Irrational Optimism and the Digital Learning Evangelist

3 questions.

April 23, 2018

Question 1:  Are you a digital learning evangelist?

Question 2:  How do we identify digital learning evangelists in the wild?

Question 3:  What qualities do you think are most important for success as a digital learning evangelist?

I’ll try to answer these questions.  As usual, I’m more interested in what you have to say.

To question 1, I think that this is my role.  I’m not sure, however, because it is not my title.  Nobody that I know in higher ed has “evangelist” written on their business cards.  What is on your business card?  

This brings me to question 2.  What does a digital learning evangelist actually do?

My sense is that the role involves advocating for new programs (degree and non-degree) and new practices (from traditional to experiential education) that utilize online, low-residency, and blended learning.

Digital learning evangelists work with others on campus to create new programs, courses, and learning opportunities that are delivered (at least in part) on digital platforms.

Digital learning evangelists are internally motivated to see new things created at their institutions.  They love the energy and and new ideas that comes with working on an internal startup.

The beauty of online learning programs is not only that they create opportunities to educate more students (do the flexibility that these programs provide), or even the fact that these programs can bring much needed new revenues back to their institutions.  Rather, the wonderful thing about online learning is that online (and low-residency and blended) education opens a window to try new things.

A quality online program requires a team approach.  Faculty work with learning designers and media educators to create their courses.  These non-faculty educators have been trained in the science of learning and the (research-based) practices of effective instructional design.  Professors learn a great deal about how students learn, and how to design effective teaching methods to meet the goals they have for student learning, while developing and teaching online courses.  Professors then bring back these skills, abilities, and orientations to their face-to-face residential teaching.

Digital learning evangelists are excited by the latest research in learning.  They are eager consumers - and often collaborative producers -of the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL).

The three favorite people of a digital learning evangelist are: the learner, the professor, and the instructional designer.

If the discussion on your campus to engage in building new online programs is only about new revenues, then you are having the wrong campus discussion.  The decision to invest in online learning should be all about how this practice aligns with institutional goals and values.  Online learning should be understood as a mechanism to advance learning across the campus.  The worst thing that an institution can do is silo the online learning programs away from the core residential teaching activities.  The two should inform and build off each other.

This all brings me to question 3 about the qualities of a digital learning evangelist.

Sure, anyone in this role should have experience in learning science, instructional design, and online education.  Having experience teaching both online and on-ground is probably important.  A faculty background and / or a terminal degree can be important, but just as important (perhaps more so) is experience at the intersection of learning, technology, and organizational leadership.

Of all the qualities of a digital learning evangelist, I’d say the most important one is a tendency towards irrational optimism.

Digital learning evangelists have to believe that their institutions will invest what it takes to align all their teaching with the research on learning.  They need to keep the faith that the contributions of all educators, including adjunct, part-time, and non-faculty educators, will be recognized (and fairly compensated).

Digital learning evangelists must fight against external pressures for efficiency, most often seen in the persistent (and totally unwarranted) idea that technology can be used to lower the costs of education.  The effective digital learning evangelist is tireless in making the case that authentic learning requires a relationship between an educator and a student, and the role of technology is to assist rather than replace.

Mostly, digital learning evangelists need to be able to take the hits of failures - failures to build new high quality online, low-residency, and blended programs - and to keep on going.

The economics, demographics, and politics of higher education are all challenging.  We are living in an age of both public disinvestment and middle-class wage stagnation.  There is huge competition across the postsecondary sector for a seemingly fixed number of undergraduate, professional, and graduate students.  We may have identified the cost disease in higher education, but we are no closer to finding a cure.

Not to mention that colleges and universities are, mostly, designed to be risk adverse.  This is largely a good thing, as our time horizons stretch into decades (or even centuries).  The challenge is that new digital learning programs all carry some appetite for risk, as well as additional resources (dollars and people), two attributes that are scarce on most campuses.

In the face of all these challenges, the digital learning evangelist will keep pushing for change.  They will advocate for the investment in new blended, low-residency, and online programs.  They will fight for the autonomy, status, security, and compensation of faculty.  They will do whatever they can to bring more instructional designers to campus, and then to give them the tools to collaborate with their faculty colleagues to improve student learning.  They will work to discover opportunities where a new low-residency or online program makes sense, and then work to figure out how to get the financial and people resources to launch and support these programs.

Okay, how would you answer these 3 questions:

Question 1:  Are you a digital learning evangelist?

Question 2:  How do we identify digital learning evangelists in the wild?

Question 3:  What qualities do you think are most important for success as a digital learning evangelist?


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