Achieving Education's 'Tipping Point'


How d'es a movement of broad and significant change happen from individual and random acts of innovation? This is a question being pondered by those who value the importance of implementing educational technology into our schools.

I recently read The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell. The essential thesis of the book is that to make a significant, broadly effective change in how people behave, what they value or in the dissemination of ideas, there is a "tipping point" where a small, precisely targeted approach causes this to happen. Though I do not agree with some of his explanations as to why this phenomenon occurs, I do agree with the book's concept.

I was particularly interested in the section of the book where Gladwell discusses the dramatic decrease in New York City's crime rate during the 1990s. William Bratton, current police chief of Los Angeles, was the New York City police commissioner at the time of the decline. On a recent radio show, Bratton commented about his belief in The Tipping Point 's concept and how he applied it to his work in New York City. For example, he helped reduce serious crimes in the subways by focusing on stopping those people who cheated the system by not paying their fares. He believed that putting in this small level of order would be a signal to help prevent more serious crimes from occurring. Bratton also instructed his New York City department to concentrate on quality-of-life crimes such as public drunkenness and people demanding money for cleaning a car's windshield. His belief was that by handling these small and seemingly insignificant types of crimes, an environment would be created to help prevent the more major types of crimes from taking place. The results speak for themselves - it worked.

In a forthcoming book by Mark Gura, the former director of The New York City Department of Education's Office of Instructional Technology writes about how the personal computer, the Web and related technologies have made a vast difference in how businesses, governmental agencies and libraries function; yet, the one institution that remains largely unaffected is the nation's schools. Gura writes that though there is a transformation happening in every district in the nation, "the problem is that it has not happened systematically, not happened as a cultural shift. ... We haven't seen the critical mass of understanding that will drive this change, regardless of budgets, politics or conditions." That is, we have not yet achieved the tipping point.

How do we create that tipping point where the use of technology becomes an inherent part of all our educational programs? How do we achieve this for individual classrooms, schools, districts, etc., so that the change becomes truly systemic? What is the educational equivalent of stopping littering, car window washing or fare beating? Perhaps it is:

  • Identifying what the true "killer application" is, if one actually exists, which causes a mad dash to technology (e.g., management learning programs and systems that are continually evolving);
  • Fully realizing how technology is a real time-saver (e.g., workable essay evaluation programs that help to determine the quality and relevance of a student's essay);
  • Easily creating individualized programs to meet a student's interests and needs (e.g., assistive technology tools for helping disabled students create individualized learning programs and devices to learn with);
  • Getting people who are decision-makers to admit they don't really know about the basics of technology and helping them understand those basics (e.g., having state legislators only vote on technology-related education issues after they have passed a preliminary qualification test to determine their understanding of technology - a truly imaginative, though highly unreal, concept);
  • The implementation of a yet to be developed or finalized hardware technology solution (e.g., Nicholas Negroponte, founding chairman of the MIT Media Lab, has discussed a concept for creating very inexpensive computers for as little as a few dollars);
  • Using students as a resource to help educators implement technology (e.g., Generation Y is an innovative teacher education program where trained students mentor their teachers to effectively infuse technology into the curriculum); or
  • Technology used to create truly independent learners (e.g., self-paced learning programs where the student learns while teaching other students).

Bernard Percy (former editor-in-chief of Converge magazine) is a noted educator, author, producer and Senior Fellow at the Center for Digital Education. Contact him at [email protected].

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.