Investigation into the diffusion of innovation in technical and further education : implementing e-mail through action research
Author(s)Ferrier, J. D. (John David)
KeywordsElectronic discussion groups
Electronic mail systems in education
Diffusion of innovations - Case studies
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AbstractThis research project examined the diffusion of change within one Victorian TAFE Institute by engaging action research to facilitate implementation of e-mail technology. The theoretical framework involving the concepts of technology innovation and action research was enhanced with the aid of Rogers's (1983) model of the diffusion of the innovation process. Political and cultural factors made up the initiation phase of innovation, enabling the research to concentrate on the implementation phase of e-mail Roger's (1983) model also provided adopter categories that related to the findings of a Computer Attitude Survey that was conducted at The School of Mines and Industries Ballarat (SMB), now the University of Ballarat—TAFE Division since amalgamation on 1st January 1998. Despite management rhetoric about the need to utilise e-mail, Institute teaching staff lacked individual computers in their work areas and most were waiting to become connected to the Internet as late as 1997. According to the action research reports, many staff were resistant to the new e-mail facilities despite having access to personal computers whose numbers doubled annually. The action research project became focussed when action researchers realised that e-mail workshop training was ineffective and that staff required improved access. Improvement to processes within education through collaborative action research had earlier been achieved (McTaggart 1994), and this project actively engaged practitioners to facilitate decentralised e-mail training in the workplace through the action research spiral of planning, acting, observing and reflecting, before replanning. The action researchers * task was to find ways to improve the diffusion of e-mail throughout the Institute and to develop theoretical constructs. My research task was to determine whether action research could successfully facilitate e-mail throughout the Institute. A rich literature existed about technology use in education, technology teaching, gender issues, less about computerphobia, and none about 'e-mailphobia \ It seemed appropriate to pursue the issue of e-mailphobia since it was marginalised, or ignored in the literature. The major political and cultural influences on the technologising of SMB and e-mail introduction were complex, making it impossible to ascertain the relative degrees of influence held by Federal and State Governments, SMB's leadership or the local community, Nonetheless, with the implementation of e-mail, traditional ways were challenged as SMB's culture changed. E-mail training was identified as a staff professional development activity that had been largely unsuccessful. Action research is critical collaborative inquiry by reflective practitioners who are accountable for making the results of their inquiry public and who are self-evaluating of their practice while engaging participative problem-solving and continuing professional development (Zuber-Skerritt 1992, 1993). Action research was the methodology employed in researching e-mail implementation into SMB because it involved collaborative inquiry with colleagues as reflective practitioners. Thoughtful questions could best be explored using deconstructivist philosophy, in asking about the noise of silence, which issues were not addressed, what were the contradictions and who was being marginalised with e-mail usage within SMB. Reviewing literature on action research was complicated by its broad definition and by the variability of research (King & Lonnquist 1992), and yet action research as a research methodology was well represented in educational research literature, and provided a systematic and recognisable way for practitioners to conduct their research. On the basis of this study, it could be stated that action research facilitated the diffusion of e-mail technology into one TAFE Institute, despite the process being disappointingly slow. While the process in establishing the action research group was problematic, action researchers showed that a window of opportunity existed for decentralised diffusion of e-mail training,in preference to bureaucratically motivated 'workshops. Eight major findings, grouped under two broad headings were identified: the process of diffusion (planning, nature of the process, culture, politics) and outcomes of diffusion (categorising, e-mailphobia, the survey device and technology in education). The findings indicated that staff had little experience with e-mail and appeared not to recognise its benefits. While 54.1% did not agree that electronic means could be the preferred way to receive Institute memost some 13.7% admitted to problems with using the voice answering service on telephones. Some 43.3% thought e-mail would not improve their connectedness (how they related) to the Institute. A small percentage of staff had trouble with telephone voice-mail and a number of these were anxious computer users. Individualised tuition and peer support proved helpful to individual staff whom action researchers believed to be 'at risk', as determined from the results of a Computer Attitude Survey. An instructional strategy that fostered the development of self-regulation and peer support was valuable, but there was no measure of the effects of this action research program, other than in qualitative terms. Nevertheless, action research gave space to reflect on the nature of the underlying processes in adopting e-mail. Challenges faced by TAFE action researchers are integrally affected by the values within TAFE, which change constantly and have recently been extensive enough to be considered as a 'new paradigm'. The influence of competition policy, the training reform agenda and technologisation of training have challenged traditional TAFE values. Action research reported that many staff had little immediate professional reason to use e-mail Theoretical answers were submerged beneath practical professional concerns, which related back to how much time teachers had and whether they could benefit from e-mail. A need for the development of principles for the sound educational uses of e-mail increases with the internationalisation of education and an increasing awareness of cultural differences. The implications for conducting action research in TAFE are addressed under the two broad issues of power and pedagogy. Issues of power included gaining access, management's inability to overcome staff resistance to technology, changing TAFE values and using technology for conducting action research. Pedagogical issues included the recognition of educational above technological issues and training staff in action research. Finally, seventeen steps are suggested to overcome power and pedagogical impediments to the conduct of action research within TAFE. This action research project has provided greater insight into the difficulties of successfully introducing one culture-specific technology into one TAFE Institute. TAFE Institutes need to encourage more action research into their operations, and it is only then that -we can expect to answer the unanswered questions raised in this research project.