Business Officers and Learning Innovators

Why maybe we should talk less about learning, and more about money.

July 30, 2017

I’d like to make a modest proposal.

What if for 2018 all of us involved in postsecondary learning innovation - edtech and CTL and library folks - spent the entire calendar year learning about the business of higher education?

Sorry - CTL stands for Centers for Teaching and Learning. I’d also like to be inclusive of all the non-faculty educators on our campuses who collaborate with faculty to advance learning. (With apologies to my academic librarian colleagues who have faculty rank - I’m often not sure where to include you in discussions of roles).

The impetus for this modest proposal came from reading The Rose-Colored Glasses Come Off: a Survey of Business Officers, published in IHE on 7/28.

Those of us who spend all of our time thinking about how college learning might be improved should be - I’m thinking - a bit freaked out by what chief business officers are thinking.

I highly recommend investing some time to read the piece - but a few quotes from the article jumped out at me:

"71 percent of chief business officers agreed with the statement that media reports saying higher education is in the midst of a financial crisis are accurate."

"Just 56 percent of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed that their institutions will be financially stable over the next five years, down from 64 percent a year ago. Less than half, 48 percent, agreed or strongly agreed their institutions will be financially stable over the next 10 years, down from 54 percent a year ago."

"Chief business officers largely think new spending will have to come from reallocating money instead of increasing net revenue. “

How should learning people respond to the financial challenges of higher education?

First, I think that we need to do a much better job of making the case that advancing learning aligns with the financial priorities of our institutions.

This involves finding ways to make direct connections with improvements in student learning to outcomes such as recruitment and retention.

The quality of the learning experience should be at the forefront in how colleges market to potential applicants. Large investments in learning should act as a powerful differentiator for prospective students (and their parents).

Have we done enough to get the story told of the non-incremental improvements in teaching and learning that are occurring on so many of our campuses?

There is a great deal of excitement across higher education about the application of the the learning science research to teaching. Many schools are engaged in exciting work around classroom design (flat, active-learning spaces), flipped courses and blended learning, and the integration of new technologies and methods to promote active and experiential learning.

The challenge is that learning people are not marketing people. 

We are often so focused on the work of collaborating with faculty to improve teaching and learning that we don’t put enough resources into sharing that story.

Secondly, I think that us learning people could do much more to push for new initiatives that both bring in new revenues - while simultaneously growing institutional capabilities.

I’ve always thought that it was a mistake to separate the development and running of online programs from the core instructional work of the institution. The development of small online or low-residency programs - both degree and non-degree - should be mechanisms to both bring in new dollars and increase a school’s core capacities.

The quality of residential teaching and learning will improve when resources and knowledge can be shared across face-to-face and online programs.

My sense is that at this point we have a good idea about how to advance learning in higher education.  We have more knowledge about the advantages of moving to active and experiential methods than we have resources to make these shifts.

What we need is a way to ground the advances that we champion in learning with business models that can support these investments.

It is not enough to argue that more institutional resources should be directed towards learning - as the demands for scarce dollars are increasing from every part of campus.  Instead, we must figure out how we can play a role in growing institutional resources.

This shift, I think, will require us to talk less about learning theory and new learning technologies, and more about money and finances.

So in 2018, I’m wondering if we should stop attending the traditional conferences and gatherings that CTL and edtech and library folks usually gather at - and instead go to the the conferences run by chief business officers?



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