The Golden Age of Teaching and Learning Hypothesis

The scholarship of learning innovation.

October 23, 2019

If you listen to one podcast episode this month, then that podcast should be an interview by Jeff Young of EdSurge with Duke’s associate vice provost for digital education and innovation, Matthew Rascoff. The EdSurge podcast from Oct. 15, 2019, is titled, “A 'Golden Age' of Teaching and Learning at Colleges?

Full disclosure, both Jeff and Matthew are friends of ours -- and Matthew is a close colleague in our still small (but perhaps expanding) network of learning innovation scholar/practitioners.

Why take 30 minutes that you likely don’t have to listen to this podcast? Two reasons.

First, this conversation between Young and Rascoff provides our community with an accessible yet detailed overview of the argument that higher education is in the midst of a profound, and yet hardly recognized, renaissance in teaching and learning.

Rascoff, who is always hyperarticulate, manages over the course of a 30-minute interview to make a persuasive case that we are living through a postsecondary education inflection point. While highlighting the many challenges of access and affordability that the higher education ecosystem faces, Rascoff is convincing in his argument that the structures that govern how teaching and learning are constructed on campuses are experiencing a rapid (and positive) evolutionary leap.

Having recently finished a book that makes a similar argument that we are experiencing a golden age in teaching and learning, Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, Feb. 11, 2020), we are of course already convinced by this line of reasoning. Which brings us to the second reason why you should invest some time listening to the podcast.

Is Rascoff -- and are we -- right? Are we in the midst of a higher education teaching and learning golden age? And if so, or if not, how would we know?

This question, to us, seems to constitute a bit of anachronistic thinking and a rich line of scholarly inquiry. The hypothesis that higher education is in the midst of a teaching and learning renaissance may or may not be answerable for many years to come, when we look back on this time with a sense of satisfaction or disappointment.

But even though the historical question may not be something we can be definitive about right now, developing the tools to understand what is happening and its potential impact is something we can explore today. The question is, how can we best do this?

As evidence for his claims, Rascoff sites the growing connection between the research on how people learn and the practices of how educators teach. He notes in the podcast that academic leaders have begun to prioritize the translation of learning science findings to the design of instruction. He cites examples, such as a research project by Duke professor Karen Murphy called Nudge, that leverages the early learning science finding of the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve to develop an application designed to enhance student retention. What is different today in higher education, explains Rascoff, is that colleges and universities are now investing in campus organizations (such as Duke’s Learning Innovation) whose mission includes educational R&D.

There is no doubt that the work Rascoff describes at Duke -- and at the University of Michigan’s new Center for Academic Innovation -- is extremely exciting. If you spend time at almost any college or university, you will find examples of new institutionwide initiatives and newly organized, merged or reconstituted organizations whose mandate is to drive campuswide learning innovation.

What is less clear is what all this interest in learning innovation will add up to. We need to begin to ask if institutionwide investments in teaching and learning are really systemic to higher education, as opposed to confined to a few high-profile examples like Duke and Michigan. And we need to study the causes of these institutional investments and the outcomes of these organizational changes and new allocations of resources.

After all, a golden age in teaching and learning will not be very golden if it does not change how we do the business of higher education. Unpacking these improvements at schools like Duke or Michigan (or Georgetown or Dartmouth, for that matter) will be challenging.

Can we couple institution-led learning innovation with quantitative measures of student success? Is that even the best way to think about the process and activity of learning (one of us is a humanist, in case that wasn’t obvious)?

Will data-centric approaches to learning take higher education further down the road of the disastrous results of the No Child Left Behind ideology and policies that were inflicted on the K-12 system?

It’s also the case that all of these schools are also already outliers such measures as retention and graduation rates. (For example, Duke’s six-year graduation rate is over 95 percent). Will schools that adopt a focus on learning innovation be able to see meaningful increases in student academic success outcomes? What would those look like? How might we quantify if an institution is making significant investments in learning innovation?

Are there other, better ways of thinking about learning innovation that honor the investment without using the language of outcomes (did we mention that one of us is a humanist and thinks there are better ways of thinking about impact and change that are not always or necessarily data driven)? If so, how should colleges and universities decide that learning innovation is worthy of strategic focus?

It may be worth noting that the work of learning innovation is deeply intertwined with the growing importance of online education at many colleges and universities. Sustained efforts to systematically integrate the research on learning into teaching practices have originated largely in campus online learning programs and units, as professors were paired with instructional designers in the course-design process. Indeed, the astounding growth of online education over the past decade has served as the most important -- and least recognized -- method of faculty development ever devised. It’s arguable that online education has improved residential teaching at a broader and deeper scale than would ever be possible with even the most robust set of faculty workshops, institutes and training sessions.

What all this movement in campus learning innovation adds up to is a gap between action and understanding. Scholars of higher education have not had the time, access or perhaps even the necessary awareness to study these trends.

Campus schools and departments of education are largely disconnected from the day-to-day work of institution-led learning innovation. The deliberate pace of peer-reviewed research on the causes and consequences of institution-led learning innovation is mismatched to the speed at which schools have rolled out these initiatives.

When Rascoff and others (such as the two of us) argue that we are living through a golden age of higher education teaching and learning, it’s worth exploring how we unpack and interrogate these claims, or we run the risk of becoming cheerleaders for action without impact (or worse, trolls who rant on the failures of learning innovation in higher education in the comment sections of blogs).

Are you seeing a golden age of teaching and learning on your campus?

And, if so, how would you know?

Inside Higher Ed's Inside Digital Learning

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