Education Opinion

Two Frames for Learning at Scale

By Justin Reich — March 24, 2015 2 min read
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Today, I enjoyed a lecture from Scott Klemmer, a professor at UC San Diego, about the work of his Design Lab in education. Klemmer is best known for advancing the use of peer assessment in large-scale learning environments like MOOCs. If you have ever taken a MOOC where you have assessed another student’s project and they have assessed yours, then you have participated in a learning ecosystem that Scott helped to build. In his talk he described the design principles and impacts of several of his projects, including PeerStudio and TalkAbout

After the talk, Jal Mehta--an education policy researcher and Ed Week blogger—asked a very useful question about two different ways that Scott framed his talk and the field of Learning at Scale broadly. To paraphrase, Jal asked “are you trying to use technology to get as close as possible to an established ideal, or are you trying to do something different and better?”

One way to think of the Learning at Scale project—the effort to use technology to create environments with more learners than could possibly be served in a single classroom or school—is to define the ideal learning relationship as a typical face-to-face classroom or even an individual tutorial. The project of Learning at Scale could then be defined as the effort to make large-scale learning environments that are as close as possible to that ideal. A fantastic outcome in this scenario would be one where learning gains for thousands and thousands of learners in a large-scale environment are equal those that you could expect in a tutorial. In this way of thinking about Learning at Scale, the goal is to see how close we can get to the best we currently have.

An alternative frame for Learning at Scale, however, is to consider how the thousands of learners in a large-scale environment could be seen as a benefit and a resource, and not a detriment. From this perspective, the goal is to figure out what is possible in learning environments with many thousands of learners that isn’t possible. In his talk, Scott Klemmer described TalkAbout, a system that allows learners in an online course to form synchronous discussion groups. In some of the MOOCs they examined, a six person group typically included people from at least 3 different countries. That kind of diverse perspective is almost impossible to generate in physical spaces—especially in America’s rapidly re-segregating schools—so these large-scale learning environments offer an affordance that “ideal” learning environments might lack.

The first framing turns the Learning at Scale project into an efficiency play—how do we educate more people with fewer resources? The second poses a more ambitious challenge, how do we tap into the latent talents and capacities of participants in learning environments so that their scale is a benefit, rather than the limitation to be overcome.

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