Edtech and industry leaders say they’re stuck if they can’t scale


When more than 4,000 leaders in education, investment and entrepreneurship gather to exchange ideas — as they did this week at the ASU+GSV Summit — you might expect the conversations to center on innovation and disruptive technologies.

Plenty of those conversations were circulating in San Diego, but a greater share of the discussion was focused on how to scale what’s already working so that even the most marginalized students have access to a high-quality education.

An online degree-granting program with high retention and course completion rates? A university where predictive analytics has boosted the number of first-year students continuing into their second year? A school district where personalized learning has shown increased student engagement and measurable outcomes? All of those stories about technology improving education, all of the pockets of success, are good in and of themselves, but attendees, speakers and leaders at ASU+GSV said it’s time to think bigger.

It’s time to scale those success stories so they can work for everyone else — for the students whose field of interest isn’t offered in that online program, for the students whose universities haven’t started looking for early warning signs of dropouts, and for the students don’t go to school in that district using personalized learning.

During the Tuesday morning keynote at ASU+GSV, moderator R. Brad Lane, CEO of RIDGE-LANE Limited Partners, a social-impact merchant bank that invests in education and technology, asked his panel about the “important yet elusive question of scale. … How do we simply take what we know and scale it?”

Below are the responses from each of the three panelists.

Bev Perdue, former governor of North Carolina and managing partner for education at RIDGE-LANE Limited Partners:

“We all know that the advent of digital learning and the availability of technology and connectivity and devices and computers in the homes are critical in America and around the world. …

“I go into some of the communities in America and wish that the country as a whole would decide that we’re in the 21st century. We know what’s happening with the workforce. Why in the world aren’t we being sure that there’s connectivity in every nook and cranny of this country? For me, that’s a big thing.

“The second thing for me is to make sure every kid has a device. The NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores were, really, lower in the disadvantaged kids’ scores. I wonder if it’s because it was the first time they took it on a tablet. They perhaps don’t have the same practice that many of our children have [using devices].

“So, I think connectivity and availability of the devices and the technology will enable and empower people to then work to address this future. I don’t think you can scale it otherwise … until we have access and connection in every home and every business in all the states in America.”

John Mitchell, vice provost for teaching and learning at Stanford University:

“Scale is a very tricky issue here. My own personal history around this has to do with the creation of the MOOC [massive open online courses] movement down my hall at the computer science department at Stanford. Several companies and nonprofits and other efforts started from that group of people.

“I think what we learned there are two things. One thing that was not as evident to me at the beginning was the absolutely huge demand for learning. There are people out there anxious and crying for opportunities to learn and prove themselves.

“The simple idea that we could take our pedagogical model of the lecture course and scale it by putting cameras in lectures, broadcast those and that would be meaningful learning for everyone — that was extremely naïve. I think we should credit everyone involved with being idealistic and generous and committed to positive change but also own up to the fact that that was naïve in a number of different ways. I think if you look at a successful lecture course at any campus, it involves a lot more than lecture and many of those other parts are important and we don’t really know how to scale those in the same way.

“So, it’s clear there’s a tremendous need, several orders of magnitude, larger demand than supply. Simple methods that are technology-only don’t seem to be effective. In my mind, it’s largely a pedagogy and learning-model problem, not a technology problem. The technology involved is easy to build and straightforward; we just don’t know how to use it effectively.

“Finally, I don’t see that we’re going to get to scale in a uniform, top-down, “here’s the method” sort of way. The need for learning is as diverse as there are walks of life. There are many different kinds of organizations, institutions, individuals who can contribute and it may be that, in the future, colleges and universities and structured educational programs are going to be central and key but it may be in other ways — if you think of all the things you want to learn over the course of your lifetime, how many of them have to come from a structured educational program?

“So, I see scale as coming about through recognition of tremendous demand, through the use of a variety of tools that are increasing in pedagogical sophistication and increasingly effective learning science.”

John Fallon, CEO of Pearson, the world’s largest education company:

“Two things. If you go to any community, any inner city, any rural area, anywhere in the world — everybody knows where the good school is or the good university is. There’s always at least one. And if you walk into that, you’ll find three things: You’ll find an enlightened leader; you’ll find an expectation that every child, every student, every person in that organization has a capacity to learn; and you’ll find that the culture of learning starts with the leadership of the teaching faculty; and there’s a willingness to learn from and share and engage with each other.

“And I think that’s what — in order to scale — that’s what we need to bring to private-sector organizations, to universities around the world, to government organizations. That’s the first point.

“The second point is I’d say we are just in the foothills of what this industry and this sector is capable of doing. So far the most scalable solutions, for example in higher education, have really been about automating … homework and providing some fairly basic personalization and adaptive learning.

“We are now combining learning sciences, cognitive sciences, machine learning, all the data that we’ve collected over the last decade or so about how people learn, capable of doing something much more exciting, much more challenging, and that’s around this whole idea of authentic assessment which really does break out the privilege of that liberal arts education and make it scalable and sharable for everybody.

“That’s the truly disruptive thing we can do now, and none of us can do that on our own. We’ll do it through co-developing and working together.”