Change barriers in higher education

In his 2008 book, Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner pointed out 3 important changes in the contemporary world that the modern education system fails to adapt to – the rapid change in the knowledge economy, massive availability of open online content, and the influence of new media technology on the way younger generations learn. Since 2012, an increasing number of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have rolled out, promising more engaging and personalized forms of teaching (Koller, 2012) and making even more educational resources available freely online.


However, looking inside the lecture halls in many universities, one finds the students sitting in rows of chairs with foldable tables, occasionally armed with i-clickers, and a professor lecturing with a PowerPoint presentation on the stage. Indeed, the learning environment in many universities has remained immune to changes. What are some of the barriers to change in higher education and how can these barriers be overcome?

What the change barriers are

The change barriers include a host of individual, cultural, and organizational factors:

  1. A lack of faculty participation due to negative attitudes towards technology and a lack of self-efficacy (Davis, 1989) and complacency with their teaching methods (Bates, 2010);
  2. a lack of training for the administers and instructors (Bates, 2010);
  3. a lack of “a learning organization” or collaborative environment (Senge, 1990);
  4. a lack of effective leadership and change management (Bates, 2010)

1) Lack of faculty participation

Research on the Technology Acceptance Model (Davis, 1989) has identified faculty attitudes towards technology, including perceived usefulness, compatibility, and self-efficacy as factors behind technology adoption. In exploring the factors behind a lack of use of social technologies by university professors, Hacker (2011) identified faculty’s mistrust of the technology, and the perception that technology fails to encourage “deep learning” as some of the adoption barriers. Similarly, a study of high school teachers, Capo and Orellana (2011), identified that factors such as whether the teachers view the tools as supporting interaction and learning, i.e., improving writing abilities, are strong predictors of technology adoption. A teacher interviewed in the study believed that internet technology encouraged copy and paste behavior; thus, would not employed the technology in the classroom. Therefore, demonstrating the effective use and usefulness of the technology to potential adopters is an important way to remove barriers, which will be discussed further later.

In terms of compatibility, Roger (1962) explains that a technology less compatible with the existing practice is less likely to be adopted. Yet, the drawback of choosing a “compatible” tool is that it may eliminate the possibility of improving the current teaching practice with the technology, which is what Bates (2005) considers the bias towards technology that promotes less change. For example, many lecturers opt to use the i-clickers, a tool that allows for more centralized control, rather than Twitter, a more decentralized, perhaps, more learner-centered tool. Thus, in thinking about compatibility, it is important to think not only of the technology’s compatibility with the current practice but also the best practices.

Self-efficacy is another factor to consider in the Technology Acceptance Model. Research generally shows that high self-efficacy and control is a strong predictor of adoption (Davis, 1989). In a research study Holden and Rada (2011) further distinguished between general computer efficacy and efficacy towards a particular technology. The research demonstrates that the latter is a stronger predictor of the adoption of a particular technology. This suggests that selecting a user-friendly tool, providing relevant training as well as technical and peer support are key to adoption, which leads us to the next change barrier, the lack of training.

2) The lack of training for administers and faculty

The second major barrier is the lack of training for administers and faculty  (Bates, 2010). Although information sessions and training for instructional technologies are often available for the faculty in many traditional universities, the participation is usually voluntary. Bates (2012) pointed out that innovation in teaching with the use of technology requires systematic training for all the teaching staff. Meanwhile, the key administers and senior management will need to understand the financial implications of technological change. As Roche (2000) finds that despite realizing the importance of funding IT development and training, many administers still fail to allocate resources accordingly (as cited in Fahy, 2012).
3) The lack of a learning organization and collaborative environment

A closely-related barrier regarding faculty training is – the lack of a collaborative learning environment and a “learning organization”(Senge, 1990, as cited in Fahy, 2012). Hacker (2011) identifies the “lack of a culture of openness to try technology among faculty” as a key barrier to the adoption of social technologies. The lack of open, effective communication networks also hinder knowledge sharing and management, resulting in a lack of progress in the organization. In addition, the failure of the members to adopt system thinking and have a shared vision – the two disciplines in Senge’s learning organization – can lead to distrust or conflicts among members. For instance, technological changes can create conflicts between early and late adopters and distrust between management and union, further preventing change and innovation.

4) A lack of effective leadership and change management

The last and perhaps the most important barrier is the lack of an effective leadership. This is because leadership can help overcome many of the aforementioned barriers. A strong leader is not one that controls and dictates, but rather one “crystallizing the thinking of others; 2) illuminating what is right and timely in that thinking and 3) coordinating achievement” (Fahy, 2012, p. 195). In order words, the leader needs to understand the needs of the members and the organization; and since the leader does not necessarily have expertise in all areas, it is important to tap into the knowledge of others in identifying not only the needs but also the solution. Choosing the right technology, allocating sufficient resources for IT development and faculty training, and building a collaborative learning environment that allows such communication to occur are all tasks of a leader. Finally, to facilitate a particular technology change, an effective change agent is also crucial. We will now turn to the discussion of overcoming the change barriers.

How to remove change barriers

Innovation-decision process and the change agent

According to Roger (1962), an individual’s decision about adopting an innovation is a process that can include the following 5 stages – knowledge, persuasion, decision, implementation and confirmation. By understanding this process, a change agent can provide relevant information and support as well as mobilize the right people at the right time to facilitate change.

1) The Knowledge Stage
In the first stage of technology diffusion, the change agent will have to expose the faculty members and stakeholders to the technology. Because of the members’ various comfort levels with technology, the information given at this stage should be general and informal. For instance, suppose an organization wants to shift from a teacher-centered to learner-centered practice through the use of Web 2.0 tools, the change agent can provide basic information about what blogs and wikis are and how they have been used in other universities can be provided.

A successful example can be the University of British Columbia, which provides general information about blogs and wikis and their uses online. The information is open to the instructors and general public to view. The faculty members who want to learn more can also look further at the sample blogs and wikis that other UBC instructors have used. This allows instructors to explore the information based on their own needs and the stage of technology adoption they are in (See:

2) The Persuasion Stage

The second stage is persuasion in which people form an attitude about the technology. At this stage, the potential adopters may seek more information regarding advantages, compatibility, complexity and imagine themselves using the technology. Accordingly, it is at this stage that the information given to instructors can be more personal and specific. Here, the change agent can provide more specific and personal information.

For instance, the change agent can illustrate the usefulness of the technology in supporting teaching, how the technology is compatible with their practice and how it enhances the quality of teaching. The agent can also provide actual demonstrations of how usable the technology is. If there are innovators or early adopters in the organization who have already experimented with the technology, the change agent may encourage them to share their experience with their colleagues. Rogers explains that individuals may have a positive attitude towards technology but their actual adoption only occurs after communicating with a “satisfied adopter” (Rogers, 1962, p. 170). At this point, there are other ‘cues to action”, such as paid training, that can be provided to motivate individuals into actions.

 3) The Decision Stage 

The third stage is the decision stage where “an individual engages in activities that lead to a choice to adopt or reject the innovation” (Roger (1962, p.171). Rogers recommends that individuals be encouraged try to the technology partially. Training should be provided not only to use the technology but also show how the technology is used in a way consistent with the original plan, for example, to promote learner-centered practice.

Here, the change agent can start to build a learning technology team, so as to promote greater openness of the use of technology. The early adopters should be encouraged to be the team leaders, continuing to promote the diffusion of the technology and facilitating the discussion surrounding the use of the technology.

 4) The Implementation Stage

The next stage is the implementation stage where the faculty members actually adopt the new innovations and put them into practice. At this stage, the role of the change agent can be to provide further technical assistance. It is also important to ensure that the use of the technology is aligned with the vision and mission (Keengwe, Kidd, & Kyei-Blankson, 2009). Meanwhile, the early adopters can be given incentives to share their experience, encourage members to communicate with one another the use of the tools.

5) The Confirmation Stage 

The final stage is confirmation. Roger (1962) argues that the discontinuation of using an innovation is frequent – sometimes because of 1) a replacement innovation, which can be beneficial as it may mean further innovation, or 2) disenchantment with the innovation, when the users abandon the innovation that they think do not meets their needs. To manage the latter kind of discontinuance, the change agent can mobilize resources to support the learning technology team, which will then continue the practice of sharing and reinforcing ideas about the use of the technology.

The agent can also build open platforms and channels where information, which can support a larger learning and support network. Looking back at the example of the University of British Columbia, the university is able to build a larger community of practice, as it hosts many blogs and faculty wikis from different departments on its open WordPress platform. As a result, this further creates a social norm that reinforces the adoption of the technology.



Bates, T. (2010) Barriers to change: two perspectives. Retrieved from:

Bates, A. W. (2005). Technology, E-Learning and Distance Education. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

High School Teachers’ Perceptions and Adoption Factors. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education. 12(4): 235-253.

Fahy, P. J. (2012). MDDE 620: Advanced Technology for Distance Education and Training. Athabasca University.

Hacker, P. (2011) Revolution or Evolution? Social Technologies and Change in Higher Education Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from:

Davis, F. (1989). Perceived usefulness, perceived ease of use, and user acceptance of information technology. MIS Quarterly, 13(3): 319–339. 

Keengwe, J., Kidd. T., & Kyei-Blankson, L. (2009) Faculty and Technology: Implications for Faculty Training and Technology Leadership. Journal of Science Education and Technology 18: 23-28

Koller, D. (2012, Aug). Daphne Koller: What we are learning from online education.[Video file]. Retrieved from

Rada, R. & Holden, H. (2011) Understanding the Influence of Perceived Usability and Technology Self-Efficacy on Teachers’ Technology Acceptance. Journal of Research on Technology in Education. 43(4): 343–367.

Wagner, T. (2008) Global Achievement Gap. New York: Basic Books, 2008.





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