Critical Digital Learning Scholarship and Higher Ed Insiders

Advantages and challenges.

October 2, 2019

Should we be concerned that some of the most trenchant analysis of trends around digital learning is coming from outside academia?

Today, if you want to make sense of what happens at the borderlands between the territory of nonprofit universities and for-profit companies, you will likely want to listen to analysis originating from outside higher ed. Our list of just some of the most important voices in the world of digital learning would include Bryan Alexander, Kelvin Bentley, Malcolm Brown, Jill Buban, Kevin Carey, Casey GreenMichael Feldstein, Michael Horn, Whitney Kilgore, Howard Lurie, Allison Dulin Salisbury, Jeff Selingo, Peter Stokes, Trace Urdan, Audrey Watters and Michelle Weise -- among many others that we will regret not mentioning.

This list includes thought leaders from a wide range of employment categories (consultants, associations, foundations, think tanks, etc.) and ideological perspectives.

What all of these individuals have in common is that their primary employer is not a college or a university, at least as far as we know.

This is not to say that there isn’t a long list of digital learning thinkers inside higher ed. There are many. Still, we often marvel at those who are able to sit outside higher ed and provide trenchant analysis of what is going on at colleges and universities across the country and the world.

Why might a perch from outside higher ed be a good place to think and write critically about issues relating to postsecondary digital learning?

We’d like to think that careers working inside the machinery of higher ed should provide some advantages for critical thinking about digital learning. An inconvenient truth, however, is that insider status can obstruct as much as it enables critical scholarship.

The most obvious challenge may simply be economic. Upton Sinclair said it best: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” It’s difficult to be critical of the source of one’s living.

A second challenge that anyone inside higher education faces in writing critically about digital learning stems from the partnerships they develop on campus in order to do good work together. Much of this work depends on trust, goodwill and an openness to being vulnerable on both sides. If that work is then seen as fodder for critical engagement, digital learning professionals can lose that trust that is so important to the work.

A third challenge stems from the relationships that develop between colleges and for-profit companies. These relationships occur in both an evaluation/management role, as well as providing consulting and advice related to ed-tech vendors to campus colleagues. Writing critically about companies in industries that institutions have agreements with or are evaluating for a potential partnership, such as LMS or OPM providers, can be tricky.

We believe, of course, that working inside higher ed does come with some advantages. Ours is a field that lends itself to a scholar/practitioner model.

For us, the issues related to the role that digital learning is playing in how colleges and universities are changing is not abstract. We are immersed in the complexities, nuances and gray areas of the changing realities of higher education -- and the role that digital learning is playing in driving change.

For many inside higher ed, there is a belief in the value and importance of higher ed. To be critical is often about trying to make it better without succumbing to narratives of disruption and doom.

We approach our thinking about digital learning from the belief that colleges and universities play an essential and irreplaceable role in our culture, our economy and our communities. We tend to believe that nonprofit institutions of higher education are uniquely suited to act as engines of opportunity and creators of knowledge.

The challenge that we face in writing about digital learning, and one that we hope to build more conversation around, is in leveraging our positions insider university while also recognizing our potential limitations and blind spots. To do so, we think it’s crucial to be in constant dialogue with the scholars both in and outside higher ed.

Can you articulate the advantages that you enjoy, and the challenges that you must navigate, in thinking and writing critically about digital learning from the perspective of a higher ed insider or outsider?

What ideas do you have that may enable those working for colleges and universities to create critical scholarship around digital learning?

Do you buy our idea that those working in non-tenure-track roles related to digital learning leadership are well situated to adopt a scholar/practitioner orientation?

Inside Higher Ed's Inside Digital Learning

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