SWEDE: Scale Will Eventually Demolish Everyone

Yes, I like acronyms – a good acronym is memorable, meaningful and it makes you think. I wanted to explain why measurement was so important in the previous post but I neglected to tell you why I thought that we had to consider changing our learning and teaching approaches in the first place. So here’s my next higher ed teaching maxim – Scale Will Eventually Demolish Everyone. Even if we don’t change what we do, we have to be aware of why change should be considered and I want to give you a reason that doesn’t require you to have a fervent commitment to the nature of assessment or new technology. I’ll appeal to your existing knowledge – that you’re already too busy and things are getting busier.

Why do we even have to think about change? The first reason is that things change. New technologies become available, student expectations change, materials change – things change. The second reason is that we now have a lot of students in tertiary education and, if your government is anything like mine, the goal is to increase that number. We may not necessarily have more students in a given classroom, although that is a likely outcome, but we may certainly be teaching more students. We are already teaching a very large number of students and we are a long way from sitting around the agora in small groups, listening to someone who, through Socratic technique, will take three to four years to guide us towards mature and complete knowledge. Some techniques just don’t scale and we have to recognise this, while still providing as many, if not all, the benefits of our knowledge to our students, regardless of how many are in our classes.

I have taught classes as small as 7 and as large as 360, I know that some of you handle much larger and you have my deepest sympathies, and I cannot apply the same techniques in both and expect the same results, unless I work out how to handle the scale. An individual only has 168 hours in each week, fewer if they have the audacity to sleep or eat. Even if we were devoted beyond belief, lecturing, assessment and marking load will eventually reach a point where we cannot handle any more. Reduce this 168 to a (marginally) manageable 70-80 hours to allow for sleep and some outside activities and we can handle half the students. But I still need to pass my knowledge on, encourage them, give them feedback, provide assignment work and examinations, mark everything, give it back in a timely fashion and be what I am supposed to be, doing what I’m supposed to do.

Sometimes we handle scale through the use of other people – TAs, marking teams – and this certainly works. But it’s usually not the same as us, the lecturer, being there, unless you’re very lucky in the way that your teams are made up. There should be a reason that we’re there, that the students want to come and listen to us, to discuss the knowledge with us, to learn from us and while there is certainly a place for other people, including using students themselves, we have to think about how we are going to do it properly and in a way that scales to the right level while providing everything that the students need. This places an obligation on us to provide quality control for external marking, to provide strong guidance and rubrics for markers, for learning how to control the class when it moves in and out of ‘nearest neighbour answer checking’, to think about all of the techniques that could be used to increase the quality of our teaching while recognising the pragmatic limitations imposed upon us by the tyranny of scale. Among many, many other things.

We can handle scale if we make sensible use of existing techniques, actively search out new ones (whether philosophical, pedagogical or electronic), assess how we are meeting (or not meeting) our goals and we are clear about what our teaching goals actually are. Frankly, you’re probably already too busy – too many of you are reading this on your phone as you sit on the bus or while you chew your dinner. You don’t need to make things harder for yourself when new approaches come along that can allow you to do the same, if not better job, with less effort. If we don’t choose to handle scale and balance this with our requirements to provide teaching, then eventually we risk reaching a point where we won’t be able to provide any teaching at all – because our time to do everything will blow out so far that even if we are phoning it in, we just won’t get the marks processed in time, or assignments back.

Despite me talking about quality control and our requirements, protecting ourselves from the expenditure of unnecessary effort is the only sensible way to approach a time-consuming, difficult but very enjoyable job. We want to use our individual effort in a way that maximises our results – this is where measurement, process awareness and honesty comes back in, reinforcing my previous post. This is where being open to change, to assessing what you need, to finding new techniques and from doing it properly comes in. Because we have to.

Because, ultimately, SWEDE – Scale Will Eventually Demolish Everyone.


One Comment on “SWEDE: Scale Will Eventually Demolish Everyone”

  1. […] SWEDE: Scale Will Eventually Demolish Everyone […]

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