Scaling Innovations in Teaching and Learning
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Scaling Innovations in Teaching and Learning

How large universities introduced pedagogies and technologies that benefit thousands of students

By Rhonda Phillips and Anish Vanaik

May 21, 2021

Over the last few years, innovations in teaching and learning have been emerging at a rate that often outpaces the research that demonstrates their effectiveness as best practices.

Many institutions are embracing innovative, rapidly changing technologies and practices—such as online conferencing software, gamification platforms, recorded lectures, and video discussion forums—that can improve the educational experience and make learning environments more flexible. Alongside these new tools, faculty are innovating through a range of active learning techniques such as learning communities, undergraduate research, and collaborative projects, which get students to implement critical thinking and investigative skills in creative ways. Beyond the classroom, the focus on students’ success in their academics and later careers has emphasized the critical role of advisers and job-readiness programs with ties to industry partners.

If universities are to attract more students from ever-shrinking applicant pools, these innovations in teaching and learning—the bedrock of a transformative educational experience—must be scaled up. We studied a number of large universities across the country that introduced pedagogies and technologies that benefit thousands of students. How did they successfully scale up these pedagogical innovations, which often started small, to reach students across their institutions?

Four Factors to Successfully Scale Up Innovations

Historically, private liberal arts colleges have been among the nimblest early adopters of pedagogical innovations. But we are also seeing innovative practices emerge from units—colleges, departments, and centers—that pilot, distribute, and coordinate new practices that later spread across large universities. Universities that have successfully scaled up these innovations have tended to have at least a few of the following four critical factors.

First, in almost all successful large-scale programs, key figures in the universities’ senior administration—presidents and provosts in particular—invested in the ideals of innovative pedagogy. Under President Steve Sample from 1991 to 2010, the University of Southern California had a clear and focused impetus toward interdisciplinarity. The university’s Renaissance Scholar distinction, for example, challenged students to excel in two or more unrelated disciplines. At the University of Michigan, the push toward developing and incorporating digital tools (such as GradeCraft, which supports gamified pedagogies) has been backed by the president and provost. According to the university, an impressive 85 percent of its current students have used one of these digital tools. At Northeastern University, President Joseph E. Aoun has outlined a set of cognitive capacities, such as systems thinking and cultural agility, that have, over time, been incorporated at every level of the university—from individual courses to centers like the Cultural Agility Leadership Lab.

A second critical factor is finding synergies within the university. The capacity to coordinate and communicate innovative practices across large institutions has proved an important component of successful scaling. The University of Arizona, as part of its strategic planning process, developed a series of faculty learning communities and discussion groups focused on teaching. Eventually, these communities were incorporated into a university-wide initiative that connects faculty and students to disseminate innovations in student learning and retention. Monetary grants and nonmonetary incentives for participation and adoption have been crucial to draw faculty and students into these processes. The IMPACT faculty development program at Purdue University has had remarkable success in incentivizing faculty participation, with nearly 90 percent of undergraduate students taking at least one course affected by IMPACT.

A third element has been clearly demarcating both responsibility for and “ownership” of the task of implementing and scaling up innovations. What that might look like varies at different universities. At our own institution, leaders of the Purdue University Honors College have created partnerships across the university to provide interdisciplinary academics, undergraduate research, global and community engagement, and leadership development for our students. Similarly, at the University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA), community-engaged scholarship across the institution is coordinated at the Center for Community Engagement. Whatever the size of these innovation hubs, they tend to cut across disciplines and programs.

Finally, a fourth critical factor has been clarifying the goals and objectives driving the innovation. In the increasingly crowded marketplace of higher education, scaling innovation has to be steered toward a clearly articulated vision of what makes a particular university unique and the distinctive kind of experience it offers students. To various degrees, this has been true of each of the institutions mentioned above, from Northeastern’s emphasis on cognitive capacities to UCLA’s emphasis on community-centered education. The clear articulation of goals also helps the universities assess the work being done and the progress being made.

Given the competitive realities of the higher education marketplace, it is not a question of if, but when, it will become even more urgent for large universities to consider how they can enhance educational experiences and outcomes for their students. But along with the flash of inspiration for new programs, university leaders must remain tuned in to the more systematic and iterative aspects of scaling up innovation.


  • Rhonda Phillips

    Rhonda Phillips is dean at the Purdue University Honors College.

  • Anish Vanaik

    Anish Vanaik is clinical associate professor at the Purdue University Honors College.