Strategic institutional investments in learning can be tricky to spot.
Figuring out how colleges and universities are investing in learning, and learning innovation, is not as simple making sense of other types of investments.
When a new library, student or athletic center, or classroom / lab complex is built the investment is clear. Buildings come with a price tag. We can watch them go up, and take the measure of their ambition. Today, investing in learning seldom means breaking ground for new classrooms.
Making sense of if / how a school is putting learning at the core of its strategic priorities is a difficult task. Every college and every university will say (and really believe) that learning is at the heart of what they do. Every president, provost, and dean will wax eloquent (and convincingly) about why their particular school is making learning innovation a top priority - and will be able to point to numerous examples of the wonderful outcomes of these investments in learning.
There must be, however, some way to differentiate when it comes to strategic institutional investments in learning. There must be some way to gain clarity on which schools are doing the big and important work to truly put learning at the center of their activities - and are doing so at greater levels (and with more success) than their peer institutions.
Higher ed is a competitive business, and it is important to understand what the “new normal” is in investments in learning. No school wants to be left behind their peers, and no institution wants their position placed on any rankings.
If learning is the new differentiator (which I think is the case), then what are the institutional investments that promote learning?
Are the best measures for strategic institutional investments in learning around faculty hiring? The proportion of courses (and students) taught by full-time tenure track faculty as opposed to contingent faculty? Should we be looking to the commitment to educators in terms of security, compensation, a reasonable teaching load, and autonomy?
Perhaps we should be looking to the language of university leaders. Are presidents and provosts talking about learning innovation? To what degree does our emerging understanding of how the brain learn make it into the decisions of postsecondary leaders as to their priorities?
Or should we look at rankings? Is the U.S. News & World Report’s rankings where we should turn to spot strategic investments in learning? These rankings are derived from surveys of presidents, provosts, and admissions deans who are asked to nominate up to 10 schools that they believe "are committed to teaching undergraduate students in a high-quality manner.” But how should these presidents, provosts, and deans judge if a school is putting great emphasis on learning and learning innovation?
If we can’t easily tell that a school is make a big play to move up the rankings when it comes to teaching and learning (no building to watch going up), then what signscan we look for that signal institutional investments in learning?
1 - Growth and Action in the Teaching and Learning Center:
There is something going on the the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) world. It is difficult (at least for me) to get clarity on exactly what is happening, because I have not seen anything published that aggregates CTL organizational changes.
From lots of conversations with various CTL colleagues, here is what I’ve been able to gather:
- CTL’s are taking on new and expanded strategic priorities. At my school, our CTL (DCAL) has brought both digital and experiential learning into our portfolios. We are also building up our assessment and evaluation capabilities, while keeping a strong focus on future faculty and the traditional programming / consultation work done by a CTL.
- CTL’s are changing their organizational structure. I see traditional units of academic computing, media education, and teaching and learning organizations merging into new centers and groups. Instructional designers, educational developers, and project managers are coming into newly constituted CTL groups.
- CTL leadership are being invited to more strategic conversations on campues. CTL leaders are collaborating with other campus leaders on long-term strategic projects, as the profile of teaching and learning innovation continues to be raised.
Do you know of any methods to get a macro handle on trends in CTL growth, change, and re-organization?
2 - Lots of Instructional Designers Are Being Hired:
Is your school searching for an instructional designer (ID)? How many ID’s has your school hired over the last two years? Are ID’s being hired into your academic computing unit, your CTL, or at the graduate and professional schools on your campus?
If your school is anything like my school than you have hired lots of instructional designers.
Instructional designers are the educators that partner with faculty to develop blended, low-residency, and online courses and programs. Instructional designers are trained in the science of learning. Instructional designers work with faculty, and other non-faculty educators (librarians, media specialists, assessment experts, etc.), on all aspects of course design and development.
Sometimes instructional designers leverage technology in order to help faculty meet their teaching goals. Sometimes the solution is not found in technology, but in new methods or structures in course design and assessment.
We don’t have any national data (that I know about) for trends on institutional ID hiring. There is no single place that we can go and look to see how many ID’s an individual school has hired. We can’t tell how much of existing technology budgets have been shifted over from administrative to academic computing. It is hard for us to make sense of how schools have shifted IT spending away from administrative operations, and towards teaching and learning.
Do you know of any way that we can track changes (at the institutional level) in non-faculty educator hiring?
3 - New Low-Residency and Online Programs Are Being Started:
Online learning programs are faculty development initiatives in disguise.
The most powerful method to catalyze innovation in campus residential learning is to start a new online program.
The big story that higher ed pundits keep missing is the impact of online teaching on residential learning. Discussions of online learning programs - be they traditional online programs or open online programs - almost never touch on their impact on campus capacities or culture.
Why is the introduction of online programs so consequential for driving residential learning innovation? How can it be that the introduction of new online programs are a definite sign that learning innovation is being prioritized on campus?
Online learning programs do a few things. First, they bring to campus a critical mass of non-faculty educators (especially instructional designers) who are necessary in launching an online program. This is why I’m so skeptical of sourcing instructional design for online program to an online enabler (such as Pearson or 2U etc.), as instructional design should be core competency.
The beauty is that instructional designers, once on campus, tend to work on courses beyond online courses. Even better, the same faculty who teach online courses will often (usually?) teach residential courses.
The same methodology that is used to create an effective online course (backwards course design, formative assessment, project based learning, rich interaction) applies to residential courses. Sound instructional design practices are independent of the mode of delivery.
Online courses are great opportunities for faculty to re-think their established teaching methodologies. Faculty often do not have a long history of teaching online, and are willing to alter their practices based on the research on learning. Faculty then bring these new methods and techniques back to their residential courses.
Faculty will often start to ask for the type of collaborations (with instructional designers and media educators etc.) that they enjoy in their online courses in their residential courses. Developing a course with a team of educators is more effective, and more fun, than developing a course alone.
Is there a data set that pulls together which schools have, and are starting, low-residency and online programs?
Is looking for blended, low-residency and online learning programs as signs of strategic investments in learning unfair to those schools that do no online learning?
Is it a mistake to equate the presence of online learning programs with a campus culture of learning innovation, given that online programs are used primarily as revenue generators (and not for organizational development) at some schools?
What signals and signs do you look for in colleges and universities that learning innovation is a true strategic priority?
Where might we find other signals of institutions making strategic investments in learning?
Is it even reasonable to try to understand strategic investments in learning across the postsecondary sector? Can we compare small private liberal arts schools to big state research institutions to community colleges? Do differences in funding, enrollment, student profile, and mission make it impossible to compare and contrast investments in learning across institutions?
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