IGP Stories

Responding to disruptive innovations

Dr Onyaglanu Idoko

13 June 2023

How do individuals and organisations respond to an innovation such as generative AI? Do we resist it for as long as possible and continue with business as usual, or do we acknowledge and embrace the need for a paradigm shift? Some individuals or organisations respond by innovating but some do not but instead continue with the status quo.

During my recent visit to the Design Museum, I came across a section on the evolution of technology that included a display on calculators (see image). Several earlier models of calculators were showcased, highlighting their transformation from desk-sized machines to handheld devices thanks to integrated circuits. In the 1970s, the use of calculators for mathematics education in US classrooms sparked public concerns and debates. A study conducted during that time examined attitudes toward calculator usage in high school maths classrooms and revealed that while the National Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (NACOME) welcomed and mandated the use of calculators in 1975, parents and educators harboured significant concerns. Notably, parents worried that calculators would adversely affect their children's mathematical abilities.

However, the introduction of calculators did not undermine education; in fact, they revolutionised it. As someone who enjoyed maths and physics, I cannot imagine what my maths class would have been like without using a scientific calculator. The use of calculators during tests and exams did not hinder our understanding of fundamental concepts or our ability to apply them. When we examine the reactions to students' use of generative AI in education today, it closely resembles the responses to the introduction of calculators in maths education during the 1970s. Presently, students use generative AI, such as Chat GPT, for assessments. While the use of GPT also raises important concerns related to academic misconduct and authenticity, in this article I focus mainly on the emotional aspects of experiencing a disruption to how we do things. One of several concerns surrounding the use of this technology is that students may not develop the proficiency that comes from the process of crafting an essay, such as critical thinking, and reading. Instead, by utilising clever prompts, GPT can generate an assignment within minutes.

Concerns about the development of students’ mental abilities could lead to a response of resisting the use of the technology in education. This sort of response can be explained by drawing on the research on emotions and organisational creativity and innovation. Disruptive innovations accompanied by uncertainty often evoke strong negative emotions, such as fear, anxiety, and aversion, which can impede receptivity or acceptance of the innovation. If an innovation is perceived as a threat, it is likely to evoke fear and, according to the theory of threat-rigidity, elicit a response aimed at maintaining the status quo rather than embracing a paradigm shift. It is interesting to note that this notion can be extended to other current issues, such as climate change. For example, in situations where we need individuals and organisations to adopt a paradigm shift in response to an impending environmental crisis, the framing or perception of the challenge can have the opposite effect.

Returning to the initial question, how should we respond to a disruptive innovation? Continue in a fight, flight, or freeze state, if this is where you or your organisation are? Or are there alternative approaches, such as accepting that an innovation like generative AI is akin to a "jack in the box" that cannot be put back and therefore necessitates a paradigm shift in our practices? Admittedly, this process involves the difficult emotions associated with letting go of the old to make room for the new. In education, it will require educators to explore, experiment and adopt new modes of thinking and action, exploring novel approaches to teaching, assessing, and supporting students that incorporate the use of this innovation. It will require defining ways that your students can use it to enhance their learning. Understanding how the innovation operates is crucial in order to develop and discover innovative ways of utilising it to enhance your work. Furthermore, this shift requires organisational support, with management adopting a less coercive and more supportive role. Accomplishing a paradigm shift necessitates the availability of space and systems that allow for experimentation and exploration.

Dr Onyaglanu Idoko is the programme leader for the Prosperity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship MSc at the Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP) and lecturer in Prosperity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

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