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Increasing Technology Adoption: An Internal Marketing Plan

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Understanding how instructors look for and adopt technology in higher education can help IT leaders develop a plan to increase the use of educational technologies on campus.

Increasing Technology Adoption: An Internal Marketing Plan
Credit: Black Jack / Shutterstock.com © 2021

For years, higher education (HE) IT departments have been concerned about the slow rate of technology adoption by instructors. Because of the pandemic, almost all faculty now use a learning management system (LMS), and many also use a videoconferencing system. But are they using these to full advantage? And what about other educational technologies? IT departments have selected enterprise technologies that are perceived to be both easy and useful, but the rate of adoption is still low.

Perhaps now is a good time to consider how those in IT departments can influence instructors to use additional educational technologies and to better benefit from the ones they currently use. Higher education frequently follows best practices for adoption as set out by business and industry (B&I) but hasn't made comparable headway. B&I have a long, successful history of getting employees to use new technologies, and understanding how HE adoption is different can help guide an internal marketing and support plan that better helps instructors achieve their goals.

What Instructors Want: Pedagogy

Before looking at differences between B&I and HE, consider the clients. An instructor might identify a problem, such as an inability to get students to come for office visits or the amount of time needed to review authentic assignments. The issues are pedagogical. The desired result for an instructor is usually either an easier way of teaching or a way to improve student learning. In addition, different disciplines often use different pedagogies. Instructors might not think of technology as providing a solution to these types of problems.

Central IT's Role: B&I vs. HE

In business, usually a single central IT department is responsible for implementing and maintaining technologies that the business owners have identified and purchased, usually as a result of a recommendation from a task force (TF) that includes IT representation. In large companies, the business owner could be the department head of a section, such as finance or human resources. Internally "selling" the product is typically the responsibility of the business owner.

In HE, the central IT department is frequently in charge of identifying and then purchasing, implementing, and maintaining enterprise instructional technologies (usually with input from a TF that includes some instructors and other key stakeholders). Because central IT typically does not have a specific, limited set of key stakeholders, selecting appropriate TF members requires significant thought about representation. The instructors who are in frequent contact with central IT likely are innovators and early adopters or need extra support—in this way, they are not typical faculty members and might not have much influence over the rest of the instructors.

At some institutions, individual colleges or schools have their own IT departments that work fairly independently from the central IT department. The departments might purchase and support their own educational technologies. For example, at the University of Cincinnati, Purdue University, and The Ohio State University, central IT provides uniform classroom technology to the centrally managed classrooms, while colleges within these universities provide different technologies in their classrooms.

Significance

  • Instructional technologies do not usually have a business owner to market the product internally.
  • Instructors interested in using a technology (such as classroom lecture capture) may not know where the technology is available and which IT area to contact for support.
  • At times, central IT might be investigating a technology that competes with a college technology. If the college IT team is not involved in the decision-making, a rift (to put it nicely) can occur, fostering an "us versus them" atmosphere, resulting in competition, conflict, confusion, and wasted effort.
  • College IT departments will frequently have a better feel for their instructors—who are the thought-leaders, and what are their pedagogical approaches and problems?—and possibly a better reputation with their instructors than central IT.

Differing Approaches to Marketing

In B&I, IT companies use both interpersonal and mass media to build interest. Mass media efforts start by building an awareness that there is a potential problem or better method and then focus on persuading the decision maker(s) that the solution is worth the trouble. Frequently, marketers revisit potential clients on a regular basis (interpersonal marketing). Marketers use both mass and interpersonal methods to show how their product is better than anything else available, possibly adding enticements such as price breaks or free employee training. During the implementation stage, the marketer is still in constant contact, providing links to IT support if needed. Finally, the marketer works to maintain the relationship in hopes of selling additional products or services, including upgrades.

In HE, marketers of technologies targeted at administrative functions (such as registration or finance) might market to either the specific business segment owner or to the central IT department. Marketers of technologies targeted at pedagogy typically target the central (and/or college) IT department. Booths at conferences are common. Marketers also try to meet with IT managers regularly. (Often, textbook publishers are an exception to this; they market directly to instructors, frequently to IT's chagrin.)

Companies also market their products and services directly to individuals. The maker of a product might initially use mass media to target the innovators and early adopters with the "shiny new thing" approach. Innovators are always looking for new technologies, and early adopters are looking for solutions but are willing to take some risks (new versions of iPhone sales often involve long lines of people wanting to upgrade). To attract the early majority, the company then starts to lower the price of adoption. Interpersonal communication is more difficult and less frequent but includes local stores, booths and sponsorships at local festivals and fairs, targeted social media ads, and "personal" emails ("New Roku picked just for you, Pat!").

Colleges and universities typically alert instructors about new technologies and their advantages through standard communication channels—when the technology is implemented, a launch would include an announcement in an institutional newsletter, IT e-newsletters to the whole institutional community, an email announcement to college deans and department heads, mass email announcements to instructors, web-based news announcements, and website changes to add knowledgebase articles, contact information, and workshops or training sessions. The majority of such announcements focus on a new technology, but sometimes they discuss the pedagogies it supports.

Significance

  • Instructors are often asked to adopt a new pedagogy and a new technology simultaneously.
  • Instructors who are considering adopting a new technology must first be aware that a new technology is available and that it addresses a pedagogical issue.
  • When the focus is on the technology rather than the pedagogy, messages don't help instructors know why they should use the technology.
  • Making changes to an IT website is an effective way to reach instructors who actively seek information about technology (assuming they can find the right page). This approach is not effective for those who seek pedagogy help, nor those who are not seeking any change.
  • Announcements are usually made at the time of implementation and consist almost entirely of mass newsletters. According to several surveys, the average open rate for e-newsletters is 20%. Printed newsletters have a higher rate of reading but only a 2–3% higher response rate.Footnote1 While this rate of response is good for IT companies, for HE, which needs to reach the non-adopters, it won't suffice.
  • Announcements are almost always limited in time to new implementations and upgrades, so faculty looking for pedagogical solutions at other times may miss them. Moreover, new instructors are probably not going to review old news emails or blogs.

Adoption Process

In B&I, the marketer is working with the primary stakeholder(s), not the employees who will be using the tool. New technology solutions are frequently mandated. All the employees who can use the product are told to use it, and training is provided. Employees seeking optional technologies (such as advanced web conferencing, time management, etc.) are usually looking for productivity improvement techniques. They may ask their co-workers and managers about possible tools, central IT, or thought-leaders in their field outside the organization. They are usually given release time for training, and if the training is external, the company might pay for it.

In HE, instructors are usually given the academic freedom to choose which technologies to use and how. Although administrative technologies such as Banner and PeopleSoft are not optional, instructors do usually have a choice in which pedagogical approaches they take and, therefore, which educational technologies they use and how they use them. With educational technologies, instructors behave much like individuals buying consumer products. Instructors looking for technology solutions will look to respected colleagues, department heads, thought leaders outside the institution, the teaching and learning center (TLC), their college IT department, and perhaps central IT and the central IT website.

Significance

  • Instructors decide to use technology if they feel it will improve their teaching or productivity or will better support students.
  • Instructors are not given release time for training. None of their other responsibilities are put on hold.
  • Most instructors are less likely to rely on central IT (including webpages).

How Instructors Differ from B&I Employees

B&I often do not try to appeal to the late adopters. The cost of marketing to them usually outweighs the benefits.

Higher education needs to reach the late adopters to achieve needed levels of adoption. Therefore, HE needs to look at late adopters more closely for the underlying reasons for non-adoption—it might not be resistance to technology or to pedagogical improvement. Because many instructors are rewarded more for their research than their teaching, some might have invented advanced technologies for their discipline but still be non-adopters of educational technologies.

Higher education also employs a large number of instructors who have other full-time jobs and teaching assistants who are working on their dissertations. They are almost definitely more dedicated to their full-time position/goal than to improving their teaching. In addition, part-time instructors usually don't have availability to attend workshops (which are typically offered during the work day). Part-time instructors also might not be persuaded by the early adopters because they are not on campus enough to be influenced.

Lastly, although IT staff might consider the technology easy to use, instructors don't always have time to devote to learning a new technology. They often don't have much time to:

  • meet with IT people who have little or no understanding of the pressures put on them or the pedagogies they use,
  • learn any associated new pedagogies,
  • think about how this technology/pedagogy might be beneficial,
  • learn how to use the technology,
  • get comfortable with the technology and pedagogy,
  • revise their course to include the new pedagogy and technology,
  • potentially teach and support their students on how to use it, and then
  • relearn each time the technology updates or changes.

Significance

  • Instructors are usually not rewarded for using educational technology.
  • When instructors say they don't have time, it isn't just an excuse. They mean it.
  • Usually, part-time instructors do not have the luxury of attending daytime activities such as workshops, technology fairs, and meetings.

What to Consider When Marketing to Instructors

Increasing marketing efforts and revising approaches may increase instructor adoption of technologies.

  • The selling point of messages needs to be how the innovations eliminate, resolve, and/or mitigate a pedagogical problem.
  • All material must be very specific and clear, to minimize the time required to read it. Differentiating between marketing and documentation may help.
  • Different colleges may use different pedagogies, so the messages need to be specific to those colleges. The college IT team might be able to help develop a college-specific marketing plan.
  • Instructors need to be able to find out about pedagogies and supporting technologies throughout the year, so news stories about how instructors are using them should be regularly published in whatever places instructors will see them—university-sponsored (as opposed to IT) newsletters, paper-based materials available in key locations such as the TLC, faculty lunch and gathering spots, academic department meetings, etc.
  • New instructors, including TAs, may be overwhelmed with orientations and quickly forget all but a few key points. A well-designed brochure can be a key takeaway for them.
  • Part-time instructors need to be specifically targeted. This may mean providing after-hours support, including workshops and drop-in centers.
  • The faculty senate often holds great sway over what the instructors will and will not do. Involving the faculty senate during decision-making is important. Considering the president of the senate as a key stakeholder can help. The faculty senate might write policies for instruction, and working with them to understand the role of technology could also help instructors understand more.
  • Many instructors rely on the TLC for new pedagogies and approaches. The TLC often sees a completely different set of instructors from the central IT folk (including central educational technologists and/or instructional designers). Involving the TLC on each TF to help clarify the pedagogies supported by the technologies will help clarify marketing messages. The TLC may also be willing to either discuss technologies that support pedagogies or invite IT staff to talk at their workshops.

Because HE instructors usually select the pedagogies they use when teaching, they often also select appropriate educational technologies. Higher education cannot approach marketing the same way that business and industry can. Although central IT has not traditionally considered itself responsible for marketing technology, efforts to increase the adoption of educational technology may require just that.

Note

  1. See "Email Marketing Benchmarks," Mailchimp; "E-Mail vs. Print: What's the Better Newsletter?" PsPrint; and Steve Namio, "Is a Printed Newsletter More Effective than Digital?" Tingalls. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.

Pat Reid is Vice President of Higher Education Curriculum Design Services at CDG, having served higher education for over twenty-five years in a variety of roles, most recently as Director, Instructional Innovation/Assistant Director, Integrated Instruction, at the University of Cincinnati.

© 2021 Pat Reid. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.