EdTech Education Ideas Opinion

Does it Scale?

“Yeah, but does it scale?”

This question seems to have become the catch cry of today’s education circles. From politicians to presidents, tech pundits to tech critics, teachers to theorists1 we all seem to be concerned with scale.

But what are we really talking about when we discuss scale? What does the idea of scale imply? How does it impact the way we think?

The idea of Scale seems to be informed by the Industrial Age, and in particular manufacturing. Scaling up of manufacturing, from hand-made artisan processes via mechanisation and machine production lines, led to significantly lower unit costs i.e. stuff got a lot cheaper. This was seen as a great thing and led to the transformation of global economies from aristocratic driven to consumer driven economies. It reorganised the concentration of wealth and power in the economy from the few to the many, from the state acting on the whim of the few to being powered by a market force. In this case, scaling up manufacturing was a good thing as it allowed more people to purchase and own manufactured objects, which had been out of reach for most of the population. It dragged people up out of povery into a life more comfortable and less demeaning. It changed the power base of economies around the world from the few to the many. (At least for a short time… until the few worked out how the new levers worked and to regained control and re-concentrate the wealth being generated.)

But education isn’t an object. Learning is not something that can be mechanised, it is organic and biological. Learning is human – and therefore the only scale that works is human scale.

Human scale is the set of physical qualities, and quantities of information, characterising the human body, its motor, sensory, or mental capabilities, and human social institutions.

Human’s have limits. We can only be so fast, so strong, so big, so small, so smart. We are finite creatures. We have biological, physical, mental and neurological limitations. We have to choose how we operate within those constraints.

It doesn’t matter how much growth you have in your mindset – there’s a hard limit because the world we inhabit is finite. Whether we can truly comprehend that fact seems to be another matter, because at this point in time we seem to be completely fixated on growth and not on whether that’s actually possible.

The idea of Scale plays into this obsession. Nothing seems to have value anymore unless it’s at a massive scale. Perhaps it’s because technology has shrunk our concept of distance that we tend to think global rather than local. Today we can hop on a plane and within hours cross oceans, traverse mountains, plains and rivers. What we consider as “big” has changed, so that we now tend to think of big as being in the billions rather than hundreds. It’s at this point that Scale stops being a human thing and instead Scale becomes de-humanising.

We start referring to people as customers or users. Wealth in dollars rather than happiness. Change as percentage points. Everything translates into numbers. We can abstract our whole world into a spreadsheet.

In a Scaled world numbers replace humans – those fleshy individuals with thoughts and feelings and family and friends. Climate change becomes an argument over 2° rather than the fact that we are taking the planet to the point where billions of people will die.

Scale undermines human concepts like care, solidarity, love, compassion, sharing, joy or sadness. As Doug Belshaw put it recently:

Caring doesn’t scale and Scaling doesn’t care.
– Tide Podcast

Scale has become an important part of the Neoliberal ideology that is running the world. It works well as part of it’s hyper-libertarian agenda which seeks to justify the destruction of the social and civic components of our society and replace them with corporate structures. By invoking the concept of Scale those in power can easily dehumanise that which they wish to dismantle and destroy. Business becomes a term for global mega-corporations rather than anything that resembles a “family business” that you and the ones you love might build together and dedicate your life to. No, instead of seeking models that are sustainable and contribute something back to society, the focus is on monopolies and creating “unicorns” that simply extract wealth and ship it off shore. Business becomes an operation that embody Scale itself – in all it’s dehumanising glory.

In many ways Scale is a way of thinking about big things but without addressing any of the complexities that are associated. It doesn’t require you to think about who or what is being exploited, what waste and bi-products are being produced or the social and environmental impacts. Scale boils all that down into a single number – profit.

Yes education needs to get bigger in order to meet the demands of a larger global population with changing labour and social conditions, but it doesn’t need to have Scale applied to it. Instead it needs investment, fostering, change and development. It needs care, solidarity and compassion. It needs sharing and support because Education is fundamentally about being Human.

By following the lead of manufacturing and applying it’s model of Scale to education we are changing what is being offered. The more we unbundle, in order to find greater efficiencies, the less we see the student as a whole – as a person. The more we seek to Scale education the less it embodies what it is to be human.

Yet, education doesn’t have to be automated nor does it have to seek out a way of making it cheaper “per unit” – because there is no base unit when it comes to education. Despite the efforts to standardise education around ideas like the “credit hour” – the fact is that learning is not an object or currency that we trade in. Students are not vessels or banks that we deposit learning into. As I’ve said before:

Learning is not something that is easy to understand or pin down. For example, it is not the process of education, thats just what we do to earn it, the same as selling an object for money. It is not the act of teaching, researching or publishing – those are merely some of the actions that enable learning to occur. It’s not the buildings, the desks, the chairs, the computers, the stationary or any of the infrastructure – but they all help to create an environment for it to happen.
No, learning is a subjective, personal and sometimes spiritual event. An intangible, ephemeral and immeasurable object. It is something that is perceivable only by its consequence and affect. We can measure it through testing and demonstrating knowledge, skills, application and process – but it is measurement by proxy, not of the learning itself.
The Reality Distortion Field

How do you Scale what is at it’s heart Human? You don’t.

Photo: BIG/small by B.A.D. shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

  1. Yes, even I have succumbed to employing the idea of scale in my writing and thinking. 

By Tim Klapdor

Passionate about good design, motivated by the power of media and enchanted by the opportunities of technology.

19 replies on “Does it Scale?”

Hi TIm. Great post – thank you for writing. It articulates the punch of what Doug and I have been trying to say on TIDE. Your connection to learning at the end is particularly insightful in my experience – learning is elusive – we know what it is when we do it but it is hard to define it’s parameters and characteristics on paper to be used as an instrument of a model to be scaled across a school or an academy/local authority. Most importantly, as the world begins to automate education like we have never seen before (EG: Pearson’s new platform, Liberia selling their entire education delivery system to private bidders, MOOCs migrating to younger learners), it is the Human experience of education – the learning – that is going to be sacrificed. Investment will lead to familiar scenarios of massaged data to represent success until we advance a generation or two down the line and (hopefully) our successors repel our claims and fix what is broken. It might be that models like the Liberian situation are necessary stepping stones to shift their system onto something else. I do not know of a straightforward solution and that makes me feel unjust in being cynical about the decisions that those in the situation have to make.

Thanks Dai! Having been a long time listener to TIDE I’ve picked up that tone – but the last episode really captured and connected with the idea that I’d been working over – not everything has to be massive. There have been a couple of recent articles come out discussing MOOC based research and one of the themes I was picking up was that the elements of practice that worked weren’t the bits that were massive – it was the smaller groups and interactions where learning took place and engagement with the course happened. It also linked to some of the work I’ve been doing on developing up a model of pedagogies to improve online learning – and again realising that what actually works can’t really be scaled up. They are the personal interactions, the relationships that develop and the collaboration with peers – all elements that are fine to do with small groups but fail miserably when trying to do it with more than say 20 people. And that’s because there’s a hard limit to what we can handle as humans, once we get into bigger numbers we change our mentality and processes – becoming the herd.

In terms of solutions – I don’t know either, but part of it is to start to fight the idea of Scaling up learning. The other part is the professionalisation that Eylan mentioned in the last TIDE. Something that I’ve noted recently ( is that the most obvious innovation in education is simply better dissemination of good practice. That at the moment what is good practice, and importantly how to do it given todays environment and available technology, isn’t shared or captured because teachers at all levels have been de-professionalised. That their job has been matched to incentives that are linked to exam results which do very little to measure or capture learning. Exams (particularly those delivered today) simply test memory. They do not test learning or mastery or creativity – they test if you can remember and regurgitate facts in chronological order. And thats the scary thing about Pearson and MOOCs – is that they are built entirely on these practices which simply don’t have anything to do with learning. Nor does Learning Analytics (! The way forward is to go back to thinking smaller with our students – but connecting them to the globe. This is the power of technology – it’s not ever efficient ways of delivering content, but enabling and managing connections. Getting our students into that kind of space is mind blowing in its potential to transform education.

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