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We argue in Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education that the history and the future of higher education can be understood as moving along a path toward convergence between innovations in learning science, learning design, educational technologies and organizational development.

Building on the arguments in our book, we’d like to take some space to think more deeply about the role of learning science in influencing change in higher education. Where does learning science enter the investigation of how, over the long run, colleges and universities adapt and change?

Some Possible Considerations

Any theory that puts learning science at the center of the story of higher education change must be careful to avoid envisioning some end point. There will always be advances in our understanding of how people learn. Indeed, the understanding of how people learn will continuously run well ahead of the ability of colleges and universities to evolve their organizations to align with learning research.

One possible approach would be to consider whether the arc of higher education bends toward learning science. Over time, albeit unevenly and with high variation, this process would explain and predict the improvement of higher education from the perspective of student learning.

In this case, what might be possible is the positing of a theory that connects two previously separate domains of inquiry, learning science and organizational change, into a single coherent framework that serves to provide a lens on higher education and its past, present and future.

Why might this matter?

Why should it be the case that changes in the structure and priorities of individual colleges and universities should be responsive to the findings of research on learning? Isn’t it the case that the development of the system of higher education is the result of long-run historical processes and large-scale economic, demographic and policy forces? And that the findings of research on learning have very little role in this long-running story of higher education?

Might learning scientists and researchers within the scholarship of teaching and learning be surprised to find out that their research is the critical guiding force in shaping the history and the future of the institutions and the industry in which they work?

Placed against decades (often centuries) of tradition and history, interacting with major trends such as public disinvestment and the postsecondary cost disease, are not the theoretical frameworks and empirical findings of learning science inconsequential in shaping the tide of higher education?

Particularly now, in the midst of a global pandemic that is upending every plan and operation of every college and university, how could a theory of higher education change centered around something as (well) academic as learning science be valuable?

Part of the answer to all of these questions comes down to what we both have observed over the course of our own careers in higher education. The learning experience that students participate in today is, we believe, superior by and large to what we both experienced as undergraduates in the late 1980s. We realize that this is an assertion with which many will disagree, and we think that research needs to be done to test this claim. But we can’t deny what we see in front of us, and that reality that we observe is the diffusion of student-centered learning, inclusive pedagogy and a host of additional effective pedagogical practices. What we hope to do is unpack this change, understand its origins and then say something meaningful about future directions. Placing learning science at the center of our explanatory framework seems like a good place to begin.

One concern might be that research on learning and teaching practices are not only diametrically linked, but causally bound, can point to all manner of educational practices across higher education that violate some fundamental principle of learning science. Large lecture classes (at least pre-COVID-19) continue to dominate much of the educational landscape. Experiential learning opportunities remained absent, or present only at the margin, across wide swaths of academia. Seat time, not competency, summative rather than formative assessment and passive rather than active learning still exists in most corners of postsecondary education.

There certainly is a gap between what we are learning about how people learn and how teaching and learning is now done. There is a long way to go. But all one needs to do to find the impact of learning science on the teaching practices of instructors, and the organizational structures and priorities of colleges and universities, is to look for it.

For many years now, the world of online education has been populated by students of the research on learning. To the extent that faculty (experts in their subjects) are paired with learning designers (experts in learning) in the development of online courses, the science of learning has been infused in educational practices. The last few years have brought about a diffusion of learning expertise out of online learning units and centers for teaching and learning and into the core practices and high-profile new programs across our higher education ecosystem. We term this shift a turn to learning.

What may be needed now is more thinking about the relationship between how colleges and universities are structured and the research on how people learn. Particularly during this pandemic and moment of intense social and political unrest, when questions of how teaching and learning are to continue amid challenges we are facing, the core ideas of learning science need to be discussed in the context of our institutional planning activities.

What actions should colleges and universities be taking at the institutional level to make learning science-informed decisions to support effective teaching and learning practices? Where did colleges and universities deviate from what we know from the research on learning during the rapid transition to remote courses, and how can we shift to more scientifically informed practices in the fall?

We wonder if this exploration, one that attempts to connect the macroprocesses of institutional and systemwide change with the microprocesses of student learning, fits in with the present moment in higher education?

Perhaps the questions we should be asking are about how investments in learning science might offer guidance to colleges and universities during this present moment of global uncertainty and the search for racial justice. Learning science is clear that good pedagogy is inclusive pedagogy. Any attempt to understand how colleges and universities should be responsive to this moment in our history can only be made better by an understanding of how learning works.

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