Innovation takes time, but there is no time to waste.

I’m in the middle of my third district-wide tech implementation. Actually, two presently. My current district is working hard to make sure everyone becomes adept at using Google Apps for Education and Schoology effectively to support innovative digital learning. I have led similar implementations in my previous districts, and studied others as part of my doctoral work. One thing I have learned in all of these experiences is that it takes time. How much? Well, that depends on the plan and the leadership.

My first experience with a system-wide transition was another Google Apps shift. We planned a year to get everyone trained and confident. It was ambitious, but short-sighted. It was realistically three years until Google Mail, Drive, and Calendar became our new normal. Rogers’ model for diffusion of innovation seems fairly accurate, but the timelines, well, they are a bit less predictable.  The tipping point in that district was when new leadership used the new systems exclusively, and stopped enabling laggards by offering materials in both formats. That was a small step with large returns. In year four, it was clear that every man, woman, and child in our district was capable of creating and learning with Google Apps. This investment continues today and it is probably difficult for many in that system to imagine going back. In truth, once a few years of staff turns over, there are people who simply do not know any other way.

My second such task was short-lived, at least for me. I was only in the district for one year. In the life-cycle of the transition effort there, let’s say that was year two. Everyone had had basic training and the early adopters were off to the races, but there was a stagnancy present. That year, I worked on inspiring the infrastructure and administration to fully embrace and innovate with the new tools, but progress was slow. There were mixed messages and confusion as to the reason for the change. Many felt it was a downgrade. Nevertheless, we continued to take our message to the masses one by one, earning converts the slow way. Without a mandate or even a clear message from building leaders, it was important to make the case to each person individually. We did, and it worked. By the end of the school year, we had moved enough of the staff over to the new system that the administrators began to follow suit, which instigated more change and dialogue. As I speak to my replacement in that role, it sounds like they are nearing the tipping point. By year 4, the new system should be the norm there as well.

The point of all this is that these are situations where a clearly defined innovative change was intended and an organized implementation plan was in place AND it still takes four years or more. How long would it take if the plan were less clear or the efforts less organized? I suspect any school who would like their teachers to move away from Scantrons but have been unsuccessful in that attempt would tell you it could take forever.

For what it’s worth, here are a few of the key ingredients I’ve learned shorten the transition time considerably:

  1. And this is a HUGE one that can cut years off the plan: Get the administration to change first. If they are seen as drivers of the change, it will go over sooner. If they have a passive resistance to it, others will follow.
  2. An organized plan for training that includes time for the kinds of labor necessary for change. Expecting people to shift on the fly on their own time will be challenging.
  3. Have a clear rationale. If the advantage isn’t instantly clear, buy-in will take much longer. The more student-centered this message is, the better. De-mystify the change and make it clear that it is benevolent and not trite or political.
  4. Change the system, not the people. There may be work needed to change systems to work better with the new plan. Will parent communication be affected? How will lunch schedules be different? These seemingly minor questions can grind an innovative change to a halt before the students actually get to change their learning and creating.
  5. Sell the transferrable skills. Things change. We get new phones, but we don’t go to classes to learn how to work them. What if the LMS changes from Edmodo to Schoology? No big deal, we will be able to apply the techniques we used with Edmodo in the new system quickly. The tools may change, but a large portion of the skills can carry over. It is important to reassure people of this and give examples.
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