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Q&A About ‘Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education’

Back early March 2020, Scott Jaschik — editor and co-founder of IHE–sent us 5 questions about the book we had just published Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education (JHU Press). In the process of writing our responses to Scott’s questions, COVID-19 hit. We put this Q&A to the side, and turned our attention to working on academic continuity and to writing The Low-Density University: 15 Scenarios for Higher Education.

Looking back, we realized that we never published this interview. And in reading the questions and answers, we had the thoughts that A) Wow, everything is different after COVID-19, and B) The stories and ideas and arguments in Learning Innovation book are perhaps more pressing and relevant today than when the book was published. (At least we hope so). If nothing else, Scott’s questions and our answers provide a glimpse of academic life pre-pandemic.

Q1. What is learning innovation? How can colleges encourage it?

Our framing of learning innovation is to center the university as the unit of analysis, and then to ask what institutions are doing to align their structures to the research on and practice of teaching and learning. In this conception, learning innovation is not a destination, but instead an aspirational process. Schools are never done creating the optimal conditions in which educators and students can thrive in the context of advancing learning. The institutional structures that undergird and catalyze learning will need to evolve in response to advances in learning science, technological change, and changes in student needs.

In the book, we try to place our call that schools invest in the structures and people who work to align institutional structures with learning science in context of the significant challenges faced by our postsecondary ecosystem. Simply calling for more money to be spent on professors, instructional designers, and centers for teaching and learning is less than helpful in an era of demographic headwinds and public disinvestment. We explore options for investing in institution-led learning innovation in conditions of scarcity and other competing demands.

Q2. Why do you think the LMS can enhance learning innovation and teaching? Although it can, is it?

This was a section of the book that we argued about, particularly whether the LMS has had a positive impact. Both of us agree, as we take pains to spell out in the book, that at the very least the LMS is a problematic and influential technology. Anyone in higher education who has ever wrestled with an LMS–which is everyone who works in teaching and learning–knows very well that the technology prioritizes the administrative management of students over the more powerful determinants of learning such as social connection and knowledge construction.

The reason that the LMS made it into the book as one of the foundations of the turn to learning–our argument that higher education is in the midst of a largely unrecognized renaissance in student learning–is due to its very ubiquity. By providing a tool that easily allows both online and residential instruction, without the need for educators to know anything about HTML, the LMS opened up a sense of possibility for technology in teaching and learning. This was often the case because of the limitations recognized by teachers and students, if not the folks making LMSes, and the desire to go beyond what was possible in these administrative tools.

Q3. You talk about the integration of education development and instructional design. Why is this important?

One of our goals for Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education was to document an organizational trend that has been spreading across many colleges and universities. That trend is the integration of the work of faculty developers and learning designers, most often through the campus center for teaching and learning (CTL). In some cases, this integration is occurring through the re-organization of previously disparate units into a single campus learning organization. In other cases, the university organization chart is not changing, but the people in units such as academic computing and online education are collaborating closely with the educational developers in the CTL.

As will be clear to anyone who reads the book, we have a definite perspective on this trend towards integration. We think that it is a great development. Working together, campus faculty developers, academic technologists, instructional designers, assessment experts, media professionals, web developers, and other non-faculty educators can exert significant influence on the strategic priorities of an institution. There are benefits to faculty of having one-stop shops to find partners to collaborate in the difficult task of improving student learning. Integrated CTLs can also help schools avoid the siloing of knowledge and resources developed in the creation and running of online programs, helping to ensure that the benefits of investments in online programs also accrue to residential education.

Q4. You discuss the way many colleges create a new structure to encourage learning innovation? What’s wrong with existing structures? Is this the best way?

The best way to understand the values of an institution is to look at where it invests. If schools are to take seriously the challenge of aligning their educational structures to the research on how people learn then they will need to invest in this effort. Importantly, the funding of integrated CTLs or the hiring of instructional designers do not alone signal adequate institutional investment in learning. Everything we know about authentic learning points to the conclusion that A) learning is very difficult, and B) that learning occurs best in the context of durable relationships between educators and learners. Institutional strategies to balance the books on the backs of contingent faculty may or may not save money, but will definitely harm student learning.

The next generation of non-faculty educators responsible for collaborating with faculty to advance student learning will need to approach this work with an institutional–and often ecosystem-wide–lens. The low-hanging fruit of organizational change to advance student learning has mostly been picked. Future investments in institution-led learning innovation will require both defensible ROI and sustainable sources of funding. It is not enough for those leading campus learning organizations to argue that more money should be spent supporting educators (both faculty and non-faculty), as a range of campus stakeholders have legitimate claims to the shrinking pool of institutional resources. Successful campus learning leaders will need to find ways to work within a significantly constrained economic environment.

Q5. You’ve started to speak about your book on campuses. What reactions have you received? Any that surprised you?

We have been heartened by the enthusiastic and supportive response that the book is receiving. What seems to be resonating among our colleagues at peer institutions is the idea that schools need to commit to purposeful (and data-supported) institutional-scale research and development (R&D) to support student learning. Our attempt to link the work of faculty to design (or redesign) their courses and instructional designers as faculty collaborators and partners with the development of institutional strategy seems to be resonating. Our argument that the study of institution-led learning innovation deserves its own field of sustained scholarship also seems to have found a receptive academic audience.

In the conversations with colleagues about the book that we’ve been having, two issues stand out in terms of the frequency and intensity of questions. The first is a concern that institution-led learning innovation will exacerbate, rather than alleviate, inequality between already wealthy and increasingly financially challenged institutions. The second area of spirited questions that are consistently coming up involves the relationship between for-profit companies and universities in core areas of teaching and learning. There is a great deal of concern about both issues, and while we have much to say on each, we are realizing that there is considerable room for further scholarship related to these issues.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2020
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