Arguments for a New Field of Learning Innovation

Continuing the conversation we started last week, we offer a response to Anthony Piña.

February 27, 2019
 

In a response to our post from last week, “Learning Innovation: Ph.D. or Ed.D.?Anthony Piña, associate provost for instruction and online learning at Sullivan University, asks the following:

I would be interested to know why learning innovation would not be a specialization/concentration within the existing broad field of educational technology and learning sciences. These programs (with their seemingly infinite number of program title combinations of learning, educational, instructional, systems, design, technology, sciences, etc.) are already interdisciplinary in nature. It seems that learning innovation could fit easily within the existing field. If there is something that makes learning innovation significantly different, I would be eager to learn about it.

The questions that Piña (Tony) is asking about a new interdisciplinary field of learning innovation are good ones and exactly the ones we’re interested in exploring, here and in our forthcoming book (due spring 2020 from Johns Hopkins University Press).

What, then, makes learning innovation different than existing fields?

Despite all the great work happening across higher ed, in schools of education, centers for teaching and learning, centers for academic innovation, the learning innovation conversation is often fragmented and ephemeral. The work of practitioners of learning innovation is largely divorced from the scholarship of learning innovation.

Schools are very good at spinning up pilots to innovate student learning, but there is little understanding of the impact of these pilots and the factors that enable these pilots to transition to scale outside of local school contexts. Colleges and universities are highly motivated to find ways to improve learning outcomes (including reducing attrition and time to graduation), while also tackling issues of costs and accessibility. But they have little in the way of systematic frameworks, methodologies or defined problems to guide their actions.

Institutional efforts to make nonincremental advances in student learning are often mediated through campus learning organizations. These include CTLs, academic computing units and online and distance education divisions. Those able to devote the majority of their time to research and teach about issues of higher education change -- the professors -- work mostly in academic departments or schools of education.

We think there is a disconnect between the practice and scholarship of learning innovation.

The result is that the most vibrant communities of practice and cross-institutional conversations around learning innovation often take place at professional conferences and on social media and not, perhaps, in the places Tony suggests.

These platforms are terrific for building networks and sharing best practices. They are not so good for sustained and critical examinations of beliefs, practices and outcomes.

For these and a whole host of other questions to be taken seriously, learning innovation must evolve from a professional practice to a scholarly pursuit of knowledge.

An academic field creates and disseminates knowledge, while also providing a framework to advance the field while training the next generation of practitioners and scholars. Frameworks beyond disruption theory, ones that are more accurately aligned to the mission and culture of higher education, must be developed and tested in order to guide decisions around learning innovation.

Those of us in the field are well aware that there is little agreement on solutions or approaches to the future of higher education. We also think that it is just as important that there is little agreement on the defining questions, concerns and approaches to begin asking the questions about higher education’s future.

We hope we can change that by continuing to shine a light on this field. This doesn’t mean that the many existing programs are unhelpful to this pursuit, but rather that they should serve as part of a larger whole.

What makes learning innovation different, then, is that it takes as its fundamental starting place the question of how colleges and universities change to advance student learning within -- and this is crucial -- the larger structure of the postsecondary ecosystem.

This is not (or not only) a field of how people learn. There are many excellent approaches to understanding this problem. It is also not a field designated to explore the role of technology in education. There are many good places to do this already, as Tony points out.

The scholar of learning innovation, however, must situate her analysis of organizational changes related to learning within the historical, cultural, demographic and economic forces that are buffeting colleges and universities.

What we are calling learning innovation needs to connect the literature and methods of higher education studies with those of learning science, with those of innovations in technology and with the changing understanding of learning analytics, design theories, equity, inclusion and many others.

The scholar of learning innovation needs to be fluent in the history, economics, policy issues and other areas related to how higher education is changing. This fluency in postsecondary studies, with the institution and the postsecondary ecosystem as the units of analysis, must be complemented with equal expertise in the scholarship of teaching and learning and the fields mentioned above.

The work of learning innovation is applied work. This work is carried out day in and day out at colleges and universities across the country. Each institution serves as an informal laboratory of learning innovation.

The organizations or departments in which this work happens straddle the division between academic and administrative units. The scholar/practitioners of learning innovation occupy the liminal space between faculty and staff. Knowledge of learning innovation advances through both practice and theorizing. The divide between scholarship and service is blurred.

It may go without saying that one of the great cold wars of higher education is the tension between faculty and administrators, with the latter often blamed for the high cost of higher ed.

We think it’s crucial to recognize this divide and to do our best to try to bridge it. Understanding learning innovation as a critical study of the full commitment of everyone in the higher education landscape -- faculty and administrators alike -- to educate our students is one approach we think might prove fruitful.

Identifying something like learning innovation, therefore, acknowledges that campus learning organizations and professionals can maintain their service portfolios while also taking on roles as creators of new knowledge and originators of courses, programs and degrees.

How many cases do we have of CTLs being places that provide programming and services while also conducting and publishing original scholarly research and launching new graduate programs?

Methods and theories related to learning design and analytics may be taught at universities that use these theories and techniques in their online programs -- and sometimes taught by the people who do this work -- but almost never is the “home” for these courses and programs a campus learning organization.

Learning innovation needs communities of scholarly practice who share a set of common research questions and theoretical frameworks and methods and a language of inquiry. It also needs to be recognized as a unit of economic production. It can only persist and grow through its ability to refresh and renew itself by training new entrants into the field.

If we can study learning innovation, we can teach learning innovation. The teaching and scholarship become symbiotic. They depend on each other. And each depends on the ongoing knowledge that is generated as theories and methods are applied to advance learning, through new programs and initiatives and partnerships, at our institutions.

If we are going to help define the future of higher education, we have to surface the work we all do on our own campuses and across the broader higher education ecosystem.

The practice and scholarship of learning innovation seem to be occurring everywhere. Learning innovations are featured discussions at every professional conference and convening. The challenge is that the learning innovation community exists within a larger set of associations and professional networks.

Those immersed in the practice and study of learning innovation must navigate a wide range of competing academic responsibilities and existing profession-based communities of practice to find and learn from one another.

Recognizing something like learning innovation as different from the work in schools of education Tony points to in his response would create a new space in which doing this work can establish a distinct academic professional identity.

This identity explicitly rejects calcified notions of academic versus professional, professor versus staff, independent scholar versus academic.

Within the context of a field of learning innovation, those doing/researching/teaching in areas of advancing student learning through organizational change can more easily identify and connect those with similar roles, challenges and concerns.

An academic field is defined not by the conclusions that it advocates, but by the questions that it asks.

But how would you answer Tony’s question? Do you think that those across the postsecondary ecosystem are asking questions related to learning innovation that are distinct enough from those being asked in established professions and disciplines to justify the beginning of something new?

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