important.

Diffusion Strategy Dimension

Selecting appropriate diffusion strategies is the third dimension in the triad. The literature provides some conceptual guides to categorizing strategies. (For example, Chin & Benne, 1972; Guba, 1967; Sieber, 1967; Jones, 1972; Katz & Kahn, 1966; Bennis, 1965.) However, these conceptual categories are of limited utility to the educational planner or change agent who is confronted with the problem of deciding on the most efficacious ways to diffuse educational R&D innovations. Prior to the consideration of strategies, however, it is important to determine objectives for the diffusion efforts and the utility functions to be ascribed to each objective. We find the marketing programming approach (Kotler, 1971) useful in this regard. Briefly stated, marketing programming involves determining that set of marketing decision variables, in the context of environmental variables and under constraints, that will maximize the organization's utility over a set of goals. We have attempted to apply this approach to our thinking in-planning for the diffusion of educational R&D innovations (Chow et al., 1973).

The outcome of diffusion efforts may be viewed in two broad stages: an initiation stage and an implementation stage (Zaltman et al., 1973). During the initiation stage, the user becomes aware of the existence of an innovation, consolidates his interest in pursuing it, formulates positive attitudes about it, and finally decides to make some commitments to take action, such as small purchases. During the implementation stage, the user makes attempts actually to implement the innovation on a trial basis. If the trial experience is satisfying, the user may continue with the innovation, implement it in full, and finally institutionalize it. Diffusion efforts may then be considered as maximizing initiation and implementation of educational innovations. Initiation is a necessary condition for implementation; however, we expect a large attrition among the potential audience as they move from initiation to implementation, since commitments to implement innovation do not necessarily lead to actual implementation or sustained utilization. The diffusion agent must reckon with that natural attrition and establish differential outcome expectancies for these objectives.

This breakdown of diffusion outcomes it also useful when one considers strategies available to the diffusion agent. In our opinion, it provides a framework with minimal overlap of strategies. Diffusion strategies appropriate for bringing about initiation are necessarily concerned with persuasion; the diffusion agent needs to create awareness, consolidate interest, strengthen motivations, and finalize sales. On the other hand, user concerns at the implementation stage are quite different. These latter concerns deal more directly with necessary assistance in the form of consultation and training in order to manage the daily operation of the innovation so as to ensure its success. Therefore, strategies that optimize initiation may be ineffectual for implementation, and vice versa. Admittedly, there will be some overlap of strategies; that is, certain strategies may be effectively used for both initiation and implementation outcomes. However, the overlap should be minimal and therefore tolerable in the conceptual scheme.

A much-needed task for planning diffusion efforts is the development of a topoi of alternative strategies available to the diffusion agent. Such a list of alternative strategies should include statements regarding conditions under which they are likely to be efficacious, the feasibility of implementing them from the diffusion agent's point of view, and some estimate of costs a,d anticipated benefits. Such a topoi of strategies would aid the diffusion planner in selecting optimal strategies.

Environmental Constraints on School Organizations

In examining organizational variables of schools, we must also consider various constraints impinging upon the school system. All organizations strive toward a certain amount of stability; innovations, by definition, are new and potentially threatening to that stability. The school system is particularly paranoic about maintaining what Pincus (1972) calls bureaucratic safety. Since public education has an assured clientele, it does not feel particularly compelled to renew itself or take risks with innovations-. Yet schools are not entirely non-responsive. External pressure to innovate often penetrates bureaucratic safety. In an effort to respond to public opinion and pressure, schools will tend to adopt those innovations that carry minimal real costs to the institution. Therefore, innovations which substitute one curriculum for another or one instructional method for another without substantially altering the resource mix and authority patterns will be more likely to be adopted. Lindeman et al. (1969) reported that the most widely adopted innovations in the sixties were teacher aides, ability groupings, team teaching, resource teachers, movable partitions, TV instruction, and a large number of curricular/innovations in science, math, and reading. Yet innovations requiring substantial changes in the organization, such as open education or voucher systems, have been less favorably received.

Education also suffers from what Sieber (1967) calls goal diffuseness. That is, it lacks a clear consensus about educational goals and the priorities to be assigned to various goals. It is difficult to address the problem of optimizing goals and objectives when they are ill defined and poorly operationalized. In the absence of clearly defined goals, what constitutes an effective intervention program comes to rely partially on consensus among "experts." This finding has obvious implications for diffusion efforts. We have observed in our work with schools that most schools have their favorite expert consultants from nearby universities. The latter are regularly called upon to legitimize plans proposed by the schools. It is clear that diffusion efforts should be able to capitalize on the influence of these legitimizers.

The adopting school district often lacks the necessary manpower resources to coordinate and trouble-shoot once an innovation is being implemented. The R&D innovations that have been more widely diffused and implemented have been those with built-in implementational support. That support takes the form of training or consultation both at the trial stage and at the implementation stage. The problems associated with implementing major innovations in the schools are not fully understood. There have been a few isolated cases (Goodlad, 1970; Gross et al., 1971) in the literature that have examined the implementation question. This whole area of investigating conditions that facilitate implementation, as contrasted to the actual adoption of educational innovations, needs to be explored more fully.


It is our contention that planning for the diffusion of educational innovations involves an examination of the interactions of user characteristics, innovation attributes, and diffusion strategies as they relate to innovative organizational behavior and as these variables are influenced by environmental constraints impinging upon the school organization. We hope that further research will isolate these interaction effects and thus enable the educational planner to target properly his diffusion efforts so as to reduce the lag between educational R&D output and improvement of educational practice.


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