What do we mean when we talk about scale? Towards a definition of ‘at scale’ in higher education – part 1

Designing and delivering education at scale effectively is a challenge faced by many higher education institutions (Kagan & Diamond, 2019). This challenge is both an economic one, where the costs of magnifying and multiplying education offerings needs to be matched and exceeded by the revenue, and a pedagogical one, ensuring the quality of the teaching and learning does not fade with repetition or lose students in a sea of faces. ‘Scale’ is also an intrinsically vague and abstract term with little objective codification or agreement in literature or practice. This two-part blog post will explore the notion of scale in higher education and why it is important to the learning design and educational development process.

The context of massification

The imperative to massify class or cohort sizes or expand the scope of programs and units of study has arisen from a confluence of several factors, including the increased reliance of University funding models on international students (Song & McCarthy, 2018), the financial affordances of economies of scale (Butler et al., 2017), the leveraging of scarce space on campus (Fisher & Newtown, 2014) and the possibilities of technology to magnify and recreate education with little or no decay to large audiences (Ryan et al., 2019). The capacity to scale-up is not without its limits as the capabilities and limitations of physical space on campus, architecturally, institutionally and pedagogically, have to some degree bound institutions’ ambitions for scale (for example, within the constraints of a timetable) (Carnell, 2017).

A consequence of the pandemic is that institutions and students were able to experience scale in technology-rich learning environments (Motz et al., 2021). Lectures were no longer bound by theatre capacities. Tutorials were not limited to the number of chairs in the room. Students could inhabit different spaces and times and still engage and connect with each other and their curriculum. Scale was no longer visible to some of those who were experiencing it. But in other cases, scale was visible and viscerally impacting on the workload of designers, teachers, and administrators. The assumptions that had beset online for decades around its relative cost/benefits resulted in some instances in bigger classes, larger lectures and more students (Govindarajan & Srivastava, 2020; Anderson, 2020), without the requisite and necessary technology, staffing and most critically, time to design.

Technology can hide some of the impacts of scale, but it can’t ameliorate them. The human impacts of education at scale are clear and present, in the form of workload, stress, challenges to innovation and transformation and the outcomes expectations of students and institutions. In the complex post-pandemic ecosystem of higher education, with its fractures, challenges and conflations exposed by the pivot to online learning and the resource inequities brought about by the impacts of the pandemic, how do you define teaching and learning at scale? And more importantly, how do you design for scale to not simply cope with it (or not), but to leverage it and benefit from it?

How do you define teaching and learning at scale?

Teaching and learning at scale has been greeted by the institutional community over many decades with varying degrees of hysteria, fear, zealotism, loyalty and acceptance (Baer, 1998; Brown, 2001; Daniel, 2012; Davidson, 2014; Harden, 2012; Jackson et al., 2011; Ryan, French & Kennedy, 2019). The significant increase in staff to student ratios over the last decade in many universities (Prosser & Trigwell, 2014) and the perception that larger class sizes come with reduced staffing and increased expectations of service quality have resulted in teaching staff problematising scale (Hubbard et al., 2020) and describing the experience of teaching at scale in overly negative terms. Hornsby and Osman (2014) argue that as the class sizes grow, higher order cognitive skills, such as problem solving, critical thinking and affective learning become harder for learners to develop. Scale becomes a byword for a mode of surface learning where memorisation and repetition replace these deeper engagements, in part because scale depersonalises learning, replacing one-to-one interaction with broadcast and didactic communication (Exeter et al., 2010). There is evidence that students engage less with the materials provided in larger classes, preferring to avoid opportunities for group work and engagement, contributing to a further degradation of the acquisition of higher order skills (Mulryan-Kyne, 2010).

Scale is one of these academic terms that has lost much of its meaning through overuse or, more specifically, through the over-application of the term as a differentiator from personalised, boutique or elite education. Yet it is critical to design and evaluate pedagogical change within the context of scale. Higher education is rarely agnostic of scale. Significant effort has been deployed by institutions to increase the scale of their teaching and learning, especially in business faculties. The simple equation of more students equals increased revenue is a persuasive one for institutions. That said, it is an overly simplistic representation as scale creates fractures and tensions around staff recruitment, casualisation, student satisfaction and overcrowding. It contributes both explicitly and implicitly to the perceptions of students as consumers and to the transactional framing of higher education.   

Many of these fractures have been papered over by the deployment of technology to act as a magnifier and multiplier of practice, mirroring existing face-to-face teaching and learning practices. For example, by using videos to replace lectures, forums to replace tutorials and maintaining traditional assessment practices like exams and essays (Barnes & Tynan, 2007; Kirkup & Kirkwood, 2005). These essentially broadcast pedagogies have evolved partially out of necessity to address the challenge of providing personalised education to a large group of distant learners (Bali, 2014; Glance et al., 2013). It is this form of teaching that has dominated most MOOC and large scale open learning pedagogies, with the learner positioned as the passive consumer of content (Knox, 2018) despite the intentions of the earliest connectivist MOOCs, which privileged the importance of interaction and engagement between learners, their networks and the academy (Downes, 2009; Siemens, 2013). In their meta-analysis of 126 studies of active learning at scale (mainly MOOCs) Davis et al. (2018) identify three teaching interventions that may increase the efficacy of learning, including: co-operative learning, simulations, and gaming and interactive multimedia. They caution however that these strategies offer limited impact without incentives for the leaner, ranging from the more effective monetary incentive through to the less impactful credit or intrinsic motivation-based incentives. Their findings suggest that when applied to non-micro-credentialed higher education offerings at scale, there could be a conflation between participation/completion and engagement in learning.  

Designing for scale

To return to the question at hand, how do you define ‘at scale’ teaching and learning? I argue that the challenge of scale is not defining it but designing for it. There are no absolutes in education, in part because teaching and learning are complex human processes of sociality, psychology and being. Large classes are not always a lesser experience and small classes don’t build networks and connections by default. The numbers in a room don’t matter if the design recognises and integrates the capacity and capabilities of that crowd. My challenge to designers is to not take the path of least resistance when faced with scale. Further, don’t accept that scale is homogeneous and can be managed in uniform ways. To answer my own question, there is no singular definition of scale. We can understand what constitutes scale, we can interrogate how it effects staff and students and we can design systems to manage the burdens it can create. We can also embrace scale when faced with its challenges. The scale genie is out of the bottle, massification isn’t going away and the increasing budgetary pressures on higher education will always put pressure on some programs to grow and be revenue positive, meaning in many cases the need to ‘scale-up’. The challenge is to make sure we don’t lose anything from delivering learning and teaching at-scale, but that rather we learn to leverage scale in ways that both students and educators benefit from it.  

In the upcoming part 2 of this post, we will look more deeply into how understanding scale feeds into the design process and how institutions, programs and courses can benefit from it.


Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

Published by Peter Bryant

Associate Dean Education and Co-Director of the Co-Design Research Group

3 thoughts on “What do we mean when we talk about scale? Towards a definition of ‘at scale’ in higher education – part 1

  1. For me “at scale” is hundreds of students, where techniques different to dozens are needed Perhaps orders of magnitude should be used: tens, hundreds, thousands.

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