Why do schools roll out new programs or courses in small “pilot” groups? I would point at two reasons: the decision makers either (a) want to test the programs out first before deciding if the program is viable, sustainable, and worthwhile, or (b) they need key people to lead the way in the first year which will make full-scale adoption over time quicker and longer-lasting.
Many school districts are rolling out one-to-one programs where every student has a computer or tablet, and they are usually doing so with small pilot groups of teachers in the first year. Are they really testing out these one-to-one programs to see if they work with the possibility of shutting down the program after just one year? In most cases I would say no. It’s more likely that they are choosing their best change agents and best innovators to help implement the program, improve the program, and spread the message to other teachers so that the program can expand successfully.
A one-to-one program is a huge fundamental change for a school, and for every person excited about it there is another who is deathly afraid of it. For every person who is mildly interested (but still unsure), there is another who is mildly disinterested (and could care less). For the one-to-one program to be successful, EVERY teacher will need to get on board. The entire organization needs to change.
Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation theory is the basis for several different models of organizational change, and it is the theory that is taught in most instructional technology programs at the Masters or Doctorate level. Organizations will not change until the people within them are ready to change, and those people have differing attitudes towards change. In a one-to-one program, often the resistance isn’t towards using technology but instead it’s resistance towards change itself.
I am going to apply Rogers’ model to a one-to-one technology program. In the first year of a program you want small test groups which allow you to bring in the teachers who are ready, willing, and able to make things happen. They are the innovators. They are willing to take risks, they will not give up when the work becomes difficult, and they will learn from their mistakes rather than speak negatively about their experience. This is a very small group – only 2.5% of your staff according to Rogers – but it is still the perfect size for your first year. These teachers need large amounts of professional development, technical support, and most of all, TIME. Give them time to make things happen.
In the second year you can target the early adopters. This group is still not very large – 13.5% of the staff – but it’s still five times larger than your first group. It allows for continued support of the teachers before rolling out to a much larger audience. You are now two years in, but you only have 16% of your staff participating. That is perfect! Do not try to go bigger just because you can.
Your change agents will start appearing with the early adopters’ group. They do not have to be the most excited about the program or the most knowledgeable about how to use technology in the classroom. A change agent is someone who can get other people to follow them. They are leaders. When your change agents try something new, other people will also be willing to give it a shot.
In the third year it is time to engage the early majority. They make up a large population of your staff who are willing to try something new but they needed to see other people do it first. There are still many change agents in this group, also, such as level leaders and department chairs. The number of staff members participating in the program has now doubled from 25% to 50% which continues to make expansion manageable. That is one out of two people who are involved and invested in the program and who can help to pull the remaining staff members along.
Before the fourth year you have a choice: either target the late majority (34% of staff population) in year four and the laggards (16% of staff population) in year five, or lump them together and bring the remaining 50% of your school on board all at once. Some of your laggards will embrace the change eventually, and after three of four years it would be extremely disappointing if they still were not ready. Unfortunately some of your laggards will NEVER accept a new program and will even go out of their way to try to sabotage it with resistance, complaints, or excuses.
From the very beginning, the leadership team should be assessing where they feel each individual staff member falls on the bell-shaped curve and then create action steps to help shorten the amount of time it will take to get ALL staff members to buy into the new program. Identifying your change agents is also vital to your success. The sooner you can get your key players involved, the sooner they will be able to bring others with them.
My district’s administrators hand-picked their first small pilot group of one-to-one teachers, with 37 of our 700 teachers forming that first year’s cohort (5%) who represented many different academic departments. Before the second year’s group was chosen there was a lot of pressure to simply choose an entire department (like science) or an entire grade level (the freshman class).
We stayed the course, though, and asked for more volunteers for the second year. An additional 60 teachers were selected through an application process for year two (8.5%), and again they represented all of the academic departments and all of the grade levels. We intentionally chose to spread the program out across all areas and all grade levels.
Expanding the program to include an entire grade level would have made many tactical decisions easier in terms of professional development, collaborative time, data collection, and even just handing out tablets on the first day of school. Many, many districts choose to roll out their one-to-one programs one grade level at a time. It’s easier, but it does not take into account that an entire department or an entire grade level will not necessarily be ready or willing to implement the program.
Giving the entire math department two days of technology training will give them the skills to be successful, but it won’t automatically give them the attitude and motivation to succeed. In one of our high schools we could have over 50 teachers working with freshman courses. According to Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation theory, 8 of those teachers will be innovators or early adopters, people who are truly ready to get started. But there will also be 8 teachers who are laggards, people unprepared or unwilling to participate in the program. Of course there are still 34 people in the middle looking for a little guidance before they jump in. Pushing out a program by grade level is not advised in the first year.
Even in an elementary school where three or four or five teachers work in the same grade level you would be hard pressed to ever find that all of them are innovators ready to pilot a one-to-one program in the first year. From a principal’s point of view, her fifth grade team might look like the best group to pilot an iPad program. In reality, even on the best team, there is probably only one innovator and the others are probably early adopters. The fifth grade team would be a great choice for the second year of the pilot program, but in the first year only one teacher should be in the program.
Remember, there are two reasons you need to keep your pilot programs small in the first and second year. One, you need people who are ready. They must be ready to succeed, and they must help re-shape the opinions of their peers and help prepare them for change. Two, the administration needs to ensure that the pilot group has adequate support: professional development, technical support, and time to work through the problems that invariably come up when trying something new.