Blog / To Scale or Not to Scale?

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At Arizona State University, you will be hard-pressed to find a group or department discussing education without simultaneously discussing scale. If we are reaching one hundred learners with a product or course offering, can we reach 200? What about 500? At EdPlus, the division which houses Education for Humanity, scale is deeply embedded in our DNA. In fact, googling EdPlus produces the tagline “We create innovative pathways to education at scale and speed for everyone, everywhere.” If you read further, you might even happen upon our Open scale courses which allow aspiring college students worldwide to prepare for a university degree by enrolling in low-stakes, high-quality undergraduate courses. Arizona State University aims to be inclusive, and certainly holds its staff accountable to the charter declaration.

I appreciate the reality that thinking about scale from the start of an initiative challenges you to design and implement educational offerings in ways you otherwise might not if simply focused on meeting the needs of a single, immediate cohort. However, in the humanitarian sector, where needs are boundless and resources are limited, I feel the single battle I am always up against is one that pits impact against scale. In other words, how can you deliver an offering that has been tested, proved effective and impactful, and make it better while also rapidly expanding to more learners, sites, and audiences? Educational innovations take time to evaluate; it can take years to gather the data required to measure impact in a meaningful way. When serving youth in areas affected by crisis, as Education for Humanity does, we do not always have the luxury of time, and lessons must be learned quickly.

My thoughts are often preoccupied with the impact vs. scale conundrum, and in this I am not alone. Through the University Innovation fellowship, I have spoken with funders, scholars, and founders of social enterprise organizations constantly battling the ability to create a well-functioning and effective program or organization while making the benefits of that creation available to as many beneficiaries as possible. Education for Humanity seeks to provide refugee learners with digital learning opportunities to prepare them and ultimately enroll them in university degree programs. We leverage ASU’s ability to create high quality digital learning materials and harness our local deployment partners’ knowledge of the community to ensure a seamless experience for refugees in camps, settlements, or host communities. Our ambition as the largest public research institution in the country is to reach every refugee learner, but we continuously hear from NGOs that their capacity to serve more than 25-50 learners at a time is quite limited.

 So, to scale or not to scale? That is the question. Of course we will continue thinking of ways to reach every refugee learner out there- we believe that education is a fundamental human right. But given resource constraints, “scale” might look like something we have never seen before. We must be prepared to both field and react to that possibility. Scale could mean educating more learners, educating learners in more places, or dramatically improving the quality and quantity of our existing offerings. If we are lucky, it will look like all three.

Critical to our framing of strategy will be the ability to learn how we are best positioned to serve the communities where we have a presence. Though evaluating the effectiveness of an educational program does take time, there are many interim indicators of success: satisfaction, motivation, retention, employment, among others. Monitoring these can signal key enhancements to be made to programmatic aspects of our offerings like delivery, recruitment, resourcing, and ongoing support for learners. I have learned to be open to the possibility that executing our mission may take a shape that we did not originally anticipate, and that is ok. As Mair and Seelos assert in Innovation and Scaling for Impact: “If you don’t know how to learn, don’t innovate.” 

Blog / To Scale or Not To Scale