The importance of educator perceptions

[cross-posted at the TechLearning blog]

Last June, during Change Week at Dangerously Irrelevant, I blogged about Rogers’ diffusion of innovation theory. In that post I mentioned that one of the most underutilized aspects of Rogers’ work was the concept of perceived characteristics of innovations (PCIs). PCIs are those things considered by potential adopters that affect how likely they are to move from awareness to adoption. Rogers noted that issues of relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability, and usability were important when thinking about innovation adoption. The key is that the perception – what’s inside the potential adopter’s head – is what’s important.

Rogers’ work ties in nicely with another concept that I’ve recently been thinking about: technology affordances. As Gaver (1991) noted, affordances are aspects of an object ‘that are compatible with and relevant for people’s interactions.’ In the context of digital technologies, affordances are the characteristics that let us answer the question, ‘What do these tools do for me?’ For example, the digital camera has a number of affordances that a traditional film camera does not, including easier manipulation/alteration of raw images, ease of sharing, and elimination of the need to print unwanted pictures.

The idea of affordances intersects with the idea of perceptions. Gaver has a useful diagram in his article:

Quadrant B represents the situation when the affordance of a digital technology is actually there but is not perceived by educators. For example, essay grading software can do some powerful things but I have seen educators simply refuse to believe that the software works the way it does. In contrast, Quadrant C occurs when educators believe a digital technology might do something for them that it actually cannot (ever bought a technology that didn’t live up to its promise?). In an ideal world, educators would be in either Quadrant A or Quadrant D, rejecting or adopting digital technologies with full understanding of what those tools can or cannot do for them.

Of course we don’t live in an ideal world. In fact, it’s difficult for non-technology-savvy educators to have accurate perceptions about digital technologies’ affordances simply because their level of knowledge and understanding is so low. This leads to vendor pitch susceptibility, inappropriate buying decisions, improper implementation, incorrect rejection, and a host of other issues.

Those of us who are using these tools – who are often living and breathing these tools – need to internalize the diagram above. Although a tool may fall into Quadrant D for us, it may fall into Quadrant B or C for someone else. Indeed, for many, residence in Quadrant A is quite appropriate for the instructional task at hand, even when we might say it falls into Quadrant D.

So is this all a fancy way of saying ‘don’t use technology in unthoughtful or inappropriate ways?’ Maybe. Or maybe it’s a way of saying that teachers will reside in Quadrants A or B unless we help them navigate the implementation dip that’s required to get to Quadrant D. Either way, I believe that it’s a useful framework as we think about school staff and where they fall regarding the innovations we often ask them to adopt. If we technology advocates can’t both show and persuade our potential adopters that a particular digital technology falls into Quadrant D for whatever they want to do, we’re not doing our job. And it’s not enough that the technology actually would be helpful, that it actually has the affordance. When it comes to adoption, the perception is as important as the actual capability of the tool.

Citation: Gaver, W. W. (1991). Technology affordances.

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6 Responses to “The importance of educator perceptions”

  1. Whoa! Timely. My colleague/partner in crime Edulicious ( ) is all about perceived usefulness vis-a-vis teacher efficacy & integration of instructional technology. Maybe this will nudge him into continued development on
    Watch out for our button entry. It will be hot.

  2. Timely, indeed! Then again, your insights have made my latest post look like I was stamping my foot like a toddler throwing a tantrum. (Maybe I was..) Thank for addressing questions I’ve had about the “stickiness” of change.

  3. In regards to “technology affordances” it seems much more useful for a teacher to ask ‘What do these tools do for student learning?’ rather than what it does for the individual teacher.

  4. I’m wondering though, if sometimes the move from Quadrant B to D really doesn’t involve being persuasive, but just widening the safety net so people can just jump in and try it out. Sometimes you cannot be persuaded to adopt it unless you’ve actually played with it for a while. I can think of several times when a colleague / friend has pointed out and raved about a piece of software that I truly didn’t “get” until I tried it. So perhaps it’s about feeling safe to try, rather than simply showing. Sometimes the best way is to just dive in — and then you discover if it’s for Quadrant A or D.

    Having said that, the best tech advocates I have worked with are those who first ask the question, “What is it that you want to be able to do?” and then offer me a “menu” of tools that might do that, rather than offering just one tool that has limitations. Going at it in any other way leaves me frustrated at trying to fit the square pegs of my lesson objectives into the round holes of inadequate software or hardware.

    (And of course, there are the times when the response is, “Well, there’s really nothing that exists that can do that — yet!”)

  5. Adrienne, in one brief comment you managed to mention at least 3 of Rogers’ PCIs. Nicely done!

  6. I do like this diagram and discussion. I often feel that the business word exploits this relationship…to their advantage of course. To instill fear and uncertainty to consumers…


    I do really like the graphic and description of this relationship between perceptions. I feel this can provide helpful for all situations, including the digital age.

    Thanks for the post, Scott.

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