Feature                                                      Pages 33-37


Reaching Scale Beyond a

School-Level Innovation  

A Harvard professor uses an ambitious initiative in California’s Lemon Grove schools to illustrate the five key dimensions for widescale replication


THE OPPORTUNITY: During the day, middle school teachers are using 1:1 technology to personalize learning for their students and to close achievement gaps among student subgroups. In the evening and on weekends, families, even those in poverty, are helping their children with homework on a tablet-like device, with close coordination and sponsorship from the school district and the local Internet provider.

While this sounds like a technology innovation many school districts are undertaking today, it’s an initiative, known as LemonLINK that began more than a decade ago in California’s Lemon Grove School District.

THE CHALLENGE: In a school district with few financial resources, how does one implement such an initiative at scale, in a sustained, affordable and practical manner?

Unfortunately, many school leaders have seen similar innovations flounder in their attempts to achieve scale because they have not mastered the lessons learned from how LemonLINK overcame this challenge.

Chris Dede
Chris Dede

A Pervasive Pattern
About seven years ago, before “personalization of learning” was a buzz phrase and before mobile devices were commonplace in 1:1 implementations, Microsoft Partners in Learning asked me to help a small school district in southern California take an exciting initiative to scale.

The Lemon Grove schools, located in San Diego County, were encountering huge challenges with language-minority learners, students facing economic hardship and a need for cultural responsiveness on the part of the schools. These are familiar issues for many districts, and technology offers considerable promise in leveraging improvement, but only if digital innovations are designed for scale rather than for isolated pockets of use.

In Lemon Grove as elsewhere, prior technology innovations failed because they either were not inclusive enough, were focused on hardware acquisition rather than educational integration for instructional improvement or did not close achievement gaps, according to Superintendent Ernest Anastos and Chief Technology Officer Darryl LaGace, writing in the Spring 2007 issue of Threshold magazine. They also said leadership was key. Unfortunately, these problematic patterns remain pervasive, with districts purchasing tablets or starting bring-your-own-device programs without thinking about how to scale these initiatives beyond a few classrooms or a school.

Lemon Grove succeeded in scaling up its ambitious LemonLINK objectives even while using tablet devices primitive by today’s standards. The lessons learned from the participation of nearly all of the district’s middle school students can help school district leaders understand that a sophisticated change process is needed to accomplish practical, affordable, technology-based educational improvements at scale.

Many of the lessons in LemonLINK were the cornerstone for LaGace as he moved to the neighboring San Diego Unified School District to dramatically scale up the work done in Lemon Grove. Over the next five years, the large urban district deployed more than 100,000 student devices, including netbooks and iPads.

The San Diego i21 initiative successfully transformed 80 percent of the district’s instructional learning environments by ensuring every student had equitable access to digital resources and teachers received adequate training on tools such as My Big Campus, a learning management system that incorporates a safe social media site for students, parents and teachers to collaborate. Teachers now regularly create, share and assign standards-based assignments in interactive units in the form of online bundles. “We are starting to see a true shift in the educational delivery model, one with a significant movement toward personalized learning,” LaGace said.

Five Attributes
Cynthia Coburn’s “Rethinking Scale: Moving Beyond Numbers to Deep and Lasting Change” published in the August 2003 edition of Educational Researcher laid the groundwork for how I conceived the issue of scaling up. My scaling framework includes five concepts:

Depth relates to the quality or effectiveness of the innovation. School leaders implement innovations because they seek the improvements that depth offers.

Sustainability concerns the extent to which the innovation is maintained in ongoing use. An educational innovation is sustained if the people and schools who implemented the innovation continue to use it.

Spread is the extent to which large numbers of people or organizations adopt an innovation. If an innovation is designed to encourage school leaders to try it without incurring substantial risk or resources, that fosters spread.

Shift is a decentralization of ownership over the nature of an innovation. In shift, users adapt an innovation to their own situations and advocate its usage to other, later potential adopters.

Evolution concerns learning from users of an innovation. When the developers change the innovation as a result of others’ good ideas, it evolves.


Additional Resources

These dimensions are not a linear progression or a cycle. They are interconnected so that initial depth leads to interactions among sustainability, spread and shift that contribute to continuing increases in depth and evolution.

An innovation in K-12 education with these five characteristics is more likely to attain scale than one that lacks any of these attributes. The Lemon Grove case illustrates each of these dimensions of successful scaling up.

Lemon Grove’s instructional initiative achieved the depth dimension of scale. The LemonLINK initiative represented an early example of an emerging model for 21st-century classrooms — digital teaching platforms.

Like a Montessori classroom, students made selections on their tablets from a menu of activities based on their needs and interests, receiving just-in-time feedback from teachers on their accomplishments. Instruction was sometimes individual, sometimes small group and sometimes whole class. In LemonLINK, students enjoyed student-centered learning, with customized instructional experiences tailored to the individual’s background, talents, age level, learning strengths and preferences, and interpersonal skills

The key point about depth is that the educational innovation was not simply about using the tablets, but rather enabling a major shift in pedagogy, with a skilled teacher at the heart of the learning process and parents reinforcing instruction at home.

Using digital technology to personalize instruction was one change. Parental involvement also was key. Through an arrangement between the district and a local Internet provider, the district subsidized home broadband access for all families with students in middle school. Parents could review assignments, check attendance and maintain a close relationship with the classroom. Some parents worked extensively with their children to extend learning time through completing instructional exercises at home. This was an early step toward the “lifewide” learning model articulated in the 2010 National Educational Technology Plan developed by the U.S. Department of Education.

The 1:1 tablets, coupled with technology support, a personalized curriculum, embedded assessments and professional development, were catalysts for these transformational learning experiences. The increases in student engagement and learning both document an innovation worthy of scaling up and increase its likely adoption because the outcomes are desirable and address important educational concerns.

Parents, teachers and students reported increased enthusiasm for schooling, confirmed by attendance data. These increases in motivation persisted beyond the novelty effect of the technology and were due in part to students’ feeling an increased sense of autonomy and ownership of their learning. In addition, greater parental involvement was likely a factor.

While LemonLINK was not a controlled experiment, its usage was correlated with moving many students from the bottom performance quartiles of the California standards test (far below basic and below basic) to the basic and proficient levels, at a higher rate than standard instruction. Further, teachers and school leaders provided qualitative evidence of increased depth in student thinking, including higher-level skills such as analysis and synthesis.

Part of sustainability involves changing patterns of practice that over time reinforce transformation. In the case of LemonLINK, improved communication among students, teachers and parents resulted in a desire to maintain the innovation.

In classrooms, teachers used a group-response software to enable individual student answers to whole-class questions. This spoke to cultural characteristics of students that sometimes discouraged verbal participation, by instead encouraging digital dialogues and giving teachers a more accurate picture of student proficiency patterns. Students reported a greater sense of involvement and ownership through being active participants in group discussions.

Another pattern of practice designed for sustainability was frequent, formative online assessment and data-driven decision making. These also led to changes in the pattern and rhythm of classroom practice that were reinforced by students’ enthusiasm about receiving daily feedback and teachers’ interest in customizing lessons to help students attain higher levels of achievement.

Further, patterns of student performance on assessments, including end-of-year placement tests, were combined with other measures to develop individualized student plans, which then were communicated to parents. All these shifts in patterns of practice were self-reinforcing because of the benefits participants perceived, leading to greater sustainability.

An additional aspect of sustainability is designing educational innovations to function effectively across a range of relatively inhospitable settings. Scalability into many school sites means developing interventions that are “ruggedized” to retain substantial efficacy in relatively barren contexts, in which some conditions for success are absent or attenuated.

Conditions for success that could be missing in an innovation like LemonLINK include a weak technology infrastructure with marginal support, teachers resistant to this type of pedagogical change or teachers with minimal preparation in their subject area.

To ruggedize LemonLINK and enhance its sustainability, the devices used were simple, with no moving parts and commonly used applications permanently stored in memory or, for more complex programs, accessible via a server farm. The tablets were selected for durability. At the end of the first year, only two out of 300 devices needed minor repairs. This type of technology design placed minimal demands on school infrastructure and technical support, allowing usage in a wider range of educational settings.

Strong staff development is another essential component of sustainability, to encourage reluctant teachers, to provide instruction targeted to weaknesses in preparation or experience and to develop emotional and social support for transformative change. Professional development in Lemon Grove included training on the technology, a train-the-trainers strategy using lead teachers with experience in the innovation, site-based teacher support to promote transfer of best practices, and a blended community of practice that combined face-to-face and online interactions around personalizing learning and involving families.

Ultimately, this was not an innovation based on technology but on skilled people, so building human capacity and commitment was essential for success.

Designing for spread involves modifying the initial innovation to retain effectiveness while reducing the resources and expertise required. This helps in persuading potential adopters to try pilot implementations and see if the effort involved is more than justified by the results obtained. In making modifications for spread and sustainability, understanding the sources of depth are important so that ruggedizing and encouraging adoption do not come at the price of effectiveness.

Knowledge diffusion suggests many dimensions are involved in spread.

As noted, LemonLINK’s developers tried to simplify the technology so the devices and software posed few challenges even for teachers who were phobic about computers. The process of trying out the curricular and assessment innovations was made less threatening by professional training that involved influential master teachers as leaders of the community of practice.

The inclusion of formative assessment made the positive results of these trial implementations quickly observable. The curricular templates helped to clarify the compatibility of this innovation with the district’s goals and guided the individual adaptations teachers made to build on their strengths. As a result, LemonLINK was successful not only in the middle school of its origination but also in its spread to the seven other schools in Lemon Grove as well as to a neighboring district.

Shift and Evolution
In designing for shift, developers move beyond “owning” the innovation to supporting users as co-evaluators, co-designers and co-promoters. In LemonLINK, the community of practice was important in promoting this psychological change. Over time, teachers came to see the innovation as belonging to them, an educational process enriched through their adaptations.

The enthusiastic acceptance by students and parents also aided with shift. Students felt more in control of their learning, and many were more active in classroom dialogues, feeling responsible in part for other students’ learning. Parents felt empowered to influence what was happening in their school and district, to help teachers personalize their child’s learning and to contribute to their child’s success through instructional support at home.

The successful adaptations made through many students, teachers and parents via shift helped the LemonLINK developers to achieve evolution. Over time, changes suggested by users enhanced depth, sustainability and spread. In addition, Darryl LaGace, who was the chief technology officer at Lemon Grove and a crucial architect in its development, accepted a similar position in the much larger San Diego Unified School District, where he created and implemented more modern innovations based on LemonLINK. Now an executive at Lightspeed, he can share best practices on a global scale.

Sharing Successes
Two lessons learned from LemonLINK as an early innovation were using low-cost, low-maintenance devices and providing universal home access to broadband; these learnings have informed the work of many others in designing current 1:1 programs that involve personalized learning.

Lemon Grove’s experiences demonstrate a process for designing innovations to scale, which remains a persistent challenge in education. The LemonLINK case exemplifies a successful use of this five-dimensional framework. Other cases are described elsewhere (see Additional Resources, at right). All cases highlight the important role of education leaders in developing the five dimensions.

As Anastos and LaGace wrote about LemonLINK in Threshold magazine: “We cannot overemphasize the importance of district and school leadership. Inspiring a shared vision for what is possible with comprehensive technology integration — and fostering an environment and culture conducive to the realization of that vision — has made a tremendous difference. Leadership matters!”

Chris Dede is Timothy E. Wirth professor in learning technologies at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. His most recent book is Digital Teaching Platforms (Teachers College Press). E-mail: chris_dede@harvard.edu


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