Building a Learning Innovation Network

How scholars working at the intersection of learning science, technology, and institutional change connect and collaborate.

June 26, 2019

Recently, one of us had a conversation with a colleague about a new initiative she is hoping to start. One piece of this initiative will be building a new national network to encourage conversation, collaboration and engagement.

The work is exciting. The network needs to be strong.

How does one nurture a network into being? What makes a network viable? What defines the critical mass of an academic network? Can a network exist with two people? Three? Do you need dozens or hundreds or thousands of people to make a network meaningful?

This question is more than academic for us.

As we've discussed in this column, we see a new interdisciplinary field of learning innovation emerging.

Learning innovation, as conceptualized as an interdisciplinary field, attempts to claim a space at the intersection of design, technology, learning science and analytics -- all in the unique context of higher education. If we're correct, this new interdisciplinary field of learning innovation is poised to raise new questions, new research problems and new methodologies.

The viability of learning innovation as a field will depend heavily on the scholarly network that emerges around its core questions. A critical mass of scholars will need to take up the challenge of researching how the ideas of learning science get translated into the structures, incentives and operations of colleges and universities.

So how might this network be developed? And, maybe most importantly in this field, what kind of network will be most helpful?

Currently, this network exists in the collective happenings of any number of professional associations, such as POD, ELI, UPCEA, OLC, ASU GSV and SXSW Edu -- among many other conferences and events put on by professional associations.

One not-so-comfortable feature -- at least from a scholarly perspective -- of the current landscape of educational technology associations and convenings is the prominent place afforded to for-profit companies. In the domains where learning innovation is now discussed, corporate interests too often set the context for information exchange; companies underwrite (at least in part) the associations and convenings.

A professional community of practice differs from that of an interdisciplinary academic network. Professional communities of practice are connected through shared professional goals. Where best practices and shared experiences form the basis of membership in professional associations, academic networks are situated within marketplaces for ideas. Academic networks run on the generation of new ideas and scholarly exchange. These two network models are different.

We are not necessarily arguing that academic networks are in some way superior to professional networks (though our current roles in the academy might suggest a preference). What we are saying is that the two network types are different.

Still, even if one is not better than the other in some abstract sense, we do worry that the structures and norms and practices of professional networks dominate the field of learning innovation right now. There is too little space for an academic network of learning innovation scholars to develop, evolve and recreate itself. Unlike other disciplines, we don't (yet) have departments of learning innovation. There are no graduate students -- to our knowledge -- pursuing terminal degrees in the discipline of learning innovation.

How might an academic network of learning innovation researchers be developed outside (or alongside) of existing professional networks?

Assuming that academic networks require resources to develop and consolidate, where else might those resources emerge?

Will universities invest in underwriting a learning innovation network, particularly if the scholars in that network are critical of current university practices?

Are there other examples of academic networks that have coalesced out of professional communities of practices? The degrees and fields in professional schools come to mind.

If your job was to build an academic network of learning innovation scholars, where would you start?


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