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By Jeffrey Froyd and Maura Borrego

Resisting Innovation

Why faculty are slow to adopt new teaching methods.

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Each year, the National Science Foundation invests millions to support educational research and develop innovative instructional strategies. To what extent have these investments systemically influenced practice in engineering classrooms, and how can returns on investment be improved? These fundamental questions were addressed in our survey of engineering department chairs across the country. We studied seven established engineering education innovations, including service learning and design projects in first-year engineering courses. While 82 percent of department chairs had heard of the innovations, only 45 percent reported using them.

Survey responses and Diffusion of Innovations theory help explain complexity of adoption and suggest recommendations for action. Findings reinforce existing theory that adoption occurs in stages, that complexity of the innovation matters, and that social and professional networks can encourage adoption.

Adoption occurs in stages. To adopt an innovation, an engineering faculty member makes a series of decisions that require different types of information at different times. Dissemination approaches commonly used in engineering education - websites, conference papers and presentations, and workshops - increase awareness of the innovations, but they do not necessarily encourage sustained adoption. Concerns voiced by department chairs included financial resources, class sizes, space, technology, instructional staff time, and whether student learning and satisfaction would really improve. Once faculty and administrators become aware of innovations, local and interpersonal networks become more important in helping them understand exactly whether and how to implement the innovations. These informal interactions can also help dispel some of the misconceptions revealed by survey responses; for example, that active learning requires expensive technology. Campus teaching and learning centers, particularly those with resources dedicated to engineering, can play key roles as information brokers and help faculty select innovations that best fit their needs.

Complexity matters. Survey results showed innovations that could easily be implemented by individual faculty members - for example, research-based instructional strategies, including active learning - were adopted at higher rates than innovations that required coordination across multiple departments, such as interdisciplinary capstone design projects. The biggest gaps between awareness and adoption were observed for the most complex innovations requiring significant coordination across departments and/or significant material resources: service-learning, artifact dissection, and learning communities or integrated curricula. Open-ended comments also indicate that complexity and coordination are more critical concerns with some innovations than others. In these cases, it is doubly important to help faculty and administrators understand how to coordinate organizations and resources to try out, scale up, and successfully adopt the innovations.

Social and professional networks encourage adoption. Department heads were skeptical of evidence of increased student learning with some of the innovations. Further, they preferred to rely on direct experiences of trusted colleagues, gaining awareness from them about the innovations, along with conference and on-campus presentations.

Our survey highlighted the importance of engineering professional societies. We support the recommendation of the recent ASEE report Creating a Culture for Scholarly and Systematic Innovation in Engineering Education that professional engineering societies reward faculty members for educational activity; create "education-focused interest groups, publica­tions, and meetings"; and integrate student and professional activities.

To translate awareness to adoption, change agents need to make better use of networks (including professional societies) and informal interactions, tune their dissemination approaches to different stages in the adoption process, and invest greater creativity and effort in dissemination of more complex innovations. Positive experiences with educational innovations and practical advice on implementation remain critical to encouraging adoption by others.

Jeffrey Froyd is director for faculty development at Texas A&M University. Maura Borrego is an associate professor at Virginia Tech. This article is an extract from "Diffusion of Engineering Education Innovations: A Survey of Awareness and Adoption Rates in U.S. Engineering Departments," coauthored by T. Simin Hall, a research assistant professor at Virginia Tech, in the July 2010 Journal of Engineering Education.




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