What does it mean to “scale” an educational product?

May 5, 2023 | By Candice Benge and Keena Walters

Graphic of paper airplane

“Scaling” a product in business typically means moving from a small number of “early adopters” to a larger number of “early majority” users.1 In the field of education, however, “scaling” an educational product or program has been more challenging to define. A growing body of research on scaling educational products calls for a more nuanced definition that speaks to the unique context of educational settings. In this blog post, we highlight three promising ideas from this research for thinking about scale in educational contexts.

Scaling is more than numbers

One of the most prominent scholars studying scaling in educational contexts is Dr. Cynthia Coburn, who argues that the traditional view of scaling with a “focus on numbers alone” fails to account for additional dimensions of scale that are crucial to consider (p. 4).2 In Coburn’s model, a program or product that innovators are seeking to scale must achieve four things: depth of implementation, spread, shift in ownership, and sustainability.

For an educational product to achieve depth of implementation, Coburn suggests, it “must effect deep and consequential change in classroom practice” (p. 4). Spread refers to the integration of the product throughout the multiple levels of an education institution, while shift in ownership refers to the transition of the product from the product team to education practitioners. Finally, sustainability means the product must be able to sustain consequential change even after the initial influx of resources and professional development opportunities have ended.

This more expansive definition suggests that when innovators think about scaling an educational product, they should look beyond just the number of end users and focus on implementation that is deeply integrated into everyday teaching and learning, school routines, and existing systems.

Adoption = the conceptualization of scale as a widespread use of an innovation

Replication = an innovation is widespread, implemented with fidelity, and produces expected outcomes

Adaptation = widespread use of an innovation that is modified according to the needs of local users

Reinvention = derived from digital media, innovations serve as a catalyst for further innovation

Scaling is a dynamic concept with multiple meanings

Morel and colleagues argue that scale can have multiple meanings, which can shift over time depending on the goals of a particular product or needs of a user.3 In this model, “scale” can encompass components such as adoption, replication, adaptation, or reinvention. Further, the relevant component of scale at any given time may evolve depending on where a product is in the design or implementation process.

For example, when a product is in the first days of implementation, adoption may be the most relevant component of scale. On the other hand, when a product is past the implementation phase, the adaptation or reinvention of the product may be most relevant.

By understanding that scale is dynamic and has multiple meanings, innovators can consider which definition makes the most sense for their product and how that definition may shift over time.

Scaling is interrelated with design and implementation

Product teams often treat scale as something that happens after design and implementation are complete. Instead, Redding and colleagues suggest that “design, implementation, and scale are interrelated phases of improvement work” (p. 590).4 Expanding on Coburn’s four dimensions of scale, they propose product teams should design and implement a product “with scale in mind” (p. 589). In these early phases, teams can consider how local context and resources are set up to inhibit or support strong implementation, scaling, and sustainability of the product, and then iterate on the design to address issues of scale.

What does this mean for the LEARN Network?

Scaling educational products clearly goes beyond amassing a critical number of end users. When thinking about scaling an educational product, innovators need to start early in the design process, consider multiple dimensions of scale and be open to shifting the goals and focus of scaling over time.

How are you defining scale? Contact us with your ideas and experiences scaling in education on Twitter @SRI_Education. The LEARN Network will be sharing scaling stories and resources to support innovators in considering the dynamic, iterative, and multidimensional process of scaling. If you’d like to hear about our progress, sign up for our newsletter here.


1 Moore, G. A. (1991). Crossing the chasm: Marketing and selling high-tech products to mainstream customers. Harper Business Essentials.
2 Coburn, C. (2006). Rethinking scale: Moving beyond numbers to deep and lasting change. Educational Researcher, 32(6), 3–12. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X032006003
3 Morel, R. P., Coburn, C., Koehler Catterson, A., & Higgs, J. (2019). The multiple meanings of scale: Implications for researchers and practitioners. Educational Researcher, 48(6), 369–377. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X19860531
4 Redding, C., Cannata, M., & Taylor Haynes, K. (2017). With scale in mind: A continuous improvement model for implementation. Peabody Journal of Education, 92(5), 589–608. https://doi.org/10.1080/0161956X.2017.1368635

Tags: Adaptation Application Policymakers Research & Developers Transition