The diffusion of wikis – a question no one asked me

by Mr. Sheehy

Sometimes I feel the obligation to answer the questions that no one is asking. It’s very generous on my part, I realize. It also allows me to address topics in writing where I can be the authority, since no one else is talking about such nonsense.

Today’s question: If tools like wikis are so astoundingly amazing, why has their rate of adoption by educators been so slow?

Now, the first issue one might take up with this question is the concept of it being slow. Slow according to whom? To this objection I have no legitimate answer. All I can say is that it sometimes feels slow to me, which is natural since with this technology, as I mapped out recently, I fall into the innovator category of adopters. Thus, I’m driving 95 miles an hour and wondering why all these cars look like they’re standing still – even though they’re actually moving 55 mph.

Also, I have attempted to aid the diffusion of wikis – another concept I’ve addressed at too much length here – and in those attempts I have encountered enough difficulties and seen enough of people’s response to wikis that I claim at least a wee legitimacy to my initial question and the use of the word “slow.”

Still, maybe the slow concept is an overstatement and I should rephrase the question. Instead, I might say it this way: What do we innovators need to do differently if the innovation of wikis is to move from the bottom of the S-curve of typical innovations’ diffusion up the steep side of the curve?

S-curve of Innovation Adoption

As an answer, I suggest there are three issues interested parties must address, all of which arise from my current reading of Everett Rogers’s Diffusion of Innovation.

The first issue is that characteristics of wikis and other ICT, personal computer technology make adoption difficult. Specifically, trialability is difficult because the complexity of the technology is rather high (and, as Rogers asserts, an innovation’s trialability is positively correlated with its rate of adoption). It may not be NASA, but it is complex to the people looking to adopt it, and that is what counts. Wikis are astoundingly easy for a person once the related tools become familiar, but they are not so simple for the uninitiated. We who present one hour sessions at conferences and then wonder why wikis have not “taken off” in education should be more cognizant of this concept.

A closely related issued is that if how-to knowledge of the wikis is not gained in time, rejection of the innovation is likely. When we say to a learner, “Head over to this site and try it” without providing hands-on, in-person guidance, rejection is what happens – I’m convinced. I know so many colleagues who have been introduced to wikis and then given a URL and a link to a video to help them figure it out later. That’s no good anymore. Videos and URL’s are fine way to help innovators like me (and maybe you), but not the folks that fall under other adopter categories. We innovators should remember this and quit trying to lure the early and late majorities with innovator and early innovator techniques. This is not how we teach our students, and it’s not how we should be teaching each other; if we don’t change our ways or adapt somehow, we will continue to create rejectors.

Lastly, we’re also creating a unique situation for the adoption of the innovation, the wiki. The usual innovation-decision process goes from

  • Knowledge to
  • Persuasion, to
  • Decision, to
  • Implementation, to
  • Confirmation.

But for many the above mentioned decision has already occurred – to reject. Maybe they rejected blogs after not envisioning potential applications. Maybe they rejected wikis when they couldn’t make sense of the software. Maybe they rejected anything Web2.0 after a bad experience at a conference, in-service, or on an online recertification course. Whatever the scenario, we now have to persuade the one-time rejectors not by reconstructing the decision stage only, but by

  1. convincing them to return to the beginning of the process and then
  2. re-creating the original knowledge of the tool, being careful not to neglect a nurturing introduction to the how-to knowledge of it.

I am my own audience here, the one that needs to ask the question no one asked me. The diffusion of wikis is something for which I hold an interest. I teach a summer class on wikis, blogs, and web tools; I am attempting to use a wiki as a collaborative tool with the colleagues in my department; I have been slated to present a session about wikis for a technology conference (that one was canceled due to low interest). But I think if I am interested in actually progressing that development, it will take more effort from me than the quick creation of a Jing movie.

Knowing that in advance – a knowledge that removes surprises and the risk of disillusionment – I am willing to make the effort.

Thanks for reading.