Will Learning Science Drive Higher Ed Inequality?

Alternative futures.

January 8, 2017

Will learning science drive higher ed inequality?

Or can we imagine an alternative narrative - one where learning science serves to subvert the existing institutional status hierarchy?

Here is how the inequality story - the rich getting richer narrative - could go:

The wealthiest schools will invest significant resources in applying our growing understanding of learning to the practice of teaching. 

Well-endowed institutions will prioritize learning as a core institutional goal - and organize their institutions and direct their resources towards learning innovation.  

Resources will be directed towards faculty development, classroom redesign, and investments in non-faculty educators (librarians, instructional designers, media educators) to partner with professors on course design and teaching.  

In this scenario, colleges and universities who are already the most financially stable, (and have the strongest brand equity), build on their leads by investing in learning. 

They prioritize the hiring and retention of full-time faculty with secure contracts, shunning the idea that teaching can be commoditized by replacing tenured and tenure-track faculty with contingent professors.

When technology is invested in, it is done so with the understanding that educational technologies are best utilized as complements (not replacements) for well-supported educators.  

What other actions might those schools with the resources to make big, long-term investments around learning initiate? 

Wealthier and more economically institutions are in a good position to engage in educational R&D (research and development).  They can further differentiate their educational offerings by expanding the boundaries of what we know about how people learn - and then applying that knowledge directly into teaching and learning.  

Advances in learning science can be applied to faculty development, student support, and classroom redesign.  

These learning interventions and initiatives can then be evaluated and assessed, with the goal of continuously improving teaching and learning at the institution.

Is this the only future for learning science that we can imagine?  One of improved learning, but with the advantages concentrated on the already privileged?

We can also imagine a future where smart colleges and universities decide that a laser focus on learning science is the optimal route available to achieve their institutional strategic goals. 

Investing in learning science may be the most efficient path towards differentiation.  

A big commitment to organize teaching practices around the research on learning - and to invest (scarce) resources into aligning educational practices with learning science - just might offer disproportionately large benefits at tuition-dependent institutions.  

Should schools that are looking to attract a larger, more diverse, and higher-quality applicant pool invest in applying learning science to their operations? 

How much does the quality of learning drive institutional awareness, perceived quality, and overall brand - and hence translate into positive shifts in recruitment and retention?

The reasons to follow a learning science centric strategy are all about differentiation. 

Amenities such as student centers, athletic facilities, and fancy residence halls are organizationally easy but fiscally prohibitive.  The hardest part about building a fancy new building is finding the money.  

Alternatively, re-designing the core teaching practices to align with what we are learning about learning is organizationally difficult.  

It is hard to change existing practices, and particularly hard in higher education.  This difficulty, however, opens up space for differentiation.  

A skilled institutional leader, coupled with a shared sense of institutional mission, can create the conditions for non-incremental improvements in student learning.  These improvements will be difficult to replicate at other schools.

Which future do you see as more likely?  

Will learning science be yet another mechanism to concentrate advantage, or will the development of the science of learning end up catalyzing a re-ordering of the postsecondary status hierarchy?


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