Using Technology to Scale Up Innovations


Research has documented that in education, unlike other sectors of society, the scaling up of successful programs from a few initial settings to widespread use across a range of contexts is very difficult (Dede, Honan, & Peters, 2005). As studies show (Barab & Luehrmann, 2003; Schneider & McDonald, 2007), effective dissemination is difficult because contextual factors in each local situation--such as the teacher's content preparation, pedagogical style, and classroom culture--shape the desirability, practicality, and effectiveness of potential educational interventions. Therefore, achieving scale in education requires designs that can flexibly adapt to effective use in a wide variety of contexts across a spectrum of learners and teachers. This article describes a framework for evolving innovations to ensure effective local adaptation and shows how this framework helped to scale up three promising practices in teacher professional development.

Dimensions of Scale
In the context of innovations in teaching/curriculum, Coburn (2003) defined scale as encompassing four interrelated dimensions: depth, sustainability, spread, and shift in reform ownership. In her formulation, "depth" refers to deep and consequential change in classroom practice, altering teachers' beliefs, norms of social interaction, and pedagogical principles as enacted in the curriculum. "Sustainability" involves maintaining these consequential changes over substantial periods of time, and "spread" is based on the diffusion of the innovation to large numbers of classrooms and schools. "Shift" requires districts, schools, and teachers to assume ownership of the innovation, deepening, sustaining, and spreading its impacts.

Dede, Rockman, & Knox (2007) modified these dimensions as described below and also proposed a fifth dimension to extend Colburn's framework, "evolution." Evolution involves the adopters of an innovation revising and adapting it in such a way that these modifications are influential in reshaping the thinking of its designers about the innovation; this in turn creates a community of practice between adopters and designers whereby the innovation evolves. Viewing the process of scaling up from a design perspective suggests various types of activities to achieve widespread utilization by developing an innovation along different dimensions:

  • Depth: conducting evaluation and research to understand and enhance causes of effectiveness;
  • Sustainability: adapting to inhospitable contexts via developing hybrids tailored to adverse conditions;
  • Spread: modifying to retain effectiveness while reducing the level of resources and expertise required;
  • Shift: moving beyond "brand" to support user ownership as co-evaluators, co-designers, and co-scalers; and
  • Evolution: learning from users' adaptations to rethink the innovation's design model.

These dimensions do not describe a linear progression through phases but instead delineate various types of processes developers can use to help take an innovation to scale (Clarke & Dede, in press). These developmental processes are interrelated in complex ways; for example, sustainability is fostered by spread, and evolution is accelerated by shift. A more detailed version of this framework and additional resources about scaling are available at

A quick illustration of using developmental processes to take a hypothetical innovation to scale can aid in understanding the role of each dimension. An instructional design team has developed a curriculum that, using sophisticated computing and extensive professional development, generates stellar engagement and achievement for middle school students gifted in science and taught by an instructor with a strong disciplinary background. This excellent engagement and achievement document depth: this innovation is worth attempting to scale up. By improving the innovation so that motivation and learner in the target population are even more outstanding, the developers can use increases in depth to aid scale, through making the innovation even more desirable.

However, to achieve widespread utilization, the developers likely must also increase sustainability: developing variants of the curriculum that produce lesser, but worthwhile, gains in engagement and achievement with typical rather than gifted middle school students and with teachers who have minimal backgrounds in science. Further, the designers can promote scale by increasing spread: creating less "expensive" variants of the curriculum (low-end rather than sophisticated computing, smaller amounts of professional development) that still produce worthwhile educational outcomes.

Because of these successes in scaling up, a substantial community of science teachers is formed who use various versions of the curriculum. As these teachers adapt the curriculum to reflect their local situation and instructional preferences, they take ownership of the innovation (shift), and variants of the intervention are developed that improve educational outcomes. These modified innovations in turn aid depth, sustainability, and spread--and also may stimulate the original design team to new insights about how to further improve the intervention (evolution). Of course, such an innovation might achieve substantial usage by designing to foster some, but not all, of these dimensions.

This developmental process of designing for scale does not mean that every innovation is scalable (Dede, 2006). For example, suppose that the intervention above is based on scientists from a local federal lab frequently coming to the classroom and mentoring individual students. While of value for the participants--and perhaps worth funding from a research perspective to study expert/novice mentoring--such an innovation is a poor candidate for scaling up because few schools would have such an opportunity. Thus, a valuable aspect of the framework above is analyzing a proposed innovation to determine the likelihood the intervention could realize these various dimensions important for scaling up.

The Role of Information and Communication Technology in Achieving Scale
Outside the field of education, information technology has helped in bringing product or service innovations to scale, primarily in two complementary ways: automation and individualization (Clarke, Dede, Ketelhut, & Nelson, 2006). Automation simplifies and standardizes a product or service so that necessary tasks to supply it require only pre-set routine actions by people or machines. Through automation, for example, a factory can use information technology coupled with machines to generate mass-produced products (e.g., identically configured clocks) cheaply, efficiently, and reliably. Typically, applied automation achieves scale via the lowest common denominator, the one-size-fits-all design and implementation strategies.

In contrast, individualization produces variants of products tailored to a wide spectrum of styles and tastes. For example, many software applications allow users to customize their appearance, toolbars, features, and modes of processing. Information technology enables designers to embed ways that users can co-create the specific product or process they are seeking. Individualization achieves scale by meeting a spectrum of customer needs with a customizable product or service--often at some cost in terms of price, complexity of co-design, and challenges in usage compared to alternative products or services mass-produced through automation.

Recent advances in technology are creating an emerging "fusion" option for scale, a design and implementation strategy that combines the virtues of automation and individualization (Dede, Rockman, & Knox, 2007). As an illustration, consider the Global Positioning System (GPS), a satellite navigation system originally funded by the U.S. Department of Defense to aid military navigation, positioning, and time synchronization. Civilian GPS devices are mass produced and use identical underlying technologies, leading to a steady decline in costs through improved manufacturing automation as the volume of sales grows. However, how purchasers use their GPS devices is very individualized. The lead author is developing and studying educational "augmented realities" based on GPS capabilities ( Navigation systems for motor vehicles, airplanes, and boats; locating capabilities for cellphones--even finding friends in nearby restaurants--are all emerging uses. GPS devices are an example of a technology that is cost-competitive and produced through automation, but easily adaptable to a wide range of uses and styles based on individual needs and tastes. Information technologies enable the sophisticated design and production that makes this fusion of automation and individualization possible.

This article describes ways in which similar use of information technologies can empower scaling up in education. In particular, we discuss how technology empowered flexible designs that helped to scale up two promising practices in teacher professional development, using various dimensions of our model for scalability.

Applying the Framework in Microsoft Mid-Tier Projects
Microsoft is interested in learning what it takes to successfully scale outstanding education programs throughout the nation and potentially throughout the world. The goal of its Mid-Tier grants is to identify pockets of innovation, scale those innovations by leveraging available relationships and resources, examine technology in the scaling process, and learn about the scaling process by studying the Mid-Tier projects' evolution and outcomes. Below are two case studies of teacher professional development projects that used the Framework to redesign their strategy to enable innovation at scale.

Case 1: Teacher Leadership Project (TLP)
Visionaries in a small school district in Washington realized the power of technology in the hands of teachers and students as a means to transform education. In the summer of 1997, funded by a small grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, they gathered together a group of 27 educators from throughout the state to explore how technology could improve student learning. For four-and-a-half days, they immersed themselves in a student-centered learning environment and experienced lessons designed around active inquiry, scaffolding, and open-ended learning. Participants listened to members of major corporations speak about their expectations and needs for future employees, then began developing strategies for using technology in classrooms.

The design leaders were educators; most were classroom teachers developing training for other teachers. In the model, skills are taught "just in time" rather than "just in case"; participants work together in cooperative groups of four, teaching and learning together. The developers spent the rest of the year implementing the Teacher Leadership Project (TLP) training they designed (, meeting every two months to learn, share, and collaborate. A stronger lesson-design component was added in 2000, based on Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins' Understanding by Design.

The Teacher Leadership Project was identified early on as an exemplary professional development model and adopted by other organizations. A three-day version, called the Teacher Leadership Seminar (TLS), was added to Intel's Teach to the Future Master Teacher Training in 2000. From 2000--2003, the Mississippi Department of Education also implemented the Teacher Leadership Project and received training for over 100 of its teachers. In an evaluation of the project, Fouts and Associates concluded that the TLP "[was] a remarkably effective training model that embraces most of the conditions identified in the research literature as being critical to successful integration."

With the original model, before redesigning to achieve scale, participants were trained in retreat settings; instruction was delivered face-to-face by other TLP teachers who have embraced the philosophy in their own classrooms. The challenge the developers faced was how to bring this model to many more educators in a less expensive, but still effective manner, so that many more teachers could experience its benefits without a retreat setting and all face-to-face instruction. To solve this problem, TLP sought and received funding as one of Microsoft U.S. Partners in Learning Mid Tier Projects, with a focus on scaling up using the framework described earlier.

In particular, TLP worked to maximize the spread dimension of the framework. In scaling up the project to eventually go nation-wide, flying instructors cross country for the training was prohibitively expensive. The strategy TLP used was to develop a hybrid model of training: Keep the intensive summer institute and follow it up with a three-part online component. On average, nearly 25 percent of teachers drop out of online professional development courses. To combat this, the design group decided to connect every seven to 10 participants with an online mentor. These online mentors all have been TLP teachers and trainers, and each receives additional training on how to facilitate online groups. As an unexpected byproduct, with the online component participants spend more time on their projects, and there are many more opportunities for feedback from mentors. (By year three the ratio changed to one mentor per group of 20-30, but that mentor also was a summer instructor, thereby still creating a strong collaborative bond with the group).

This design process inspired the developers to examine online training models and determine what components should be integrated into the hybrid TLP model. Beyond the standard lesson and discussion areas, instructors also wanted a portfolio area where participants would, throughout the year, add to a unit they developed using the components of Understanding by Design; this fosters shift as a means of enhancing scale.

Overall, the new design retained main components from the summer experience, added an introduction to Understanding by Design, and reorganized the rest for the online component.

This process was an ambitious undertaking, but in the end created a much richer training model that was also more scalable. In contrast with three weekends of training throughout the year in the original model, in the new version the training is a nine-month supported learning environment. The depth dimension of scale has increased: Participants have more in-depth discussions, opportunities for deeper reflection, and a greater focus on their individual learning. To date, only 10 percent of TLP online trainees have not completed the training, a high success rate.

Through involvement in Microsoft's Mid-Tier initiative and applying its scaling framework, TLP training is stronger, more feasible to deliver, and less costly for districts. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Staff Development Council have been partners in delivering training in Texas, Minnesota, New York, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Georgia. The success achieved through the new, scalable model has led to the development of additional, stand-alone training modules (an example of evolution). TLP now also hosts a database of exemplary standards-based lessons designed with the principles of Understanding by Design, targeted understandings, essential questions, intentional assessments, and aligned activities.

In its final months as a Microsoft U.S. Partners in Learning Mid Tier Project, TLP is reaching teachers in Texas, New York, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Tennessee. Through working at scale, by the completion of the Microsoft project TLP will have developed a cadre of more than 4200 teacher-leaders.

Case 2: Alabama Best Practices Center (ABPC)
The Alabama Best Practices Center has an ongoing professional development program that engages educators from participating schools in powerful conversations ( about 21st century learning. The program began in 2005, supported by a two-year grant from Microsoft Partners in Learning. Supplemental funding from the Alabama State Department of Education, Wachovia Foundation, and fees paid by participating schools have made it possible for the 21st Century Learners project to evolve and scale beyond the grant period.

In the first year, ABPC recruited small teams from 20 forward thinking schools across the state and established a virtual learning community built around an online curriculum, "Keeping Up with the Net Generation," developed by teacher-consultant Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach. The program relied on a combination of live web-conferencing tools and an asynchronous social network to involve teachers in the professional development experience. Feedback from the first group of schools was positive and useful in refining both content and engagement strategies. Twenty more schools were selected to participate for the 2006-07 school year, and schools in the first cohort continued their professional development in an "advanced strand" of the project.

Throughout this school-selection process, ABPC leaders applied the scaling framework in developing their design. To increase depth, they applied the research of Showers and Joyce, Fullan, Reeves, Schmoker, DuFour. To increase shift, ABPC identified schools that could be developed into demonstration sites, so trainees could "see" what 21st Century learning was all about and interact with peers who were using effective strategies.

The developers also encouraged school district partners to adapt the program to local needs. To illustrate this form of shift, in 2008 the Talladega County Schools customized the ABPC 21st Century Learning model based on an analysis of educators' existing 21st century teaching knowledge and skills. The initiative was spearheaded by teachers at Fayetteville School (K-12) and Winterboro School (5-12), two rural schools that were part of the ABPC project's first cohort. The Talladega initiative incorporated the strongest aspects of the ABPC model: virtual networking combined with face-to-face meetings, the ABPC mentoring model, effective communication mechanisms, strong content and resources, and a 21st Century Learning Fair to showcase and celebrate learning. Talladega also developed new ideas, such as a tiered mentoring system, school visits by mentors, and "Friday Five," a weekly e-newsletter for participants and administrators with pithy advice and tips.

The Talladega County initiative began by targeting secondary grades; simultaneously, two elementary teacher leaders were brought into the work to observe and plan for the scaling of this initiative to all of the system's elementary schools. In the fall of 2008, elementary schools began their training using an updated plan adapted for earlier grades. Now, ABPC is incorporating several Talladega innovations into its statewide model (evolution). Two factors--teacher buy-in and ABPC's effective marketing of the program's success stories through its statewide Powerful Conversations professional development network--have helped the initiative develop a financial support model that does not rely on further Microsoft funding (sustainability).

The Microsoft Mid-Tier projects have gained insights from this ABPC scaling process. One surprising outcome is that many of the schools that have been quickest to embrace the 21st Century Learners initiative (spread) are either rural, inner-city or poorly funded schools. When this trend was discovered, ABPC leaders asked schools like West Blocton Elementary, George Hall Elementary, Fayetteville School, Winterboro School and Calcedeaver Elementary--all of which are either rural or high poverty--why they thought this was the case. Without exception, teachers and principals stated that they saw the initiative as an equalizer--something that gave their students a chance to be prepared for a rapidly changing world.

A second finding related to sustainability is that schools are quicker to implement if they have a champion on board. In some cases, the champion is the principal, but in other cases the advocate is a teacher who has the principal's support and is an early adopter influential in the school's social/professional network. ABPC capitalized on this finding in 2008 when it intensified its emphasis on teacher leadership by implementing a "team leader" training program. Further, after some school teams requested the opportunity to visit other schools in the program (shift), ABPC leaders learned that after meeting face to face with colleagues who are implementing 21st Century learning strategies effectively, teachers are more likely to return to their own schools and pursue new practices. Finally, showcasing the work of participants, both virtually and through F2F learning fairs, can accelerate adoption of new practices by teachers and schools.

Overall, the Mid-Tier projects have shown that the five dimensions of the scaling framework work well across a range of educational innovations, including many on other topics than the professional development case studies in this article. As emerging interactive media mature, technology can become an even more powerful lever for helping projects attain scale. Fostering communities of practice that share ideas about the scaling up process is important to this evolution.


Barab, S. A., & Luehrmann, A. L. (2003) Building sustainable science curriculum: Acknowledging and accommodating local adaptation. Science Education 87, 454-- 467

Clarke, J., & Dede, C. (in press). Robust designs for scalability. L. Moller, Ed., Visions of the future: Learning and instructional technologies for the 21st century. New York: Springer.

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

Dede, C., Rockman, S., & Knox, A. (2007). Lessons learned from studying how innovations can achieve scale. Threshold 5, 1, 4-10.

Dede, C. (2006). Scaling up: Evolving innovations beyond ideal settings to challenging contexts of practice. In R.K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, pp. 551-566. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

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

Schneider, B., & McDonald, S-K., Eds. (2007). Scale-up in education: Ideas in principle (Volume I) and Scale-up in Education: Issues in practice (Volume 2). New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

About the Authors

Chris Dede is the Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education.