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Designing an Educational Innovation to Achieve Scale: Five Critical Concepts

The EvoLLLution | Designing an Educational Innovation to Achieve Scale: Five Critical Concepts
Context is everything for college and university leaders who are focused on identifying innovations and applying them to their own institutions.

Research has documented that in education, unlike other sectors of society, the scaling of successful instructional programs from a few settings to widespread use across a range of contexts is very difficult (Dede, Honan, & Peters, 2005). In fact, research typically shows a huge influence of setting (e.g., the teacher’s content preparation, students’ self-efficacy, prior academic achievement) in shaping the desirability, practicality, and effectiveness of educational interventions. Therefore, achieving scale in education requires innovation that can flexibly adapt to effective use in a wide variety of contexts across a spectrum of learners and teachers.

Many failed attempts to transfer educational improvements have documented that it is difficult to scale up promising innovations from the fertile greenhouse environments in which they were conceived to the often barren contexts that exist in public schools, with few resources, overwhelmed and underpaid teachers, and struggling or disengaged students. Adapting a locally successful innovation to a wide variety of settings—while maintaining its effectiveness, affordability, and sustainability—is very challenging. In general, the more complex the innovation and the wider the range of contexts, the more likely a new practice is to fail the attempt to cross the “chasm” between its original setting and other sites where its implementation could potentially prove valuable (Moore, 1999). Scalable designs for educational transformation must avoid what Wiske and Perkins (2005) term the “replica trap:” the erroneous strategy of trying to repeat everywhere what worked where the innovation was developed, without taking account of situational variations in needs and environments. Without applying strategies that produce innovations designed for scalability, education will continue to waste substantial resources implementing interventions that fail despite promise shown elsewhere.

Over the past decade, I have developed and applied a framework for designing successful educational innovations that can scale, which builds on a foundational framework by Coburn (2003). This scaling framework includes five concepts (Clark & Dede, 2009):

1. Depth

Depth concerns the quality or effectiveness of the innovation. An educational innovation has depth to the extent that its implementation and use leads to changes that are desired by the innovation designer.

2. Sustainability

Sustainability concerns the extent to which the innovation is maintained in ongoing use. An educational innovation is sustained if those persons who implemented the innovation continue to use it.

3. Spread

Spread is the extent to which large numbers of people or organizations adopt an innovation. Spread is the sum of each adoption decision, which can be measured by adopters trying an educational innovation, going through training or licensing it, or buying it.

4. Shift

Shift is a decentralization of ownership over the creation of an innovation. Adopters, through adaptation behavior, can significantly change an innovation or come to share in representing it to other, later potential adopters.

5. Evolution

Evolution concerns learning from adopters by the original creators of an innovation. When creators change their own practice or work as a result of others’ good ideas, they evolve.

Bringing an innovation to scale in education requires a design that is flexible enough to be used in a variety of contexts and robust enough to retain effectiveness in settings that lack its conditions for success. This may involve developing variants that are the equivalent of hybrid plants designed for inhospitable locales. Designing an innovation for sustainability and scale is a multi-stage iterative process that involves teachers as co-evaluators and co-designers. To ignore this by implementing a top-down intervention as a method of scaling up (unfortunately all too typical of current approaches) is a recipe for continued failure. Hopefully, educators will move to more sophisticated models for sharing their successes.

– – – – References

Clarke, J., & Dede, C. (2009). Design for scalability: A case study of the River City curriculum. Journal of Science Education and Technology 18(4), 353-365.

Coburn C. E. (2003). Rethinking scale: Moving beyond numbers to deep and lasting change. Educational Researcher 32(6), 3-12.

Dede, C., Honan, J., & Peters. L., (Eds). (2005). Scaling Up Success: Lessons Learned from Technology-Based Educational Improvement. New York: Jossey-Bass.

Moore, G. A. (1999). Crossing the chasm: Marketing and selling high-tech products to mainstream customers. New York: HarperBusiness

Wiske, M.S., & Perkins, D. (2005). Dewey Goes Digital: Scaling Up Constructivist Pedagogies and the Promise of New Technologies. In C. Dede, J. Honan, & L. Peters, (Eds.), Scaling Up Success: Lessons Learned from Technology-Based Educational Innovation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.