8 Questions and Answers on a New Academic Discipline to Study Learning Innovation

Does any of this make any sense?

April 30, 2018

These questions and answers build on my earlier piece that argued that Learning Innovation Is Evolving Into an Academic Discipline.  

Question 1: What is the big problem or question that this new academic discipline that you keep talking about would address?

Answer: We want to study how colleges and universities are using the advancement of student learning as a strategy to build long-term institutional resilience, relevance, and impact.  We are interested in what the changes in how schools approach learning mean to the larger postsecondary sector, and to the people and communities served by our institutions.  We want this scholarship to be useful to those who are working in higher education to improve learning, increase access, and lower costs.

Question 2: Why do you want to study this?

Answer:  A few of us at different institutions have been living through a series of big changes in recent years.  These changes are all about how learning is changing on campus - and they touch on everything from the alignment of teaching practices to research on learning, to the growth of blended, low-residency, online, and open learning.  We have observed the linkages between changes in how students learn, and how schools develop their priorities and structures and cultures.  We want to understand why learning is changing in higher education.

Question 3: What is your unit of analysis?

Answer: The unit of analysis is the organization, be it individual colleges and universities, or divisions / schools within institutions.  We want to understand how changes at individual schools will change the structure of the larger postsecondary industry.  The concern is largely around organizational and system-wide change.  The goal is to understand why and how change happens when it comes to learning in higher education, how to best manage and lead change, and what the future of learning in higher education may look like.

Question 4: Why do you think that studying in how learning is changing in higher education needs a new discipline?

Answer:  First, we think that answering the questions that we want to answer will require that we bring a number of different disciplinary traditions together.  So maybe this should be thought of as an interdisciplinary effort.  From what we know (and we could be wrong), it seems as if other scholars have looked at learning and higher education change from a different starting place than we are proposing.  We need to bring in learning science, but we are not proposing to add to the scholarship of effective pedagogical methods.  We want to investigate organizational change within higher education, but to do so through the lens of learning.   We are interested in what motivates postsecondary organizations to change what they are doing around student learning, but we don’t believe that existing theoretical frameworks on the causes and consequence of innovation apply very well to the reality of our colleges and universities.  The goal is not to exclude any scholars of higher education and learning, but to bring them together to make sense of how and why things have changed, and what the future of college and universities may look like.

Question 5: Why do you think that “innovation” should be in the name of the discipline?

Answer: Truthfully, we don’t know what to call this discipline that we think that we want to grow.  We are still struggling with if we are really asking a different set of questions than scholars have been conducting research on for many years.  We use “innovation” to signal what we see as non-incremental and non-continuous (read big) changes in how learning is occurring across the higher education sector.  If anyone has a better name for this academic discipline - even if you think it is a terrible idea to create a new academic discipline around these questions - we would love to hear your suggestions.

Question 6: What exactly do you mean by learning?  There are lots of places where higher education is changing.  Do you plan to study those as well?

Answer: We take a broad view of learning.  We want to connect the research on learning science to how institutions create and structure the student learning experience.  Learning occurs in both curricular and non-curricular settings.  Within and outside of the classroom (physical, digital, or blended).  In courses that provide traditional credits that aggregate up to a degree, and in non-credit and non-degree settings.  Our concern is more with the traditional aspects of learning, and in particular those where a professor is engaged in teaching. Issues of access, costs, and quality are at the center of the questions we hope to ask.  Different scholars will focus on different aspects of this triangle.

Question 7:  Who is the “we” that you are talking about in this new academic discipline talk?

Answer:  The core for this (nascent, speculative, and tentative) idea has emerged through conversations, debates, and arguments with a few academics working in areas of digital learning and centers for teaching and learning.  This group first coalesced through membership in the EdX open online learning consortium, but has morphed into a loose band of digital learning / academic innovation misfits who gather outside of the traditional postsecondary professional association industrial complex.  The number of people who think that any of this new academic discipline stuff is a good idea can be counted - for now - on the fingers of one hand.

Question 8: What do you actually want to do when you want to form a new academic discipline?

Answer: We want to move the study of how learning is changing in higher education, and how changes in learning are catalyzing larger changes at the institutional and the ecosystem level, on to a firmer footing.  Right now, the conversations around learning innovation from an institutional lens are mostly occurring (as far as we know) at conferences and in social media.  Many of the people asking these questions (like us) are doing so at the margins of their academic day jobs.  They don’t have the time to do this scholarship, or the critical mass of scholars to do it with.  We are not doing enough to train graduate students in either studying the relationship between learning and organizational change, or to lead these efforts once they enter academia.

What else should we be asking?

Where are the answers to the questions that have been asked misguided?  What makes sense to you?

How would you answer these questions differently?

What questions do you have about this proposed new academic discipline that you would want to see answered?

What do you make of this idea that we need a new academic discipline?

And if you think that there is something to all this (and even if you don't), what would you call this new academic discipline?


Back to Top