In our research on teacher adoption of instructional technology over the past decade—including work with several Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology, National Science Foundation, and Challenge grants—we’ve found two fundamental limitations to traditional adoption models and several strategies that facilitate sustainable change.

The traditional models of adoption are limited in two aspects that we’ve found to be critical to understanding how educational systems adopt technology and develop teacher capacity:

• An educational system is not a single social system; it is a decentralized organization with embedded subsystems of teachers within classrooms, schools, and districts.

• Traditional adoption models deal with internal organizational factors but tend to ignore external factors, such as the rapid worldwide evolution of the internet, shifts in national priorities for funding educational initiatives, and the presence of change facilitators within a networked educational community.

Because a school or district is a plurality of embedded, interacting, and essentially autonomous people and groups, we can draw from the growing research on complex systems to better understand how change is sustained. And because schools and districts are themselves embedded in a larger social and political reality, we know that some of the facilitators and barriers to change are out of the control of the organization. These two facts provide us with a new perspective on “adoption” and “sustainability” of change in educational technology.

Encouraging adoption of instructional technology

Adoption of technology in educational systems appears to follow a stage model. Teachers seem to progress through five stages at which they gain comfort, confidence, and competence with instructional technology—sometimes sequentially, sometime skipping steps. At each stage, certain critical features must be present within the educational system.

Stage 1 (Teacher as Learner): Time for participating in training and ongoing professional development by peers, and in-service sessions that stress best practices in aligning technology with curriculum and standards;

Stage 2 (Teacher as Adopter): Online resources, open-lab workshops at school sites to solve specific technical problems, readily accessible technical support, and technologically-savvy peers;

Stage 3 (Teacher as Co-Learner): Collegial sharing of ideas for integrating technology with standards-based instruction, exemplary products and assessment ideas, and use of students as informal technical assistants;

Stage 4 (Teacher as Reaffirmer): Administrative support, a valued incentive system, awareness of intermediate outcomes such as greater student engagement and increased metacognitive skills, and evidence of impact on student products and performances;

Stage 5 (Teacher as Leader): Incentives for co-teaching on-site workshops, release time and other semi-permanent role changes to allow peer coaching, and support from an external network of professional educators.

Thus, changing teachers’ practice with instructional technology necessitates changes within the educational system itself, as well as a path to teacher leadership that leads outside of the classroom, school, or district. Both internal supports and external opportunities play a role in creating incentives for continuous professional growth. Smart leaders know this and design professional development support systems that look beyond “training” and “catching people up” to instead offer people a wider horizon, one that demands and rewards continuous learning.

But what happens if all the good people leave? What if we train them to be leaders and then they find better jobs elsewhere? There are essentially two lessons here. One is that we need to make the jobs we have more attractive so people will choose to stay. The second lesson is that the system is not diminished if they leave. Not only do more people benefit from the transfer of leadership, but our own system then has room at the top again.

Fostering systemic change For systemic change to take place and be sustained, three critical processes must be in place:

• A convergence of resources, providing a starting point for the change;

• Mutual benefits to those who are affected by the changes; and

• Continuous, extensive free flow of resources and expertise throughout the educational system to fuel the sustainability of change.

Some examples might shed light on each of these three critical processes.

Convergence of resources: When resources converge at a certain level of the educational system—such as the classroom, the school, or the district—that is the highest level to which an instructional technology innovation will diffuse. If there are two teachers in a school who are master teachers with technology, but the principal and the school staff do not provide top-down administrative support, those changes will remain confined to the teachers’ individual classrooms. On the other hand, if the principal verbally supports change and backs up that verbal support with training, resources, and release time, then the change is more likely to be sustained at the schoolwide level.

Mutuality: The classroom, the school, and the district are all nested systems with their own boundaries. For promising practices with instructional technology to diffuse beyond the classroom, a second condition is critical: There must be mutual benefit for people on both sides of the boundary. Consider a school administration that rewards an exemplary teacher with release time, opportunities for professional development, and increased recognition. The teacher, in turn, may be able to offer evidence of increased academic performance by students who are using technology. She also may be able to provide peer leadership to help fellow teachers create technology-rich lessons, curriculum-related products, and activities that enhance student acquisition of higher-order thinking skills.

Extensiveness: A third component needs to be in place for transformation to go beyond its initial localized setting and reverberate throughout the school system. The resources and mutual benefits need to flow back and forth continuously among all parts of the system. This means there must be support for instructional technology at several levels, in all parts of the system, and information must be communicated freely among all parts of the system. Such support and communication can be fostered by empowering staff members, administrators, in-service teachers, and pre-service teachers to look for needs at the local level and take actions to address them. Systemic sustainability is thus achieved by starting with a convergence of resources; providing and supporting mutual benefits for members on each side of the classroom-school and school-district boundary; encouraging extensiveness of engagement and clear channels of communication; and allowing local leadership to emerge over time. Schools and districts that manage these things achieve “systemic momentum”—in other words, lasting changes that include most of the teachers in most of the classrooms and most of the administrators in every school building. The lasting changes then become evident in the system’s culture, roles, and policies, such as in the district’s expectations for all students and in the administration’s expectations of teacher quality.

Dr. Gibson is the director of research and development at the National Institute for Community Innovations (http://www.nici-mc2.org). He can be reached at dgibson@vermontinstitutes.org. Dr. Sherry is a researcher and evaluator with RMC Research Corp. in Denver (http://www.rmcdenver.com) and can be reached at sherry@rmcdenver.com.