Scaling and Sustaining Innovations

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One of the great challenges facing the goal of Quality Universal Basic Education throughout the world is how to scale and sustain innovations that are designed to achieve that goal.  Having been asked to be on a panel at the 2014 Education Alliance Symposium  in Washington this week, I have tried to organize my thoughts on the topic.  Here is my “checklist” for the things to consider in the process of attempting to scale an innovation.

1. Demand.  To be scaled an innovation must be seen as responsible to a widespread demand, especially among the influencers and decision makers of a nation.  This requires skill in marketing the innovation.  It needs to be seen as something that is needed throughout the society, fulfilling a basic need that not only helps individuals but, as important, the society as a whole.  In order to scale an innovation it is essential to present the innovation as something that meets a perceived need for an important group of people and, ideally, for the whole society.  The danger here is that it is relatively easy to create an appealing “story” about the benefits of an innovation.  As a result, it id easy to list a lot of bad things that end up being scaled..  Thus a crucial first step is to have credible evidence that the innovation has  already accomplished something, in a pilot of some sort, that has been  beneficial in a way that is more cost-effective than the status quo.   Unfortunately, education as a field often skips this step and pushes to scale innovations with no evidence of their actual short and long-term benefits.   Time and resources are often wasted based on the faith that an innovation fulfills the claims made for it when, in fact, this is not the case.  This is simply the first stage of validation. Such evidence should be seen as a replacement for more careful assessments of the innovation as it scales.

 2. Political.  There must be political and bureaucratic support for the innovation.  This should also include broad support from the public.  If external funding is needed, international support is also needed.   This can be much more difficult that it seems.  Resistance to change can be extremely high in established institutions.  Change can be painful and is frequently experienced as a threat and a loss.  Breaking through those barriers can require drinking many cups of coffee, or tea.  One must build personal relationships with the key influencers and decision makers.  Highly effective innovations can founder on this dimension.  OLE’s virtually always identifies or helps create a nation-based organization as a partner in an initiative we take in a country.  Our partners are deeply committed to scaling quality basic education throughout the nation.  Its members need to comprise skilled educators and powerful influencers who are able to be heard and respected concerning the changes that are needed to improve radically the quality of learning in their country.

3. Administrative. The bureaucracy that manages education at the national and regional levels can make or break the scaling of an innovation quite independent of the political support for that effort.  Again, it is essential to build relationships with the key administrators of education concerning the funding, the standards, the examinations, teacher training.  OLE makes a point of negotiating formal, signed MOUs with the key government officials and the leaders of the communities in which we work as one of the first steps in developing a scalable program.

4. Financial.  The innovation must be seen as affordable.  While the might be additional cost, there must be a convincing argument that the benefits far exceed the pain of additional cost.  Ideally one can show that some previous expenses can be reduced or eliminated because of the innovation.  For example, Open Learning Resources can be used to reduce significantly the cost of paper-based materials.  Automating administrative procedures that were previously paper-based can result in savings.  In general, however, in order for an innovation to scale it needs to be scalable at a cost per student that is within the capacity of the nation to pay.  OLE, for example, has set the cost per student per year as no greater than US$10, with a goal of getting it to US$5.

5. Technical.  In order to be scaled, the technical infrastructure required to support the innovation must either be in place or built into the process for scaling the innovation.  This is particularly crucial when technology is involved.  In order to scale one must be able to reach the most remote locations.   What is involved in getting to everyone the electrical power that is needed?  How accessible and at what cost is the Internet?   How will equipment be repaired when it breaks.  Who will train those who are needed to maintain the system, update the system, replace the system?  OLE, for example has set the requirement for its technology that it must work in places that are off the electrical grid and that do not have reliable access to the Internet.  The hardware must be robust and provision for repair, replacement and upgrading must be integrated with the plan to scale the innovation.

6. Human Resource Development.  Without doubt, the most crucial element in scaling an innovation in learning is to identify and develop the human talent that is required to implement and scale the innovation.  The process of scaling an innovation in learning throughout a nation is a long and difficult process.  This must begin in the classroom.  There must be a plan and a budget for helping teachers move from a passive “talk and chalk” teaching mode to a project-based mode of learning where students are more engaged and empowered in a way that energize them.  Headmasters must also become skilled at “coaching” teachers and students in new approaches to learning.  The regional and national leaders must also move from being the “police force” to becoming “mentors”,  helping, rather than primarily functioning as the “judges” of headmasters, teachers and students.   Human resource development for education must be established as a life-long process for educators at all levels.  They must experience a sense of agency in their role, the realistic possibility of climbing up a meaningful career ladder, and a sense that and their colleagues belong to a profession that provides an essential foundation for their nation.

7. Continuous Improvement.  Everything is changing all of the time.  Thus it is crucial to build  into the DNA of every innovation a process of continuous review, reflection, change and assessment.   This involves feedback from the multiple stakeholders affected by the innovation and a process for review of that feedback that itself includes the key stakeholders.  I sometime virtually require at least one change in a system every year just to make sure that the system does not automatically ossify.

8. Ongoing Validation.  I opened this blog with a note about the importance of making sure that there is a perceived demand for the innovation in mind indicating this it is something that is worth scaling and that there must be preliminary evidence that the innovation has in pilot form achieved what it claims to achieve.  Once such an innovation is scaled, the dimensions outlined in this blog can affect outcomes in both positive and negative ways.  Thus a key step in scaling any innovation is not only to continuously improve the system but to systematically validate the proposition that the new system is cost-effective in meeting its goals.  It is at this stage, and not earlier, that more systematic control groups, including when possible, randomly assigned demonstration and comparisons groups are implemented.  Such a process can be wasteful too early in the development and scaling of an innovation but it should be employed on a regular basis throughout the life of a system.   External changes can make a highly effective approach at one time, ineffective at a later date.