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The Challenge of Change in Engineering Education: Is it the Diffusion of Innovations or Transformative Learning?

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

Trends in Engineering Education

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.1171.1 - 23.1171.23



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Paper Authors


Junaid A. Siddiqui Purdue University, West Lafayette Orcid 16x16

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Junaid A. Siddiqui is a doctoral candidate at the School of Engineering Education, Purdue University. In his graduate work he is exploring the systems of conceptual and social challenges associated with educational change for the development of undergraduate engineering education. Before joining the doctoral program he worked for nine years in a faculty development role at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM), Saudi Arabia. He received his MS in Civil Engineering from KFUPM and also has earned an MPBL degree from Aalborg University, Denmark.

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Robin Adams Purdue University, West Lafayette

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Robin S. Adams is an Associate Professor in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. Her research is concentrated in three interconnecting areas: cross-disciplinary thinking, acting, and being; design cognition and learning; and theories of change in linking engineering education research and practice.

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The Challenge of Educational Change: Is it the Diffusion of Innovation or Transformative Learning?The term innovation is frequently used for models or approaches of educational practice thathave emerged as alternatives to prevalent educational practices. For example, a variety ofeducational approaches were presented in the plenary session of the 2011 ASEE annualconference. Examples of some of the approaches presented included active learning, formativeassessment as a strategy to support learning, and problem-based learning. Each description of anapproach included a summary of research-based evidence on specific educational impacts.While there are many evidence-based educational innovations that may be used to transformcurrent educational practice, many reports illustrate that the adoption of such evidence basededucational innovations is limited in scope and slower than could be desired. The challenge ofslow uptake is often framed using the well known theory of diffusion of innovation. Forexample, the National Academy of Engineering organized in 2011 “a forum on characterizingthe impact and diffusion of transformative engineering education innovations” which sought toidentify critical factors that may lead to the successful diffusion of educational innovations. Thediscussions at the forum revealed many of the complexities of transforming engineeringeducation and the challenges of using a diffusion of innovation framework to understand theprocess of change in higher education.The diffusion of innovation framework has a product-oriented view in which a product isproduced at a source and propagated across a wide population through various channels ofcommunication. The basic assertion of the theory is that the structure and norms of the socialsystem influences how an innovation is propagated. The theory also emphasizes the need forcommunication channels among people with shared interests for an innovation to be adopted. Assuch, the focus is on communicating a message about the innovation. The assumption is that themore people there will be who are aware of the innovation and convinced of its effectiveness, themore an innovation will propagate.Educational practices, however, are not well-defined routines such that they could becharacterized as fixed and well-formed products. When two educators use the same educationalapproach what they share is a set of values and beliefs and not a routine of practice. The mostbasic and prevalent approach of lecturing is also not practiced on exactly the same routine by twodifferent individuals or by the same individual in the two different contexts. Adopting neweducational approaches means adopting a new set of beliefs and values. Beliefs and values arenot a product of dissemination, but are recognized by individuals through their experience.Diffusion of innovation does not address the process of people transforming their beliefs andvalues. Transformative learning theory is specifically focused on understanding the process ofrevealing and challenging assumptions, beliefs, and values. When we try to understand theimpact of introducing an educational innovation, a more fundamental question that needs to beasked is how have people’s ways of thinking changed about “good educational practice”, and notjust how much their practice has changed.Using transformative learning theory to understand the process of educational transformation isnecessary but perhaps not sufficient. Belief and values about teaching and learning engineeringdo not develop unless one has actively experienced functional models in reality supporting thosebeliefs and values. We may, therefore, also need to find theories that could help us understandthe opportunities within existing educational culture for someone to experiment with neweducational ideas. However adopting transformative learning perspective can be helpful inasking fundamental questions about what can facilitate or inhibit shift in thinking that arenecessary for educational transformation.The paper compares the theory of diffusion of innovation with transformative learning theoryand argues that the challenge of adopting and sustaining a new educational approach at a broaderscale is an issue of the transformation of academics’ beliefs and values. The theory of diffusionof innovation does not capture the challenge that is involved in educational transformation.

Siddiqui, J. A., & Adams, R. (2013, June), The Challenge of Change in Engineering Education: Is it the Diffusion of Innovations or Transformative Learning? Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--22556

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