“We kind of don’t pilot stuff here”

The case study of Arizona State University’s (ASU) online learning efforts chronicled by e-Literate TV has several ideas worthy of consideration by K-12 digital learning practitioners and advocates. In particular, the following exchange discussing piloting of new technologies caught my attention. I’ve slightly shortened the conversation below. Phil Hill (e-Literate TV)“One observation I’ve seen from what’s happening in the US is there are a lot of pilots, but that never scale to go across a school. You sound confident that you will be scaling.”

Philip Regier (Executive Vice Provost, ASU):  “We kind of don’t pilot stuff here. When we did the math program, we actually turned it on in August 2012 after all of nine months of preparation working with Knewton. We turned it on, and it applied to every seat in every freshman math course at the university. And there’s a reason for that. The university’s experience with pilots is that they have a very difficult time getting to scale. Part of the reason is because, guess what? It doesn’t work the first time, maybe not the second. It takes multiple iterations before you understand and are able to succeed. If you start with a pilot and you go a semester or two and it’s, “Hey, this isn’t as good as what we were doing,” you’ll never get to scale.”

Philip Regier’s points are notable because of how common the advice to schools is to pilot, learn, and adjust before growing. This is almost a mantra among some advocates and funders; for example a quick Google search shows the Rogers Family Foundation has been funding a blended learning pilot in Oakland schools for several years, blendedlearning.net suggesting pilots, a blendmylearning.com blog post about piloting, and many others. We have also seen state policies supporting pilot programs, such as the Technology Assisted Project-Based Instruction (TAPBI) pilot in Arizona that started in the late 1990s and took about a decade to move out of pilot status.

As a post-secondary institution, ASU has a different set of challenges and advantages than K-12 school districts, and I would not simply say that district leaders should do away with pilots as Regier is suggesting has been successful at ASU. But there may be something to the idea that district leaders would better serve students and other stakeholders by taking some time to research their options, and then plan and create the program with the idea that it will quickly go to scale. In at least some districts, the alternative—piloting and iterating—has resulted in little growth over time.

Regier’s comments regarding success also play into this issue. I’ll look at those comments in a subsequent post.


Regular blog readers may have noticed that I’ve written about Arizona State University several times (for example here and here). That is mostly because ASU is among the leaders among established universities in using online learning, particularly to expand its reach to new students. I also have more exposure to ASU’s activities than those of other universities because my fiancé is a professor at ASU, so I hear a bit more about ASU than I do about other schools. I have no direct financial ties to ASU, however, and to my knowledge nobody at the university has noticed that I’ve written about them.