@marksmithers has just written a blog post that makes the following point

that talks about a new fund to promote innovation in highered. I know $5M isn’t a huge amount but the principle just seems so misguided. There is no problem with innovation in higher education. The problem is adopting and mainstreaming innovations across a higher ed institutions.

@shaned07 raised a similar question in a recent presentation when he talked about the challenge of scaling learning analytics within an institution.

But the question that troubles me is what do you mean by “scaling” or “mainstreaming” innovations in higher education?

What do you mean by “scaling” and “mainstreaming”?

The stupid definition

This may sound like a typical academic question, but it is important because an naive understanding of what these terms may mean quickly leads to stupidity.

For example, if what I’ve experienced at two different institutions and overhead numerous times at a recent conference is anything to go by, then “scaling/mainstreaming” is seen to be the same as: mandated, consistent, or institutional standard. As in, “We’ll mainstream quality e-learning by creating an institutional standard interface for all course websites”, or, “We’ll ensure quality learning at our institution through the development of institutional graduate attributes”. Some group (often of very smart people) get together and decide that there should be an institutionally approved standard (for just about anything) and every one, process, policy and tool within the institution will then work toward achieving that standard.

Mainstreaming through standardisation is such a strong underpinning assumption that I know of one university where feedback to senior management is provided through an email address something like 1someuni@someuni.edu and another university where achieving the goal of “one university” received explicit mentions in annual reports and other strategic documents.

The problem with the stupid definition

talk to the experts by Mai Le, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License   by  Mai Le 

The problem with this approach is that it assumes Universities and their learning and teaching practice is a complicated system, not a complex system. This way of viewing universities is reinforced because the people charged with making these decisions (senior leaders, consultants, internal leaders on information technology, learning etc) are all paid to be experts. They are paid to successfully solve complicated problems. That success and expectation means that they expect/believe the same methods they’ve used to solve complicated problems, will help them solve a complex problem.

As Larry Cuban writes

Blueprints, technical experts, strategic plans and savvy managers simply are inadequate to get complex systems with thousands of reciprocal ties between people to operate effectively in such constantly changing and unpredictable environments……..Know further that reform designs borrowed from complicated systems and imposed from the top in complex systems will hardly make a dent in the daily work of those whose job is convert policy into action.

Much of the content of the talk titled “Why is e-learning ‘a bit like teenage sex’ and what can be done about it?” that @palbion and I gave focuses on identifying the problems that arise from this naive understanding of “mainstreaming/scaling”.

What’s the solution?

Cuban suggests

At the minimum, know that working in a complex system means adapting to changes, dealing with conflicts, and constant learning. These are natural, not aberrations.

The talk I mentioned builds on two papers (Jones & Clark, 2014; Jones, Heffernan & Albion, 2015) that are starting to explore what might be done. I’m hoping to explore some more specifics soon.

Whatever shape that takes, it certainly will reject the idea of mainstreaming through institutional consistency. But in summary, it will probably involve in creating an environment that is better able to adapt to change, deal with conflicts, and constant learning.


Jones, D., Heffernan, A., & Albion, P. R. (2015). TPACK as shared practice: Toward a research agenda. In D. Slykhuis & G. Marks (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2015 (pp. 3287-3294). Las Vegas, NV: AACE. Retrieved from http://www.editlib.org/p/150454/

Jones, D., & Clark, D. (2014). Breaking BAD to bridge the reality/rhetoric chasm. In Rhetoric and Reality: Critical perspectives on educational technology. Proceedings ascilite Dunedin 2014 (pp. 262-272). Dunedin. Retrieved from http://ascilite2014.otago.ac.nz/files/fullpapers/221-Jones.pdf

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