Eight Principles for Scaling Educational 3D

By Len Scrogan
Display Central

3Dprojection-01123D in Education — 3D school success stories are well worth your reading time. In this installment, we continue our coverage of 3D in the St. Francis Schools (MN) by focusing on strategies for district-wide implementation of 3D. What can we learn from this 21st Century school district about scaling educational 3D?


If you look at 3D in education across the country, almost all implementations involve isolated, individual schools. These pioneer 3D-using sites are often magnet, STEM-focused, private, charter or otherwise impassioned schools that simply caught the vision and saw the potential for 3D visualization in learning. In some U.S. school districts, mobile 3D carts have been purchased for every school, but almost all of these ‘district’ efforts have grown quiet, languishing due to lack of vision, training, and leadership. In my opinion, you cannot simply “buy 3D” and throw it loosely into classrooms; rather, effective and long-lasting  3D programs must be seeded, grown, nurtured, and cultivated. Above all, they must be led.

The St. Francis school district 3D project may well be the only successful district-level implementation of 3D learning in the U.S. Certainly, this group of forward-thinking educators offers key strategies for successfully pursuing district-wide implementation of 3D in almost any setting. From a business perspective, what we can learn from this district will help manufacturers and providers better support, sustain, and leverage future customers.

The St. Francis project began in a single school, in a single fourth grade classroom. But this year, it was extended to all of the other schools in this innovative district. How did they do it? Here are some of the keys to success we can unpack from this timely case study:

The Champion. The vision began with a lone fourth-grade teacher, Holli Hillman. She was struck with the potential of 3D visualization in learning and acted upon her vision. She became a force of one. A ‘champion’ is the term we often use in education. She ached for a chance to employ this technology to improve student learning. That’s how all good educators improve classrooms — with a yearning, an ache, and by untiringly wondering, “what if?”

The Allies. The reality is that a force of one doesn’t really work in education. You might think so, but it doesn’t. Ms. Hillman had to find allies in order to truly realize her vision. She presented her ideas to her principal, colleagues, peers, parents, district leaders, superintendent, and even I.T. technical leaders. She sought their support, their advice, and their blessing. She convinced them, but she did so based on trust, passion, and the promise of value-added learning. In doing so, she grew and nurtured a large ‘family’ of co-travelers. She wrote: “My Superintendent along with his entire District Leadership Team were some of the first to view the 3D content only 12 short hours after it was up and running. I have been enthusiastic about this pilot project for quite some time and was ecstatic to share it immediately once it was up and running. My Superintendent couldn’t stop grinning as he walked from one corner of the room to the other watching the stereoscopic imagery travel with him. He was stunned that what I had been describing for several months was exactly as incredibly visual as I explained. He and I talked extensively about how this would be used in the classroom as a teaching and learning tool; and why this content is so incredible.”

The Plan.  Most school technology efforts use an approach like this: “Fire, Aim, Ready!” Ms. Hillman’s paradigm became “Ready…Aim… Fire!” She knew that “you don’t just buy 3D.” You plan for 3D; you think it through; and you try to remove as many obstacles as you can before you begin. In developing her action plan, Ms. Hillman sought help from both inside and outside the district, ensuring that her efforts would indeed be successful.

The Promotion. In a famous Russian farce by Ilf and Petrov, “Christopher Columbus Discovers America,” there’s a saying uttered by Christopher Columbus that goes like this: “Without publicity—there’s no prosperity!” Effective scaling of 3D from one school to many schools requires marketing and promotion. In the midst of her project, Ms. Hillman wrote the following note to me: “This morning I had a VIP visitor. Brenda Cassellius, the Commissioner of Education for the state of Minnesota came in to view our district’s 3D set up and the way in which we are using it. Then on Monday, April 29th I will have Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann here also. Very exciting things happening!”

The Results. In education, effective promotion is more likely to see scale increase if results are strongly evident. Simply using technology is never as convincing as is producing results with technology. Ms. Hillman didn’t merely show off the technology, she marketed the results of using 3D in the classroom. She began to gather informative student anecdotes or stories, collect data on student performance and improvement, and document  how well—or how quickly—students were learning.

The Leveraging. Once the stories are being told, once the results are seeing the light of day, it’s time to connect those stories with an urgent need for action. The underlying premise is to use your past success to leverage even more success. The basic approach is to demonstrate that a technology-based intervention resulted in clear benefits and then request the resources required to expand the capabilities or reach of that intervention. Here’s a chart that shows how that is supposed to work:


A smart educator will now raise the stakes, perhaps submitting a funding proposal to your superintendent, the school board, the PTO, a local business partner, a local educational foundation, or a probable grant source. Leveraging efforts must begin in earnest if scaling is to become a reality.

The Swell. Great technology efforts have wheels. They somehow inch beyond the artificial curbs associated with “pilot technology projects” entering the thoroughfare of relevance as they extend to other schools. Ms. Hillman explained early on in the St. Francis initiative: “I am currently working with teachers from the High School in an effort to expand… I am certain I will find teachers just as enthusiastic as myself to step outside of the box and implement this innovative instructional approach. I can’t wait to watch it all unfold.”

The Anticipated Wrinkle. Surprises happen and good technology implementers know it. Recently, Ms. Hillman learned that her highly supportive, wise and sympathetic I.T. Director was moving into new opportunities with another school district. This normally sounds a death knell for scaling and sustaining any budding technology initiative. Surviving leadership changes and knowing how to sustain an initiative for the long haul require quick thinking, agility, and no shortcuts in the eight scaling principles identified in this piece. Since Holli Hillman has carefully built the proper scaffolding described in the eight principles above, there is far less worry over unanticipated transitions.

Following these principles, scaling educational 3D from single-school projects to district-wide initiatives is in the cards.