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Higher education careers in digital learning are seldom linear. Leaders in digital learning come from a mix of traditional and nontraditional academic backgrounds and disciplines.

We’re often asked how important having a Ph.D. is for a career in digital learning. Should an instructional designer with a master’s degree in the profession be looking to enroll in a Ph.D. program? If going on for a Ph.D., should that program be in a traditional academic discipline or in a program that specializes in higher education leadership?

The answer always depends on the individual asking, but anyone who claims that there is a single route to a career in digital learning has not spent much time with leaders in the profession. A strength of the field is the range of diverse perspectives and training that practitioners bring to the work.

Whatever one’s educational background, and independent of the decision to study for a Ph.D., there are a number of areas that everyone working in digital learning should know. These are subjects that neither of us learned anything about in our own traditional Ph.D. programs, but they have proven vital navigating our careers in higher education digital learning.

No. 1: Learning Science and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL)

This area encompasses a broad set of theoretical frameworks and practical research-based methods related to teaching and learning. Leaders in digital learning must be conversant with the theoretical foundations and methodological practices of instructional design and educator development.

While it is impossible to develop expertise in all areas of learning science and SoTL, it is important to be conversant in the major themes and developments in these areas. Increasingly, competency in learning analytics, design thinking and media creation is valued in digital learning roles.

The key here is to discover, and then immerse oneself, in both the research and the communities of practice related to digital learning. Historically, the fields of instructional design and educational development have been somewhat separate. Today, these professional areas of focus are coming together.

This trend is driven by organizational changes within universities, as centers for teaching and learning (CTLs) take on more digital learning responsibilities. The growth of online and blended learning, even at traditional residential institutions, will accelerate the need for expertise in design, analytics and media.

No. 2: The Role of Technology

Understanding digital learning goes well beyond understanding how the latest course management system works, though it helps to know that, too. It goes beyond understanding how networks work or what cloud computing means, though it helps to know those things, too.

One of the most important things about understanding digital learning is having a deep sense of the history and theory of technology, both in and outside education.

In many respects, technology and education go hand in hand. From the printing press to the ebook, technologies have long played an important role in the university. But many of the technologies higher education adopts are not initially intended for use in colleges and universities. This means the digital learning innovator needs to understand technologies past and present in ways that help inform future decisions.

Knowing the relationship between what it means to be human and technology can be crucial elements to understanding the good, bad and ugly of technology in teaching and learning.

No. 3: The Structure, Economics and History of Higher Education

Understanding the context in which teaching and learning occurs is as important as developing expertise in instructional design and analytics. Achieving any leadership role in digital learning will require one to develop a deep understanding of how the university as an organization works and how individual institutions fit into the larger ecosystem of higher education.

The reason is that every digital learning leader will increasingly be called upon to navigate scarcity, as well as competing institutional demands, in creating and running educational programs. Digital learning leaders work within a context of challenging demographic, economic and political forces. Higher education costs continue to rise as the availability of students and public funding continues to decline.

Anyone working in a leadership role will need to compete in a marketplace of ideas and a scarce local attention economy in initiating new digital learning programs and initiatives. Understanding the perspectives, motivators and constraints of colleagues around the university will be a prerequisite in advancing proposals related to digital learning.

No. 4: Leading Change

The final area of knowledge we highlight for tomorrow’s leaders in digital learning is the ability to lead change. Leadership in higher education is not dependent on title. Leadership is not the exclusive purview of deans, directors and chief information officers. Instead, leadership in digital learning comes from wherever one is within the university. Change leadership is as local as a faculty member that a digital learning professional partners with or a program or school in which a new initiative is being developed.

Nor does the ability to lead change within a university depend on the number of direct reports that one manages or the budget that one controls. Leading change starts with the development and cultivation of skills in personal leadership, including self-awareness, humility and a commitment to diversity and inclusion. Just as important will be the development of a robust set of professional networks with peers and those further along in their digital learning careers.

All four of these domains of knowledge should be pursued independently of the decision to pursue a Ph.D.

For those in traditional Ph.D. programs, it will likely be necessary to step outside of the established course-work sequence and departmental expectations to develop these areas of expertise. A terminal degree can give a nontraditional academic a leg up in starting a career in digital learning. This advantage, however, is diminishing as the requirements of leading digital learning organizations continue to both grow and diverge from traditional academic training.

Those who are looking to build a career in digital learning and who do not wish to pursue a Ph.D. will need to find opportunities to develop and display competencies in all of these areas. Lacking the credential of a Ph.D. need not be limiting in developing a leadership career in digital learning. Forgoing this educational path, however, will likely require aspiring digital learning leaders to demonstrate in other ways that they have developed mastery in the areas that we have outlined.

What domains of knowledge have you found to be critical in your journey as a digital learning leader?

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