Contemporary higher education appears to have a scale problem.

Ellis & Goodyear (2019) explain in some detail Bain’s and Zundans-Fraser’s (2017) diagnosis of why attempts by universities to improve learning and teaching rarely scale, including the observation that L&T centers try to “influence learning and teaching through elective, selective, and exemplary approaches that are incompatible with whole-organizational change” (Bain & Zundans-Fraser, 2017, p. 12). While most universities offer design support services the combination of high demand and limited resources mean that many academics are left to their own devices (Bennet, Agostinho & Lockyer, 2017). Moving from working at scale across an institution, Ryan et al (2021) suggest that maintaining the quality of L&T while teaching at scale is a key issue for higher education. Massification brings both increased numbers and diversity of learners creating practical and pedagogical challenges for educators having to teach at scale.

Attempts to address the challenge of scale (e.g. certain types of MOOC, course site templates) tend to strike me as limited. Why?

Perhaps it is because…

A Typology of Scale

Morel et al (2019) argue that there is a lack of conceptual clarity around scale. In response, they offer a typology of scale, very briefly summarised in the following table.

Concept of scale
Adoption Widespread use of an innovation – market share. Limited conceptualisation of expected use.
Replication Widespread implementation with fidelity will produce expected outcomes.
Adaptation Widespread use of an innovation that is modified in response to local needs.
Reinvention Intentional and systematic experimentation with an innovation. Innovation as catalyst for further innovation.

The practice of scale

Most institutional attempts at scale I’ve observed appear to fall into the first two conceptualisations.

MOOCs – excluding Connectivist MOOCs – aimed to scale content delivery through scale as replication. Institutional practice around the use of an LMS is increasingly driven by consistency in the form of templates. Leading to exchanges like that shared by Macfarlan and Hook (2022)

‘Can I do X?’ or ‘How would I do Y?’, until the ED said, ‘You can do anything you like, as long as you use the template.’ With a shrug the educator indicated their compliance. The ironic surrender was palpable.

At best, templates fall into the replication conception of scale. Experts produce something which they think will be an effective solution to a known problem. A solution that – if only everyone would just use as intended – will generate positive outcomes for learners. Arguments could be made that it quickly devolves into the adoption category. Others may claim their templates support adaptation, but only “as long as you use the template”?

Where do other institutional attempts fit on this typology?

Institutional learning and teaching frameworks, standards, plans and other abstract approaches? More adoption/replication?

The institutional LMS and the associated ecosystem of tools? The assumption is probably adaptation. The tools can be creatively adapted to suit whatever design intent would be the argument. However, for adaptation to work (see below) the relationship between the users and the tools needs to offer the affordance for customisation. I don’t think the current tools help enough with that.

Which perhaps explains why use of the LMS and associated tools is so limited/time consuming. But the current answer appears to be templates and consistency.

Education’s diversity problem

The folk who conceive of scale as adaptation, like Clark and Dede (2009) argue that

One-size-fits-all educational innovations do not work because they ignore contextual factors that determine an intervention’s efficacy in a particular local situation (p. 353)

Morel et al (2019) identify that this adaptation does assume/require the capacity from users to make modifications in response to contextual requirements. This will likely require more work from both the designers and the users. Which, for me, raises the following questions

  1. Does the deficit model of educators (they aren’t trained L&T professionals) held by some L&T professionals limit the ability to conceive of/adopt this type of scale?
  2. Does the difficulty of institutions face in customising contemporary digital learning environment (i.e. the LMS) – let alone enabling learners and teachers to do that customisation – limit the ability to conceive of/adopt this type of scale?
  3. For me, this also brings in the challenge of the iron triangle. How to (cost) efficiently scale learning and teaching in ways that respond effectively to the growing diversity of learners, teachers, and contexts?

How do you answer those questions at scale?


Bain, A., & Zundans-Fraser, L. (2017). The Self-organizing University. Springer.

Bennett, S., Agostinho, S., & Lockyer, L. (2017). The process of designing for learning: Understanding university teachers’ design work. Educational Technology Research & Development, 65(1), 125–145.

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.

Ellis, R. A., & Goodyear, P. (2019). The Education Ecology of Universities: Integrating Learning, Strategy and the Academy. Routledge.

Ryan, T., French, S., & Kennedy, G. (2021). Beyond the Iron Triangle: Improving the quality of teaching and learning at scale. Studies in Higher Education, 46(7), 1383–1394.

Macfarlan, B., & Hook, J. (2022). ‘As long as you use the template’: Fostering creativity in a pedagogic model. ASCILITE Publications, Proceedings of ASCILITE 2022 in Sydney, Article Proceedings of ASCILITE 2022 in Sydney.

Morel, R. P., Coburn, C., Catterson, A. K., & Higgs, J. (2019). The Multiple Meanings of Scale: Implications for Researchers and Practitioners. Educational Researcher, 48(6), 369–377.