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Technology Adoption and Diffusion

V.H. Carr Jr.


Had technological change and innovation proceeded at today's rate in fifteenth century Europe when printing technology was introduced, one can only speculate on the economic and political effects that its adoption and diffusion might have had on that era and subsequent history. And, if Internet technology is the "printing" technology of today, its potential effects on modern society might be compared to those of that centuries-old innovation; that is, momentous, but difficult to foresee. Fortunately, we now know more about the adoption/diffusion process.

This review examines that process and the social and other factors influencing the diffusion of Internet/World Wide Web technology. Attributes of Internet technology that differ from those of traditional instructional technologies and that modify the adoption and diffusion process are discussed, as are characteristics of the potential adopters and strategies that contribute to successful technology adoption and integration within an organization.

Within this context, "adoption" refers to the stage in which a technology is selected for use by an individual or an organization. "Innovation" is similarly used with the nuance of a new or "innovative" technology being adopted. "Diffusion" refers to the stage in which the technology spreads to general use and application. "Integration" connotes a sense of acceptance, and perhaps transparency, within the user environment.

Typically, past adoptions of a new technology for education have signaled a confidence in its potential to alleviate a particular problem or to make a job easier or more efficient. Rarely has bringing about new social and functional conditions been a consideration. Internet and World Wide Web technology, however, may provide a means of creating totally new learning environments, and it may be to that end that adoption is initiated. In such instances, "innovation" and "adoption" may be seen as virtually synonymous elements of the adoption/diffusion process.

Technology Adoption/Diffusion: Two Views

Since early in this century, various "new" educational technologies have been touted as the revolutionary pedagogical wave of the future. Classroom films, programmed learning devices, language laboratories, educational television, computer-assisted instruction and, more recently, interactive videodisc technology have been adopted and integrated into the curriculum with varying degrees of success. Each technology was widely perceived as meeting a need, and each gained a measure of initial commitment of resources from a high level administrative or legislative entity. Their adoption and diffusion process generally followed what has been termed the "traditional model," a "top-down" process in which administrative "mandate" introduced the technology and administrative perceptions, decisions and strategies drove adoption and diffusion. Successful adoption was highly dependent on the degree, stability and wisdom of administrative sponsorship.

None of these technologies, however, has been generally available for individual or private use due to cost, scope or application. This deterred a "grass roots" technology adoption cycle as it was nearly impossible to generate movement from the bottom up by influencing faculty peers and administrators with demonstrations of successful applications.

Today's educational generation, however, sees personal computers, the Internet and the World Wide Web as technology's new wave. Proponents of distributed learning environments and distance learning on the World Wide Web forecast dramatic innovation at all levels and in all areas of education. And although this enthusiasm is reminiscent of that of past innovators, there are significant differences in the nature of this technology revolution in education and that of earlier ones with corresponding implications for adoption and diffusion.

Unlike most earlier technologies which were thrust upon the education community, Internet technology is individually available to faculty and students who can use their own systems to serve their own purposes. The impetus for the innovation frequently grows from individual users of the technology, and as their communication and influence moves laterally through their contacts, a body of support can grow and exert "pressure" on the institutional administration to commit to adoption of the technology. There is, therefore, a high potential for a "bottom-up" or "grass roots" adoption process to succeed.

Indeed, Everett Rogers (1986), considered by many the "guru" of adoption/diffusion research since publishing Diffusion of Innovations (now in its fourth edition) in 1960, reveals three important ways in which the adoption of interactive communications differs from that of previous innovations. 1) A critical mass of adopters is needed to convince the "mainstream" teachers of the technology's efficacy. 2) Regular and frequent use is necessary to ensure success of the diffusion effort. 3) Internet technology is a tool that can be applied in different ways and for different purposes and is part of a dynamic process that may involve change, modification and reinvention by individual adopters.

Internet technology actually embodies a number of technologies--e-mail, databases, chat rooms, information and education resources, among others. Additionally, the Internet exhibits many elements that constitute a culture or community--language, symbols, rituals, interaction, and other elements of communication. It thus essentially becomes an environment into which users enter (December, 1993; North, 1995). "Visionary" innovation and "pragmatic" application can begin with grass-roots enthusiasts who enter this environment. Viewed as a culture or community, however, the Internet can be perceived as a threatening competitor to the established norms of an existing culture or community, such as an academic department or some other institutional entity.

Adoption/Diffusion Theories

The "top-down" and "bottom-up" models of adoption/diffusion provide a directional perspective to the process. Another theory dichotomy relates to the scale of innovation efforts by distinguishing between macro-level theories and micro-level theories. Macro-level theories focus on the institution and systemic change initiatives. Innovation typically involves broad aspects of curriculum and instruction and might encompass a wide range of technologies and practices. Micro-level theories, on the other hand, focus on the individual adopters and a specific innovation or product rather than on large-scale change.

Rogers (1995) recently presented four additional adoption/diffusion theories.

Innovation Decision Process theory. Potential adopters of a technology progress over time through five stages in the diffusion process. First, they must learn about the innovation (knowledge); second, they must be persuaded of the value of the innovation (persuasion); they then must decide to adopt it (decision); the innovation must then be implemented (implementation); and finally, the decision must be reaffirmed or rejected (confirmation). The focus is on the user or adopter.

Individual Innovativeness theory.Individuals who are risk takers or otherwise innovative will adopt an innovation earlier in the continuum of adoption/diffusion.

Rate of Adoption theory. Diffusion takes place over time with innovations going through a slow, gradual growth period, followed by dramatic and rapid growth, and then a gradual stabilization and finally a decline.

Perceived Attributes theory. There are five attributes upon which an innovation is judged: that it can be tried out (trialability), that results can be observed (observability), that it has an advantage over other innovations or the present circumstance (relative advantage), that it is not overly complex to learn or use (complexity), that it fits in or is compatible with the circumstances into which it will be adopted (compatibility).

Each of the above can be considered in the context of either a top-down or a bottom-up adoption/diffusion process and in either macro-level or micro-level reforms. But there is one other adoption/diffusion theory dichotomy that is relevant to the discussion of Internet innovation. The distinction is between a determinist (developer-based) focus and an instrumentalist (adopter-based) one.

Determinists regard technology as the primary cause of social change. The process is seen as a series of revolutionary advances that are thought to be out of direct human control. Consequently, focus is on an innovation's technical characteristics. Successful adoption/diffusion is the assumed result of an innovation's technological superiority. The innovation's developer is viewed as the primary change agent.

For instrumentalists the process is evolutionary, and the causes of change are in social conditions and in human aspirations for change and improvement. Thus their focus is on the user (adopter) of a technology and its value as a tool to bring about desired change. Human control over the innovation is a key issue, and it is considered essential to understand the social context in which it will be used and the function that it will serve.

Comparative Approaches To Technology Adoption And Applications Development

Internet and World Wide Web technology offer opportunities for creating new and significantly different educational applications. But technological functionality is not the sole force currently driving its rapid adoption. Rather, the hope held by many in the educational community that new ways of teaching and learning that the technology makes possible appears to be increasing the rate of adoption. Concomitantly, many instructional technologists and educators now reject technical superiority alone as a sufficient basis for the successful diffusion of Internet and Web-based innovations.

David Jaffee (1998), in his analysis of resistance to asynchronous learning networks (ALN)--which would include many Internet/Web based learning applications--reminds us that classroom teaching is an established practice and cultural tradition of the teaching faculty. It centralizes power and influence with the instructor and serves as a focal point of professional identity. Jaffee suggests that institutionalization of the classroom teaching model is a major factor in reluctance to adopt ALN technology. He also observed that faculty exhibit less opposition to the use of televideo for transmission of classroom lectures, perhaps because the classroom setting is maintained between transmission and reception sites. The virtual classrooms afforded by ALNs and Web based learning modes, on the other hand, can be viewed as a threat in this context. He notes, however, that where professional identity is based on classroom presentation and student "reaction" to it, a disinterested and disengaged student audience might adversely affect that identity. Given that circumstance, Jaffee suggests that the ALN (Internet/Web) based virtual classroom concept might be conceived, or at least presented and promoted, as professionally enhancing.

Thus the focus of the process has shifted to the potential adopter and the organization into which the technology will be integrated. An adopter based, instrumentalist approach incorporating both macro-and micro-level perspectives now appears to be the most widely used to promote the adoption and diffusion of Internet technology.

Ernest Burkman's (1987) user-oriented development approach exemplifies those currently favored for the adoption and diffusion of instructional technology generally and Internet technology in particular. It consists of 5 adopter-focused steps: 1) potential adopter identification, 2) measurement of their relevant perceptions, 3) user (adopter)-friendly product design and development, 4) informing the potential user (adopter) of the product, and 5) support after adoption. An alternative model developed at the University of Minnesota's Telecommunication Center recommended a complete analysis of educational need and user characteristics along with the identification of a new educational technology's relevant and appropriate features and factors (Stockdill and Morehouse, 1992).

Tessmer (1991) stresses the need to analyze the environment in which the potential adopter is expected to use the technology. This process includes identifying the relevant physical and use characteristics of both the instructional situation and the support system. The approach is intended to ensure actual, correct and continual product use.

An adoption analysis approach (Farquhar and Surry, 1994) considers the process from the broader perspective of both user-perception and organization attributes, resulting in a plan for carrying out the adoption of technology that is rooted in an organizational context and addresses issues of concern to the intended user. Product and application design and development are also significantly influenced by this approach.

No single approach or process may be sufficient to ensure successful innovation adoption. But clearly, Internet and Web-based technology is individual-user based in application, and the adoption/diffusion process should start at that level. It should focus on the potential adopters and address their characteristics in the context of the environment in which they will be using the technology.

Differentiation Of Technology Adopters

The traditional adoption/diffusion continuum recognizes five categories of participants: 1) innovators who tend to be experimentalists and "techies" interested in technology itself; 2) early adopters who may be technically sophisticated and interested in technology for solving professional and academic problems; 3) early majority who are pragmatists and constitute the first part of the mainstream; 4) late majority who are less comfortable with technology and are the skeptical second half of the mainstream; 5) laggards who may never adopt technology and may be antagonistic and critical of its use by others. The distribution of these groups within an adopter population typically follows the familiar bell-shaped curve.

Moore (1991) sees these groups as significantly different "markets" in the "selling" of an innovation to faculty adopters. He suggests that the transition from the early adopters to the early majority--one that is essential to an innovation's success--offers particular potential for breakdown because the differences between the two groups are so striking (See table 1).

Early AdoptersEarly Majority
  • Technology focused
  • Proponents of revolutionary change
  • Visionary users
  • Project oriented
  • Willing to take risks
  • Willing to experiment
  • Individually self-sufficient
  • Tend to communicate horizontally (focused across disciplines)
  • Not technically focused
  • Proponents of evolutionary change
  • Pragmatic users
  • Process oriented
  • Averse to taking risks
  • Look for proven applications
  • May require support
  • Tend to communicate vertically (focused within a discipline)

Table 1 (adapted from Geoghegan, 1994).

Need-based Diffusion Strategies

Addressing the needs implied by the early adopter-early majority differences when designing diffusion strategies can greatly enhance the likelihood that a technology will be successfully integrated into the curriculum by groups beyond the innovators and early adopters (Geoghegan, 1994).

Need for recognition and process involvement. The chances of successfully "selling" an innovation to the pragmatic early majority will significantly increase if their differences are addressed in terms of their perceptions and needs. They should be recognized as a distinct group within the community and made a part of the planning and policy making process. Attempts to "convert" them to the point of view of the innovators and early adopters are likely to be futile, not to mention almost certainly disastrous to impose the technology on them otherwise. Diffusion of the innovation to the late majority and laggards is more likely to occur through this early majority involvement since the vertical lines of communication between the three groups are more direct than with the innovators and early adopters.

Need for vertical support structure to overcome technophobia. When technology adoption begins from the grass roots, innovators and early adopters, with their strong technology orientation, may be able to get by on their own initiative. Narrowly focused technical support staff may not pose a threat or discouragement to them and their needs for initial training and support may be relatively easy to accommodate. Members of the early majority, however, tend to have no interest in the technology per se and some may exhibit a form of technophobia. Their introduction to the technology should be related to their perceived program and process needs. Since they tend to focus vertically within a discipline, training and support provided by staff who enjoy discipline/content credibility will likely be best received. Correspondingly, such training and support will be more transferable to the late majority and laggards.

Need for well-defined purpose or reason. The very existence of a technology may be reason enough for innovators and early adopters to pursue it. Their bent for experimentation and their innate interest in technology may dispose them to adopt it and be content with "finding a problem to fit the solution". Members of the early majority (and the others by extension), however, tend to derive their purposes from problems related to their disciplines. If the innovation can be demonstrated as an effective, efficient and easily applied solution to those focused needs, it is more likely to be adopted and integrated into the program.

Need for ease of use and low risk of failure. The early majority's aversion to risk quite naturally translates into a need for ease of use and early success if they are to adopt and diffuse the technology. The overlap with support and training requirements is obvious.

Need for institutional/administrative advocacy and commitment. In the top-down adoption effort, institutional sponsorship and support is a given. The innovation may be mandated and grant moneys or other funds are committed. Without advocacy and resource commitment by the institution's "policy setters" and "holders of the purse strings", other issues become moot as the process is likely doomed to stalemate, if not to an early demise. But innovation that occurs from the bottom-up also requires institutional attention, and an administration as an entity (except for some possible rare exceptions) tends to emulate the early majority rather than the innovators and early adopters. And even when an institution initiates an innovation from the top, their perspective tends to be a pragmatic one based on a problem or need that a given technology promises to alleviate. It may relate to staffing, financing, scheduling, teaching, distance or communication. In any case, the mindset is similar to that of the early majority and, as always, there is a need for advocacy to occur if the conditions and activities that can promote adoption by the early and late majorities and laggards are to prevail.

Meeting these needs is an essential part of any successful diffusion strategy. From their work at the University of Colorado, Wilson, Ryder, McCahan and Sherry (1996) derived several principles that apply particularly to situations in which students and faculty are introduced to networked learning environments.

First-time success. No one enjoys frustration or failure. An innovation is most likely to be accepted and integrated by the early and late majorities if success is experienced initially and subsequently built upon. E-mail is typically introduced early on because of its ease of use, and its success is almost guaranteed. It also extends the peer network, both within and outside the institution, thereby magnifying its impact on adoption and diffusion.

On-going peer support. Complementing the experience of initial success, there should be ample "hand-holding" along the way of integration as other Internet applications are introduced. Live peer support not only serves as assistance and encouragement; it contributes to the person-to-person communication that promotes diffusion throughout an educational community. In addition to a training cadre of recognized peers, a network of on-line mentors can expand the potential of the support structure to promote the exchange of innovative techniques.

Real task activities The early and late majorities are pragmatists who see technology in terms of real problem and task solutions. Activities designed to introduce and teach the technology should address those needs. As pointed out earlier, institutional administrations tend to emulate this pragmatic perspective. Internet access to information and resources, and its use for intra and inter-institutional communication can address many administrative needs in addition to those of the faculty, as well as establish a well-defined and recognizable need for adopting the technology.

Ownership and identity on the Internet Encouraging and enabling faculty and students to "create an active presence" on the Internet is important. Participating in listservs, creating a personal home page, publishing electronic papers all contribute to the electronic world-community and help ease "cultural assimilation." As with using e-mail to ensure early success with the technology, this "presence" extends the peer network impact on its adoption and diffusion. Beyond that, it also creates a professional identity and a credibility standing similar to that derived from traditional publication.

Variety of incentives. Attempts to impose a technology through explicit mandates and requirements, as in the top-down scenario, are not likely to be effective. This is particularly true with Internet and Web technology because the technology is so generally available to anyone who has a mind to adopt it. Policies and procedures promoting the technology should grow naturally from its application, and incentives for using it likewise should be tied to its practical use. Adoption and diffusion is more likely to occur where incentives and policies encourage a natural acceptance and use of the new technology.

Technology innovation in the educational community has often been hindered by the lack of a reward structure. Written publication has long been held as evidence of scholarly work that is worthy of recognition through promotions or tenure. In contrast, time consuming effort directed to pragmatic problem solving, instructional materials design and development or innovative classroom teaching has rarely received similar recognition. Integrating a technology like the Internet into one's teaching is time consuming and "effort intensive," usurping time and energy that otherwise could be devoted to more traditional--and more rewarded--endeavors. If innovative behavior is to be sustained, there must be a recognized and acknowledged system of rewards parallel to, and equal to, that associated with "traditional" academic pursuits.

Issues, Implications And Questions

From an innovation integration perspective, a collaborative, inter-institutional application of Internet technology for distance learning, or other purposes, raises issues with serious implications. Whereas the adoption/diffusion lines of communication for previous technologies tended to be confined within a single institution and vertical in nature, Internet and World Wide Web technology inherently extend those communication lines externally and broadly in a horizontal fashion. The aggregate of grass root innovators and early adopters at multiple institutions magnifies the impact that these "players" have on the process. What effect does this have on the adoption and integration at any of the individual institutions? How might that body of innovators be organized to best advantage? Is there a NIH (Not-Invented-Here) syndrome that must be overcome? If so, what strategies might be employed to do so?

The multi-institutional mass of innovators and early adopters provides opportunities for sharing trainers and training opportunities, and for expanding the scope and magnifying the impact of adoption efforts. Local, live peer support can be augmented by distributed "hand holding," but how might that be coordinated and integrated? And is distributed peer support effective?

Early success with the innovation, and ownership of and identity with the technology can be promoted through a variety of activities such as e-mail, listservs and chat rooms. Shared development of resources and papers can be collaborative efforts in which individuals at different sites can participate at their own level at any given time. Are some of these activities and tasks more likely to positively affect adoption/diffusion than others? How might they most effectively be introduced? Opportunities abound to develop resources and course material for alternative delivery on the Internet and World Wide Web, not to mention alternative, electronic publication of papers and research. What is the current extent of professional recognition for development and publication of this sort? How might professional recognition be fostered?

Advocacy of innovation and commitment to integration on the part of the institution's administration is essential to success. The inter-institutional nature of Internet and World Wide Web application, however, introduces a need for inter-institutional collaboration at the administrative policy/procedure setting level. Are there models of administrative collaboration that might be adapted to the integration of Internet technology?

Other issues that impact Internet and World Wide Web adoption need to be addressed, including, to mention a few, protection of intellectual property delivered on the Internet, copyright protection of electronically published materials, liability with regard to certain content and resources such as those of a medical nature, and licensure where "license boundaries" are crossed.


The adoption and diffusion of an innovation within an institution does not guarantee its successful integration into the curriculum or its continued use. A classic example might be the once ubiquitous classroom film, frequently used in public schools as a "Friday afternoon filler" rather than as a planned learning experience. Similarly, the lack of appropriate and adequate teacher training inhibited the full use of language laboratories in public schools decades ago. Now, Internet technology is at risk of being misused. If its glitz, popularity and apparent ease of use are allowed to preempt careful planning, or if teachers and students do not receive proper training in its use, its integration as an information and learning resource, as well as a communication tool will likely be subverted.

In addition to a strong stable advocacy needed to ensure the conditions necessary for technology adoption and diffusion, training in its technical aspects and application to real needs is crucial to its integration beyond the innovators and early adopters. Time for experimentation and development of applications is essential. Successful peer users are needed to lead its integration into the curriculum. If the technology is perceived as difficult to learn and/or too time consuming to prepare and use, or is in some other way perceived as threatening, it probably will not be used. No amount of administrative force would likely be effective reversing a negative trend. A perception of value in terms of needs/problem solving and academic or other rewards through establishment of policies, incentives, recognition and an on-line presence in the Internet culture and environment need to be nurtured by the institution's administration.


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