Just because it’s popular now …

Teachers, parents, and students often ask our IT department to support new technologies that have just gained popularity in the home consumer market. The latest darling is iOS devices, particularly the iPad.

How may we anticipate the future enterprise growth of a new, personal technology? What qualities of home electronics help predict future success in the enterprise? I would appreciate your thoughts and any resources you have encountered that address this topic.

One useful idea is the technology adoption curve. Actually, “curves” is a better word, as I have come across several different types.

Rogers Technology Adoption Lifecycle Model

Source: Wikipedia

As people adopt a technology, overall adoption increases toward the technology’s “saturation point,” the maximum penetration possible for that technology. The maximum point is usually less than 100% of the possible users in existence (more on that later).

Source: Wikipedia

Some studies have found a gap between the early adopters and early majority, suggesting that some innovations do not proceed directly from minority to mainstream adoption.

Source: Nielsen Company

For some technologies, this gap represents the end of the road. The technology never gains mainstream acceptance, either because it is ill-suited to the mainstream or because another technology supersedes it (see “Laser disc” and “Blu-Ray”).

These graphs help answer the early adopters when they come calling. Early acceptance of a new technology does not guarantee its popularity with the mainstream.

What technologies gain mainstream acceptance?

This chart shows the adoption curves for major household electronics.

Source and full-size version: Karl Hartig

Note that the chart is limited to technology innovations that succeeded in gaining a high adoption level! Also note that the early rate of increase does not necessarily predict its later rate of increase. Compare cellphone adoption to cable TV. Cell phones started slowly and then rapidly increased in adoption. Cable TV started quickly and then tapered off. The following chart describes the adoption curve of a less successful technology. The y-axis represents “visibility.”

Source: Mike Slinn

Let’s talk about organizations

The previous graphs focus primarily on consumer technologies. What about organizations such as companies and schools? Typically schoolwide implementation lies at the end of the adoption curve. The following chart proposes that adoption moves progressively from smaller to larger organizational groups.

Source: James Rait

What qualities do successful school technology innovations have?

I wonder what qualities these successful innovations share. Ease of use? Utility to the user? What can we learn to help us understand the potential future popularity of newer devices like the iPad?

Suitability for an enterprise network: Technologies that integrate well with enterprise networks have a greater chance of success in schools than those that do not. The iPad is poised on the brink of this question. Apple did a nice job with WPA2 enterprise integration for iOS. What about print and file servers?

Applicability to teaching and learning activities: It appears that major manufacturers are not seriously interested in designing technologies for the education market. We are left to choose among richly designed technologies for personal or business use and less mature technologies designed by smaller companies specifically for the education market. When a new technology arrives on the scene, we should first ask whether it is at all suitable to teaching and learning activities. I am not talking about “finding a use” for a new device, but rather identifying high compatibility between a device’s capabilities and existing principles of good teaching and learning, which make it possible to replace and/or extend existing learning environments with technology.

Potential for content creation: Learning is as much about content creation as it is about consumption. Devices like the iPad are rich with consumption capabilities but so far weak for creation. If creation represents at least half of the education process, then what use is the iPad today, compared to a $500 laptop computer?

How far along the curve will a particular technology go?

“Every school will have a 1:1 student laptop program.” One no longer hears this once-popular refrain. The adoption of student laptop programs has clearly slowed since 2000, and still only a small proportion of schools overall provide individual student laptops. High cost, disillusionment about effects, and difficult of integration have proven to be significant obstacles. Do you know of any quantitative studies of student laptop program adoption? I would like to see them.

Your turn

Are you on the “cutting edge” or a “fast follower?” How do you mediate the effects of new technology enthusiasm on your organization? Have you measured the percentage of your budget devoted to innovation? What resources have you found to be helpful in investigating these questions? I look forward to your replies.


  1. Steve Taffee says:

    Once again, RIchard, you provide wonderful food for thought.

    Historically, the rate of adoption of new technology by schools lags that of other sectors, which is why I particularly like you ending section on the qualities of successful school technologies. There is I think, another attribute of importance to schools which is normally found only after a product has gone mainstream: price.

    As for our school, I strove to have between 5%-10% of the faculty involved with early-stage innovations. It takes a certain set of attitudes and skills to be in that leading, bleeding edge.

    We have also benefited from watching the success of other schools and then leapfrogging to solutions that we may not have adopted if we were purely incrementalists. I’m thinking of our relatively early adoption of Google Apps (having watched the success in higher ed) and starting our laptop program as multi-platform based on the success of Harker School.

    So sometimes it pays to lead, while at other times it valuable to build on the experience of other early adopters.


  2. Richard says:

    Steve, I thought of you as I was writing, as a person with whom I’d enjoy discussing this topic!

    Yes, I should include a graph on the decreasing cost of new technologies over time.

    Interesting figure on involving faculty in trying early-stage innovations. I run into challenges when the innovators want their favorite projects to go mainstream within the school.


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