1. Introduction to the Problem

The Internet is so vast, and encompasses so many groups and heterogeneous interests that it is an information ecosystem.

(Aboba, 1993, p. 103).


1.1 Overview and Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this study is to explore a range of factors that influence the use of the Internet to support teaching and learning within an institution of higher learning. The context is the University of Colorado’s (UCD) School of Education (SOE). These factors include individual user characteristics and perceptions, design and support features of the university’s network services; social and communication issues; cultural/organizational characteristics of members of the SOE; and issues of learning, adoption, and conceptual change. Understanding the impact of these factors will enable us to form a better understanding of how to support our members as they learn to use Internet communications and technologies. Members of our learning community ought to be able—by choice—to do whatever activities they feel need to be done, with minimal negative effects such as coercion or inequitable access.

The overarching research problem is this: What factors affect the use of the Internet within a graduate school of education? For this study, the Internet is considered to be a network of electronic networks connected by Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) or Point-to-Protocol (PPP). TCP/IP was first developed by the Department of Defense to link dissimilar computers across many kinds of networks, including dissimilar Local Area Networks (LANs) (Newton, 1996, p. 1135). The Internet hosts a set of tools that are available to the School, including electronic mail (e-mail), Colorado Education On-line (CEO, a FirstClass Bulletin Board System), and the World Wide Web (also known as the WWW or the Web). These tools permit our members to communicate with one another and to access and disseminate information electronically, both locally and globally.

My interest in using the Internet as a learning environment began two years before I entered the doctoral program and increased ever since. I am fascinated by its possibilities in expanding the opportunities for research, communication, collaborative work, and the dissemination of research results beyond the walls of the university. I have worked as a change agent within the SOE, mentoring my colleagues, participating in on-line forums, building Web pages, publishing on-line, and studying the dynamics of computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) and technology integration within educational institutions. I am deeply aware of the myriads of problems that this entails: not only problems of access and learning how to use a new technology, but also problems of dealing with entirely new forms of communication and enculturation into a global, on-line learning community.

In my research, I found no models specifically addressing Internet adoption by a higher education organization. People working in the field generally use corporate models, but these tend to be linear. Elliot Soloway mentioned at the 1997 AERA conference (Cuban et al., 1997) that corporate models of technology adoption and diffusion do not port well to educational environments, since the integration of the Internet into a school’s curriculum is part of a more comprehensive process of systemic reform.

Moreover, traditional models of adoption and diffusion are descriptive rather than prescriptive. They offer us a host of factors that influence the adoption process, but they do not give us a deep understanding of how these factors relate to one another. Nor can they give us a feeling for the relative importance of each of these factors as they interact and moderate the process by which an educational institution adopts a new technology and customizes it for its own particular situation. Each organization is different. Each social system has its own unique cultural norms, values, beliefs, and assumptions.

To build a new conceptual framework for the adoption and diffusion of the Internet within an educational organization, I began by melding the empirical and theoretical factors that I gleaned from my own research efforts with the UCD SOE and RMC Research Corporation over the past three years. I gathered and built upon fundamental ideas and models from various disciplines, including adoption and diffusion theory, cognitive science, activity theory, systems theory and organizational change, and theories relating to CSCL and mediated learning environments.

Then, using both quantitative and qualitative methods, I explored how these factors affect the use of the Internet for information access and dissemination, communication, teaching, and learning, throughout the SOE. I started with a set of surveys to identify broad patterns, and then moved to qualitative methods to narrow the focus of the investigation and to gain greater depth.

Finally, I developed a set of recommendations for the UCD Computer, Information, and Network Services (CINS) and the SOE to create a set of aids, supports, and interventions for new and continuing users of the Internet. Between the end of my data collection and analysis activities and the time this dissertation was finalized, several of these interventions were in the process of being implemented.


1.2 The Internet: Myths, Facts, and Questions

Those who are familiar with Eastern mythology will recognize the fabled "Wish-fulfilling cow": a mythological beast that grants humanity all of its sustenance and desires. On the other hand, those who are familiar with Western fables will recognize "Pandora’s Box": a box that was thought to be full of wondrous gifts, but that actually contained a swarm of flies and other noxious insects. How shall we characterize the Internet? What questions should we be asking as we approach the cow or attempt to open the box?

Soloway and Wallace (1997) give us a sobering touch of reality regarding the myths and facts surrounding the Web. With limited resources available in the classroom and the school library, students are turning to the Web to find timely information. However, they are also finding that they have to be willing to invest healthy doses of time, effort, and good humor into the search process. They continually run into problems such as the "World Wide Wait", difficulties with hypertext navigation, keyword searches that don’t work, an overwhelming amount of unorganized content, and inappropriate sites. Moreover, using the Web for student research may perpetuate the myth that answers to any ill-defined problem can be found on the Web. Are these problems too much for our new users to handle, especially since technological literacy is not a prerequisite for entry into our School’s graduate programs?

Collis and her colleagues (1997) identified several recurrent problems using the Web for computer-supported collaborative work (CSCW) in a higher education setting. These included problems in maintaining course momentum as students become immersed in their respective projects; motivating and structuring collaboration and communication; maintaining group memory (or "longitudinal continuity", as defined by Crook, 1994a); organizing and executing self- and inter-group evaluation; and relating group activities to the conceptual aspects of the course. Hewitt and Scardamalia (1997) encountered similar problems with group coherence in CSCW.

Fortunately, these groups of researchers found some operational solutions for these problems that worked for their particular situations, but they have not developed generalizable models that can be applied elsewhere. Thus, anyone who contemplates using Web-based instruction will have to actively research the impact of Internet-based learning environments on their own student project teams because such courses are highly situated and dependent on the introduction, implementation, and use of technology within any given team (Chinowsky & Goodman, 1997). This emphasis on the local setting is probably desirable, but there is a concomitant need for better, more comprehensive models as well.

Professionals, too, are beginning to run into problems, especially with the new American Psychological Association (APA) guideline that personal publication of pre-press manuscripts on the WWW constitutes publishing per se. There are reputable, peer-reviewed electronic journals (for example, DEOSNEWS, Electronic Journal of Virtual Culture, CSS Journal) and on-line proceedings publications that are beginning to compete with paper-based professional journals. Publishing in these journals does, in fact, constitute professional publishing. But how does this fit in with the administration’s vision and incentive structure for professional publishing by faculty and doctoral students?

Primarily in the Curriculum, Learning, and Technology (CLT) emphasis area of the doctoral program, some innovative students and faculty are beginning to create on-line portfolios and to contribute to our collection of scholarly publications. Some teams of students have participated in on-line, distributed, case-based instruction competitions. Others have been active members of on-line forums and discussions such as the Association for Educational Communications and Technology’s (AECT) ITFORUM, the American Educational Research Association’s (AERA) VIRTCON, and the SOE’s Information and Learning Technologies’ (ILT) on-line forum. All of these forums encourage scholarly dialogue about problems of common interest to instructional designers and educational researchers (Sherry & the UCD Internet Task Force, 1996). But only a few of our members participate in them. What incentives and support are available for faculty and students who participate in such activities? Are these measures appropriate for our learning community?

In revisiting the Guidon-Manage expert medical system, Clancey found that "complex, domain-specific computer systems...cannot simply be delivered by one community of practice (computer science researchers) to another (medical students and faculty)" (1993, p. 9). I wondered whether the seeming paucity of professional on-line involvement among our faculty and students might be due to a misalignment between the design of the university’s telecommunications system and its context of use. As David points out, there are four key requirements for the effective use of technology: access, professional development, functionality, and technical support. She emphasizes that "the use of technology must have the functionality to support the use for which it is intended" (1994, p. 143). What are the design factors that facilitate or impede adoption and diffusion of the Internet?

Turkle and Papert (1991) observed students who use a "hard" approach to working with computers (the "hards" prefer abstract thinking, systematic planning, and a command-line interface) and those who use a "soft" approach (the "softs" prefer a negotiational approach, concrete forms of reasoning, and a graphical interface). They noted that many soft-approach students (primarily women) tend to be turned off by the traditional approach to computation.

Different people are comfortable with different kinds of human-computer interfaces (HCIs). Giving students a choice between a command-line interface (in which the computer is told to do something) and the desktop metaphor (in which icons can be freely moved around to control the computer) opens up new possibilities to match the HCI with the individual learner’s cognitive style.

Having participated in other research activities that deal with educational telecommunications, I know that the Internet is a dynamic innovation with barriers and facilitators that change rapidly. For example, CEO attained full Internet connectivity as of spring, 1998: a major redesign that overcame one of its most serious limitations. There is one drawback, however: to access the full range of Internet tools and applications, one must have a TCP/IP or PPP connection.

Though Internet access was freely available to all students, until spring 1998 when all of my data collection activities were completed, support for student accounts on the Carbon and Ouray servers was rather rudimentary and cheap as compared with many other university telecommunications systems. Other than having students purchase services privately from a commercial Internet Service Provider (ISP), there was no provision for Internet protocols (such as TCP/IP or PPP) through the university. Thus, it was not possible for students and faculty to link the university’s network servers with their computers at home or at work and to use graphical browsers without personally incurring a monthly service fee.

To add to the difficulties that new users faced, in-person, on-site technical support by experienced laboratory assistants is often not available on a regular basis in the SOE computer laboratory. E-mailing CINS experts often involves a wait of a day or two until problems with student accounts or faculty computers are resolved. How can these difficulties be ameliorated?


1.3 Searching for Answers

From 1990 to 1992, as I worked with the Florida Center for Instructional Technology, I sought answers to questions such as these. My interest persisted when I carried out a needs assessment for distance learning training under a grant from the Pacific Mountain Network (Sherry & Morse, 1995).

In 1994, when I was admitted into the UCD doctoral program, I joined a group of fellow students who shared my interest in the Internet. Let us take September 1994 as the starting point and look at this study from a historical point of view as it has evolved over time.


1.3.1 Initial Internet Task Force Efforts

In the fall of 1994, an ad hoc group of students and recent graduates, together with their academic advisor, formed the UCD Internet Task Force. Our purpose was to create a networked learner support environment for both the Information and Learning Technologies (ILT) master’s degree program and the Instructional Technology (IT) thread of the doctoral program. At that time, the IT doctoral program was in the process of evolving into a broader Curriculum, Learning, and Technology (CLT) emphasis area that was housed within a new schoolwide doctoral program.

The Internet Task Force had three broad objectives: (a) To support the SOE in its move to join the Internet culture through a variety of on-line and off-line tools, support, training, and policy initiatives; (b) to develop ways that the Internet could be used as knowledge-building tools within graduate classes and seminars; and (c) to reflect on and conduct research on users’ needs, support tools, adoption processes, cultural change, and collaborative learning communities.

The Internet Task Force met regularly since August 1994 and created a number of performance supports and research products related to educational uses of the Internet. (See Sherry & the UCD Internet Task Force, 1996, for a more complete report of the Internet Task Force activities and accomplishments.) Our Initial interventions focused on creating informative trifold brochures, on-line tutorials, and an on-line helpdesk.

In 1995, to address these three objectives, four of our members wrote a paper that was presented at the AECT In-CITE’95 Conference and that was later published in the conference proceedings (Wilson, Ryder, McCahan, & Sherry, 1996). In our investigation, we attempted to carry out four activities: (a) to reflect on the general problem of the local and Internet cultures; (b) to report on our efforts to support the integration of the two cultures; (c) to highlight areas of needed research; and (d) to offer recommendations to designers of learning environments for the successful integration of the Internet into existing learning cultures.

For our first research project, several of our members carried out a short case study which involved several activities. We carried out a literature review of factors that are critical to a user’s choice to join the Internet community. We conducted a user survey of faculty and students in the Instructional Technology (IT) department to determine their levels of use, objectives for use, and obstacles faced in the use of the Internet as well as their preferred performance and training supports. We interviewed a group of thirteen students in the instructional technology seminar who were exploring the Internet, developing home pages, conducting on-line searches, downloading files, and participating electively in listservs. We followed up the group interview with a short e-mail questionnaire in the fall of 1995 and collected responses from seven of the original thirteen interviewees. Finally, we interviewed three faculty members to determine their role in setting a tone for the department’s local culture.

Five factors emerged that seemed to affect people’s choices to engage in the use of e-mail and the Internet:

1. Clear benefit and value. There needs to be some compelling need for student to engage in the discomfort attending the learning of new technologies.

2. Developing self-efficacy. Lack of self-efficacy is common when a person both believes in the value or necessity of learning and using to use some new technology and simultaneously feels incompetent or unable to learn how to use it.

3. Cultural/personal compatibility. Technology occasionally conflicts with people’s learning styles, self-concepts, and lifestyles.

4. Proper scaffolding. People need a "scaffold" or support structure in place as they engage in complex performances outside their normal repertoire of skills.

5. Finding a voice and having something to say. Here, users are more concerned with the content of their messages and products rather than the technology per se. This is especially important when dealing with a text based interface where no social/nonverbal cues are available.

Ryder and Wilson continued the investigation of these and other factors and presented their results at AERA in 1995, with a special emphasis on the five factors listed above and the affordances of mediated communication (Ryder & Wilson, 1996). In particular, participation in virtual learning environments is limited to those who are literate and who can express themselves via electronic media, who have access to the technology, and who can filter information that is of value. Part of this involves conducting a follow-up investigation of these five factors and their relative importance, now that three years have passed.


1.3.2 SOE Web Page

Our second major research project was carried out throughout 1995 and 1996, when two of us studied, reflected upon, and documented the collaborative processes of our design team as we designed the SOE Home Page (Sherry & Myers, 1998). We had some specific areas we wanted to explore:

1. What are the differences between face-to-face and electronically mediated collaboration?

2. What processes are occurring in a collaborative design group that is using a mediated environment for both communication and design?

3. What are the group dynamics that support the design process?

We used three data sources for triangulation: e-mail messages among task force members, task force meeting notes, and member responses to a written questionnaire. The results of our work were presented at three professional conferences in 1996 (STC, AERA, and AACE). Four themes emerged from the analysis of the e-mail messages among all team members: (a) making explicit use of metacognitive strategies, (b) developing a shared knowledge base, (c) taking responsibility for assigned tasks and helping teammates do likewise, and (d) generating new ideas and new research questions. These four themes were found in both the meeting notes and the questionnaire responses as well.

We also noted, like Berge (1997), Wilson, Lowry, Koneman and Osman-Jouchoux (1994), and Fishman (1997) that there is a difference between the types of dialogue that occurred in mediated conversations as compared with face-to-face conversations. Design conversation occurred more frequently in face-to-face meetings than in electronic discourse. On the one hand, with nonverbal cues, body language, and other social context cues missing in text-based e-mail conversations, participants could concentrate on the content of the message rather than the presenter. On the other hand, in negotiation of meaning and conflict resolution, we found that our face-to-face meetings were more productive.

Berge explains that written communication may be more reflective than spoken interaction, and may involve deeper cognitive processing (1997, p. 10). This can lead to written communication apprehension, a factor that negatively influenced student use of and attitudes toward computer-mediated communication (CMC) tools (Fishman, 1997, p. 8). Since "finding a voice and having something to say" (or mediated writing proficiency) emerged as a factor in the 1995 survey, it was important to follow up this theme in the 1997 survey and the subsequent interviews.


1.3.3 Recurring Questions

Nearly four years have passed since our initial efforts began. Some of our doctoral labs and seminars have begun to use CEO conferencing and the address book feature of the PINE e-mail system to carry on asynchronous, open conversations about topics directly relevant to the curriculum being studied. The Internet Task Force has worked collaboratively on shared documents that reflect our current academic programs and products. We reorganized the SOE Home Page to reflect the new requirements of the doctoral program and printed trifold brochures advertising the existence of the home page. We mentored students and staff through the process of getting connected, using Netscape, and publishing on-line documents. Throughout all of our efforts, there still remained a growing list of questions that were left unanswered. Is the Internet underutilized? If so, why? How can we help new and continuing users to use it in ways that they feel will serve their intended purposes?

I was privileged to be a guest "speaker" on Bailey’s (1997) Net Forum in which her entire class discussed Web-based instruction on-line for two hours. Collis, Andernach, and VanDiepen (1997) developed a web-based environment for group work in higher education. Montgomerie and Harapnuik (1997) developed and delivered an award-winning on-line credit course for adult learners. Wolcott and Robertson (1997) have their theater doctoral students develop collaborative, hypertext plans and proposals for innovative theater presentations. Might some of these activities be appropriate for our own SOE? Or are there important social, cultural, and organizational factors operating within our School that would preclude this?

At RMC Research Corporation, my colleagues and I have explored similar questions, presented our findings at professional meetings, published journal articles, created staff development workshops, built Web sites, recommended interventions to funding agencies, and gained a reputation as effective technology implementation and integration experts. However, before I might attempt to recommend any interventions to either CINS or the UCD SOE, I needed to develop a more comprehensive model of the adoption process and the cultural changes that are taking place as our own on-line learning communities begin to take shape and develop their own norms and conventions of use, both within separate programs and within the SOE as a whole


1.4 Developing a Conceptual Framework

In researching the adoption of telecommunications by educational organizations, I started by using corporate models such as Rogers (1995) and Hall and Hord (1987). I recognized their limitations, namely: (a) they consider adoption as a social process seen through the eyes of the individual user rather than as a systemic process, and (b) they consider this process as fairly linear rather than involving complex feedback loops. Thus, I started looking elsewhere in the literature to fill the gaps in their models and begin to build a unique model of my own. The conceptual structures I worked with, and the literature that I searched to build them, are documented in two of my major publications (Sherry, 1997a; Sherry, Lawyer-Brook, & Black, 1997).


1.4.1 Evaluation of the Boulder Valley Internet Project

In the Evaluation of the Boulder Valley Internet Project (BVIP) (Sherry, Lawyer-Brook, & Black, 1997), I developed a theoretical model that guided me in my efforts to collect, analyze, interpret, and report a very large amount of data gathered from several data sources. These included a district-wide e-mail survey, in-depth interviews, focus groups, a curriculum work group, an embedded case study at an elementary school, and documentation gathered throughout the implementation phase of the project. I interpreted the results of this evaluation were in relation to several theoretical models of the innovation adoption process within complex educational environments.

Clearly, there are major differences between the BVIP and the SOE. The BVIP took place in a K-12 school district, was funded by outside organizations (National Science Foundation and the Annenberg/CPB Math and Science Project), and was a collaborative venture between the University of Colorado and the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD). Moreover, the main impetus of the BVIP was to develop a training program for teachers and administrators who wished to use the Internet for instruction.

The supportive actions of the UCD Internet Task Force, in contrast, were strictly internal, had very limited funding, and did not include a formal training component. Classes and workshops in the use and applications of Internet communication tools are offered by the SOE for credit or by CINS as a free service for UCD students.

I do feel, however, that the model that I developed for the BVIP can in some measure be applied to the SOE. Throughout the literature, whether Internet diffusion initiatives have taken place in K-12 or higher educational settings, whether their funding has been internal or external, and whether students received formal training in Internet-specific classes or informal mentoring within classes that used Internet tools, the same clusters of factors keep reappearing. These are: (a) technological factors (design features of the innovation such as access, functionality, interface and design, network response time, capacity, and reliability); (b) individual factors (user characteristics and user perceptions); and (c) organizational factors (including social and cultural considerations, training, maintenance, and support).

I found, like Ryder and Wilson (1996) that the technological barriers were the easiest ones to solve. Barriers that are rooted in culture, gender, lifestyles, learning styles, paradigms, and comfort zones, in contrast, provide rich opportunities for further research, theory development, and guidance for practice. Moreover, participation in on-line conferences can facilitate individual conceptual change through dialogue, reflection, negotiation of meaning, and transformation of perspectives in rather different ways from face-to-face dialogue. My interest in these issues drove this investigation.


1.4.2 Toward a New Diffusion Model

After I had finished the final report for the BVIP, I wrote a paper (Sherry, 1997a) and gave a presentation at the AECT In-CITE’97 conference. I described the three ways in which the BVIP deviated from Rogers’ (1994) Diffusion of Innovations model: (a) the innovation (the Internet) was dynamic, not static; (b) the organization was decentralized, not centralized; and (c) client/change agent empathy contributed to horizontal diffusion but did not facilitate vertical diffusion.

In my informal conversations with faculty and students in the SOE over the past three years, I saw that these same trends also characterize our own learning community. There is no way to separate the diffusion of the Internet from the evolution of the technology itself. As a teacher remarked, "it’s like flying the plane while we’re still designing it!"

Our School has many different programs that are semi-autonomous, and that may even have separate cultural norms as well as separate requirements. Diffusion of innovations is strongly dependent on channels of communication (Carlson, 1970), and tends to take place among closely linked groups, classes, or programs, rather than throughout an organization as a whole. These are systemic issues that bear further investigation.

Moreover, speaking of a "learning community" or a "learning organization" tends to meld learning with adoption. In the BVIP evaluation, I saw that these are very difficult to separate; they feed into each other. Everson states that learning is change and defines a learning organization as "an organization skilled at creating, acquiring and transferring knowledge and at modifying its original assumptions, purposes and behaviors to reflect new knowledge and insights" (1997, p 2).

Revisiting the BVIP data, I began to understand that there was an important interaction between the adoption/diffusion process and the learning process itself. In the case of the BVIP, teacher-trainees who wished to integrate the Internet into their classroom activities started out as learners, then adopters, then co-learners and co-explorers with their students, and finally, as reaffirmers or disconfirmers of the adoption process. I have recently written a paper (Sherry, 1998) that describes this cyclical learning/adoption trajectory in detail.

In the SOE, however, our students are not all teacher-trainees, nor will all of them be in a position of co-learning and co-exploring with a cadre of their own students, so this cyclical model may not necessarily apply to our School. It did, however, identify a negative feedback loop that was taking place within the BVIP. The BVIP was an innovative subsystem within a larger community that was espousing increasingly conservative norms and values. Perhaps negative feedback loops may exist within the SOE as well, especially if newly acquired skills lead to increased job responsibilities without concomitant incentives or rewards.

Peled, Peled, and Alexander (1994) looked at technological interventions from an ecological approach that considers the system as a whole, couched within its local environment and context. This is much like the approach that Egan (1985) used for his investigation of change agent skills in human service organizations. The level of coupling within individual system components (Morrison & Goldberg, 1996) becomes important from this perspective. The more tightly coupled the spheres of influence of local culture, policy makers, school, classroom, and teacher/student become, the easier it is to diffuse innovations throughout the system, but the less adaptable the individual components of the system become to local environmental stimuli and changes.

Morison (1984) emphasized just how hard it is to introduce a new innovation into a tightly coupled system with a well-defined culture. Martin and Zlotolow (1997) explained that this is because of three separate factors: (a) the breadth of the proposed change effort, (b) the system’s readiness for change, and (c) the system’s capacity for change.

In the BVIP evaluation, I clustered all of the organizational factors together. Upon further investigation into the literature, however, I found that there are actually three group processes going on, namely, social processes, systems processes, and cultural processes of organizational learning and growth.

The process of change and diffusion begins with individuals’ characteristics and perceptions, coupled with the cultural norms and legitimate activities of the learning organization of which they are a part. It progresses through various processes of dealing with the design of the innovation, learning how to use its associated tools, utilizing the communication channels of the organization, and making effective use of both the impersonal and the personal support structure of the organization. Finally it ends with cognitive restructuring and transformation of perspectives among those individuals and the learning groups of which they are a part. This may lead to reaffirmation of the adoption decision, with the adopter influencing other colleagues and students to adopt it, or it may lead to reluctant use or outright rejection of the innovation. This is my new technology adoption and diffusion model (Sherry, 1998).

Throughout this cycle, learning, adoption, and change are continually mediated by the design and the support structure of the environment in which these activities take place. Moreover, they are highly influenced by the communication channels that join people within the organization. This is why both Rogers and Hall stress the importance of building personal, supportive relationships between change agents and the members of the systems that they wish to change.

Organizational systems are cultures. The individuals who comprise them share beliefs, values, meanings, assumptions, norms, and a common language or set of representations. They have their own definitions of legitimate activities within their sociocultural system. A proper study must focus on the organization in which the individuals are situated, not just on the individuals per se; it cannot ignore the social roles, norms, and dynamics of group interaction.

With the work of Rogers, Hall, and my own empirical studies as a starting point, I investigated a whole spectrum of factors that influences the adoption and diffusion of innovations within a sociocultural system. This large set of factors can be collapsed into six overarching themes as presented in Table 1.1.


Table 1.1

Themes to Be Explored in Chapter Two


Cluster of Factors


User Characteristics and Perceptions


Cultural and Organizational Issues, Norms of Use, Legitimate Activities


Tools, Design, and Impersonal Supports


Social Issues: Scaffolding, Mentoring, Communication


Individual Learning, Adoption, and Conceptual Change


Group Learning, Adoption, and Conceptual Change



1.4.3 My Role as a Participant Observer

Throughout my work with the UCD Internet Task Force and my professional research activities at RMC Research Corporation, I have become increasingly aware that this very complex and vital issue of Internet diffusion is limited to neither the SOE nor to those school districts that are attempting to bring their teachers and classes on-line. Rather, it is rapidly becoming germane to all learning organizations.

As a legitimate peripheral participant in the global learning community, I have benefited greatly by on-line discussions with faculty members and students at other universities by participating in listservs and on-line forums and by discussing works-in-progress with experts in my areas of research interest. Moreover, as an active change agent exercising leadership within the SOE via the Internet Task Force, I cannot truly think of myself as an impartial outside observer. Rather, I am an involved participant observer, a member of the very activity system or learning organization that I am trying to change. I consider myself a developmental researcher (Richey & Nelson, 1996), one who eschews the traditional divide between the researcher and the practitioner. I am attempting to systematically develop new knowledge with the ultimate aim of improving the very learning environment that I am studying and providing help to others with similar agendas.

My process of systematically producing knowledge begins with active participation in the cultures that I am trying to understand. This consists of identifying and naming critical factors that emerge from previous empirical research, and then developing models and theories that explain how and why relationships occur among these factors (Krathwohl, 1993). This is a basically objectivist stance that Hall, and to a lesser extent, Rogers, take in their own research. The process of labeling factors and identifying interactions among them, however, does not necessarily provide me with a deep understanding of the subtle internal, social, and cultural processes that are occurring as my colleagues in the SOE struggle to learn how to use the network and to find out what constitutes its acceptable use. These processes can only be revealed through in-depth interviews with users who may not necessarily be innovators or early adopters as I am, but who may have very valid reasons for not jumping on the networking bandwagon.

In my epistemology paper (Sherry, 1997b) I argue for converging lines of inquiry that meld both qualitative and quantitative methods, depending on the problem to be explored, the context in which the inquiry takes place, and the purpose of inquiry. Here, the problem to be explored is to find out what factors contribute to the diffusion of the Internet within an institution of higher education. The context is our own SOE: a nonresident educational institution with students, faculty, and staff who have Internet access, who are on-line, who connect from a variety of locations, and who have a variety of different reasons for using Internet tools (Sherry, 1995; Sherry, 1997c). The purpose of inquiry is to determine what interventions might be favored by my colleagues to help them use the Internet as a tool for teaching, learning, and collaborating with others.

This is an example of a case where Miles and Huberman suggest that it is important to know when it is useful to count and when it is difficult or inappropriate to count at all (Miles & Huberman, 1994, p. 40). Surveying a large, stratified sample of participants is an efficient means of adding power and sensitivity to my own individual judgment as I attempt to detect and describe patterns and themes that emerge from a large set of observations. On the other hand, qualitative methods—especially in-depth interviews with a small sample of participants, purposefully selected to increase the variability in individual user characteristics and perceptions—can strengthen a quantitative study by facilitating conceptual development; by allowing me to probe more deeply into interesting, emerging themes; and by helping me to interpret and clarify my quantitative findings.

Thus, this study is a unique mix of exploratory research and an attempt to suggest suitable interventions to be developed by those who have the power to make decisions and allocate resources. On the one hand, survey methods are superior for finding out how individual user characteristics and perceptions; together with the design, tools, and supports with which they work; impact our members’ patterns of use of the Internet. On the other hand, qualitative methods are more appropriate for exploring the impact that an innovation has (or does not have) on the individual members of the system. Here, my colleagues’ struggles, successes, and horror stories shed light on the social, cultural, organizational, and conceptual change issues they face as the SOE begins to integrate the Internet into teaching and learning.

Though I am a participant observer, I must not let my own prejudices and preconceived notions color the interpretations of my findings. For example, I cannot assume a priori that Internet use is good in and of itself. It needs to fit with the culture and lifestyles of the individuals who make up the community of which I am a part. Some individuals may pride themselves in being knowledgeable about technology and making use of it; others may view the use of mediated communication as somewhat suspect, a valuing of technique over people and relationships.

Clearly, no scaffolding or intervention is going to assist people to do something that they feel has no value; that may be incompatible with their lifestyle or personal philosophy; or that may cause them to lose face if they feel a loss of self-efficacy. For example, if those who promote and give tenure to the faculty do not value on-line publications, then what incentive is there for professors to create them? If my colleagues feel they have perfectly adequate communication with their peers via CEO conferences, then what impetus is there to expand their communication links to the global Internet community?

The kinds of interventions that I wish to suggest will be empowering tools offered to my colleagues who will still be in control of their own choices. Only through a deep and empathetic understanding of these individuals’ perspectives will I be able to attain my end of identifying and suggesting worthwhile interventions that will benefit the entire community of which I am an integral part.


1.5 The Problem and Research Questions

The general problem is this: What factors affect the use of Internet communications within a graduate school of education? To suggest potential interventions to those who have both the decision-making power and the resources to implement them, I explore the reasons why our colleagues are (or are not) using the Internet and what might stand in their way. Then, I concentrate on developing local, practical knowledge so that I can find out what aids and supports, design of the learning environment, incentives, and cultural factors might empower them to use the network as they see fit.

This is a case study of our learning community—the UCD SOE. It uses converging lines of inquiry like those described by Yin (1994). The data collection methods include: (a) a factor analysis of the 1995 and 1997 surveys of the SOE regarding e-mail and Internet use; (b) individual interviews with faculty, staff and students; (c) a focus group with students in the School Psychology program who were interested in learning how to use Internet tools; (d) an investigation of the electronic conference for the Spring 1997 Advanced Quantitative Methods seminar; and (e) an examination of electronic artifacts such as on-line doctoral portfolios, student and faculty Web pages, and on-line scholarly publications. Since case study results generalize to theory and propositions rather than to other cases, I hope that the results of this study may apply to other learning organizations and institutions of higher education as well.

Three categories of questions are addressed in this study: (a) questions that can be straightforwardly addressed using surveys, interviews, and investigations of electronic artifacts and on-line conferences; (b) "nice to know" questions that deal with the cultural norms of the SOE as a learning organization; and (c) questions that are more difficult to answer, that address individual learning, adoption, and conceptual change, mediated by the learning environment and influenced by other members of the community. There are ten research questions, grouped by the themes that will be developed in Chapter Two. The methods for addressing these ten questions will be discussed in Chapter Three.


1.5.1 Theme 1: User Characteristics and Perceptions

Question 1A. To what extent is the Internet used by the SOE?

Question 1B. For what reasons is the Internet used by the SOE?

Question 1C. What challenges to the use of the Internet are perceived as most important?


1.5.2 Theme 2: Cultural and Organizational Issues, Norms of Use, Legitimate Activities

Question 2A. How does the incentive structure of the SOE influence the types and levels of use of the Internet?

Question 2B. What on-line activities are consonant with the administration’s vision of disciplined inquiry, professional engagement, and professional leadership and commitment by faculty and graduate students?


1.5.3 Theme 3: Tools, Design, and Impersonal Supports

Question 3A. What improvements to the University and the SOE network’s human-computer interface (HCI) design and available Internet tools are suggested by new and continuing users?


1.5.4 Theme 4: Social Issues: Scaffolding, Mentoring, Communication

Question 4A. What changes to the University and the SOE’s communication and support structure are thought to be most helpful to overcome barriers and support Internet use?

Question 4B. How does the way that SOE members are joined to communication channels and other individuals influence their use of the Internet?


1.5.5 Theme 5: Individual Learning, Adoption, and Conceptual Change

Question 5A. How do activities involving the use of Internet tools impact individual learning, adoption, and conceptual change?


1.5.6 Theme 6: Group Learning, Adoption, and Conceptual Change

Question 6A. How does individual learning, adoption, and conceptual change influence the other members of the community to which these individuals are culturally linked?


1.6 Implications of This Study

The implications of this study are to address a practical need: to assist both the SOE and CINS in the process of developing suitable scaffolding for both new and continuing users. It is an issue that demands attention, an issue I need to understand in order to provide support and service to those who need it. This is in consonance with the philosophy of the Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership and Innovation, which states that: (a) learning opportunities should lead to effective practice; and (b) learning should be applied and focused on difficult problems of practice.

The Internet Task Force had initially undertaken this task, but many of our members have graduated. Thus, in June 1998, the task force dissolved. The ILT faculty simply do not have time to educate the entire SOE and to give its members the one-on-one "comfort and support" that Hall (1987) stresses is so important for new users. Thus, I want to know that this concluding study will be instrumental in "making a difference" within this learning institution. The University Webmaster has requested the results of this dissertation so that CINS can continue to develop interventions that can be generalized to address the needs the various schools and colleges throughout the University.

The study results in a set of recommendations. Areas to be investigated span the spectrum from (a) individual user characteristics and perceptions, to (b) technological features such as access and functionality, to (c) organizational features such as training, technical support, and communication channels, and finally, to (d) pedagogical factors such as the use of electronic conferences to enhance classroom discussions and the sharing of promising practices that use the Internet to support teaching and learning. My findings should have value not only for our school and university, but they may also generalize to other educational organizations.

Based on previous findings by Wilson and his colleagues (1996), I am particularly interested in investigating personal/compatibility issues. Moreover, based on Elmore’s research (1996), I feel that the impact of interactive technologies on core pedagogical strategies may be one of the most important compatibility issues. Elmore notes that, if a technology supports the status quo and enables teachers to carry out their instructional activities more efficiently (such as the use of Xerox machines and overhead projectors), then that technology is likely to be accepted. However, if it impacts the basic instructional strategies that teachers use in the classroom, and involves a major shift in both philosophy and pedagogy, then there is likely to be a good deal of resistance to it. As Burns (1998) put it, "many staff members do not see a computer as an extension of their work activities but as an alien object taking up desk space". Thus, a whole range of personal/cultural compatibility factors may need to be considered by others who are attempting to integrate the Internet into teaching and learning.