Argument, Debate and Learning Innovation

The argument against consensus.

April 3, 2019

“Public investment in higher education is a poor use of state tax dollars.”

“Tuition-dependent private liberal arts colleges will inevitably follow the same path as video rental stores.”

“For-profit online program management companies provide positive value for institutions and students.”

Please debate.

No, really. We want to have these arguments.

Argument is essential for the development of new knowledge. Traditional academic disciplines are built around productive civil disagreement (and sometimes unproductive, uncivil arguing, to be sure).

What holds disciplines together is not a consensus around conclusions -- though this too can be valuable -- but rather a set of agreements related to the big questions that the discipline asks, the language and methods that those within the discipline utilize in their work, and a willingness to engage in civil debate.

Vibrant academic disciplines consist of ongoing debates. How should we read a novel? Why are some countries poor while others are wealthy?

Attend a traditional disciplinary academic conference -- or spend some time in an ideologically heterogeneous academic department -- and you will often encounter provocative ideas meant to push the field in new directions.

In contrast, gather a bunch of designers, technologists, faculty developers and faculty together, and the mood is often entirely harmonious.

Folks interested in learning are collectively an agreeable bunch.

We agree that active learning is better than passive knowledge transfer. We like backward course design and learning outcomes. Give us formative over summative assessment. In any conversation about teaching, we are likely to ask, “So what are your goals?” We believe in including the voices of students and of educating the whole person.

But do we debate enough? Do we argue enough with our colleagues at our institutions?

To be clear, we’re not talking about fighting, about being nasty, about being contrary for the sake of disagreeing.

This lack of academic argument may be a function of the roles of we play, as well as the types of people that the field tends to recruit.

The folks doing this work are likely to occupy campus roles that involve doing things to advance student learning. This “doing” may entail collaborating with a professor to design a course, designing and leading educator development workshops, and participating in the development and running of a course redesign initiative or a new online program.

The primary goal is often not to advance knowledge in a field -- although such advancements are always welcome -- but rather to advance learning at an institution or at even smaller levels with individual faculty in unique courses.

Learning professionals in these roles approach their interactions with their larger professional community in the same way that they approach interactions on campus with a commitment to listening, to supporting marginalized voices and to collegiality.

Would the overall goal of advancing learning be better served by less collegiality and more argument?

Much of what you see happening in this column is our attempt to provoke debate about learning innovation.

Our opening gambit is to argue for the creation of a new interdisciplinary field of learning innovation.

We think that the unpacking of the causes and consequences of organizational change to advance student learning deserves its own academic discipline.

We want to see centers for teaching and learning evolve toward hybrid service/academic units, where traditional educator developer and learning initiative responsibilities (service) are complemented by original scholarship, teaching and the conferral of degrees and alternative credentials.

We think that the advancement of student learning will require the development of a new set of theoretical frameworks to explain and predict how institutions align educational practices with learning science.

We believe that training the next generation of learning professionals in theories of organizational change and the history of higher education is as essential as training in the methods and theories of instructional design.

Where are we getting things wrong?

We also suspect that for student learning to advance at anything beyond the incremental, learning professionals will need to spend more time in communities outside of our peers. They will need to bring their knowledge, experience and expertise in learning and organizational change to the broader debates about the future of higher education.

This will require an ability and a commitment to engage in outreach and scholarship designed for a broader audience than their fellow learning professionals.

Conferences and journals and online communities of practice may be good places to develop and rehearse our ideas, but they should be thought of as launching pads and not destinations.

There is a big argument going on now about the future of higher education.

What role should the government be playing? What is the proper role of for-profit companies? Should our schools be built around our values or the market, and are these two forces incompatible? How might tuition-dependent private liberal arts create a measure of economic resilience? How quickly should our colleges and universities be changing?

These are all questions with many answers. How might learning professionals claim a seat at these debates?

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