When you look at the outside of a building, the inner structure isn’t immediately visible. So if you tried to build a replica of the building based on your surface understanding, your version might appear similar but in reality have an entirely different structure. Andy Gibbons, chair of the Department of Instructional Psychology and Technology, used this analogy to explain the concept of a paper written by one of his former graduate students, Jason McDonald. The paper, “Technology I, II, and III: Criteria for Understanding and Improving the Practice of Instructional Technology,” based on McDonald’s dissertation research, was published in June 2009 in Educational Technology Research and Development.
McDonald’s research explored “technological gravity”—the forces that lead an instructor to abandon certain basic elements of innovative instructional approaches when implementing new techniques. Straying from the procedures intended by the original designer can be problematic because, as Gibbons stated, “Instructional concepts are fragile,” and educators need to be “very careful in copying the surface features.” As with a building, many important structural elements of instruction are not visible on the surface. “You can copy the surface features of a piece of instruction so it looks exactly the same as the original, but it can fail to work,” Gibbons explained. “That’s because you failed to capture the inner dynamic—the real balance of forces and information that makes the instruction work.”
For McDonald’s research on the issue, he selected various instructional innovations and studied reports published by educators who had implemented them. For each he examined the intent each author stated for adopting an innovation and compared it with the actual procedures and techniques used. After categorizing the results, McDonald analyzed the findings “to determine how well their practice actually aligned with their intended goals.”
His findings showed that practitioners generally fall victim to technological gravity for three primary reasons:
1. Distracted focus (modifying an innovation to achieve “seemingly more appealing” goals).
2. Status pro quo adherence (searching for practices that seem more legitimate, professional, or traditional).
3. Oversimplification (losing the characteristics of an innovation in pursuit of being more routine).
Additionally, he outlined three ways in which some practitioners are able to avoid technological gravity:
1. Legitimately evaluating their own practices.
2. Adopting guiding principles about the type of practice they want to pursue.
3. Acting as opinion leaders to model careful adherence to the original intent of their chosen innovation.
McDonald’s desire was to improve the ability of educators to take findings from educational research and effectively put them into practice. “Researchers are constantly innovating new approaches that promise to help educators accomplish goals they have been unable to accomplish in the past,” McDonald explained. “Yet if educators implement those approaches in ways that lose the quality of innovation, they will not be able to achieve the goals they are aiming to achieve.” McDonald hopes his publication will encourage educators to be more cautious so they don’t “inadvertently abandon the most important characteristics of an educational innovation.”
McDonald graduated from the McKay School in 2006 and currently works in the Audiovisual Department for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
20 July 2009