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I was born in 1969. As a fetus, I attended Woodstock. A few days ago, I turned 50. This seems like a good time to do some reflecting.

At some point, all of us pass through the three career stages -- or early, middle and late. I am just entering the third phase of my academic career, and this transition has gotten me thinking.

What is it that I wish I knew when I was starting down my nontraditional academic career path?

What are the big career questions that are on my mind as I look ahead to years to come?

Thought No. 1: They Don’t Teach Us How to Do This Work in Grad School

If I could go back to the beginning of my academic career, would I do anything differently? Would I have chosen a more traditional academic career path in my discipline (sociology/demography), with a focus on finding tenure-track jobs and achieving academic promotion?

Truthfully, this is a question that I constantly struggle with.

There are a great many things that are attractive about the life of a traditional academic. I love to teach. I also have an active research portfolio, and finding the time to engage in scholarship alongside my existing nonfaculty role is a challenge.

The principles and protections on which academic freedom and tenure are built are hugely appealing, particularly from the outside looking in.

Graduate school -- at least as I experienced it in a traditional academic discipline -- is all about replicating the next generation of professors.

Very little of traditional Ph.D. programs trains aspiring academics to do what they will do most -- that is, to teach. Instead, a great deal of time in grad school is spent on socializing grad students into culture and methods of knowledge creation in the discipline.

There is no course work in graduate school on heading up a university’s digital learning initiatives.

If you pursue an alternative academic career in digital learning (or any other alt-ac field), you will mostly be making things up as you go.

Thought No. 2: The Digital Learning Community Is Really Small

Now that I’ve talked about how challenging it is to navigate alternative-academic careers in digital learning (and other alt-ac areas), I do have some good news: you don’t have to take this journey alone.

As I’ve progressed in my nontraditional academic career, the importance of cross-institutional peer networks has grown in each passing year. Simply put, the work of learning innovation and digital learning (and other alt-ac paths) can’t be done solo.

To figure out how to best go about the work of learning innovation and digital learning, however, it is necessary to look beyond one’s own campus. There are many more good ideas outside our organizations than within. If we look at the experiences of our peers at other schools, we will understand what investments and structures and policies work -- and which do not.

The further you go into a digital learning career, the more you will run into the same people again and again. Ours is a small world. How well you are able to apply what you learn from your peers at other institutions to the work you do at your school will largely determine your level of impact.

The challenge is finding the right balance between investing time and energy in advancing your institution and investing time and energy in your professional/scholarly network. Ideally, the work of digital learning and learning innovation, both on and off campus, should be complementary -- each contributing to the success of the other. In practice, this is a difficult balance to get right.

What I have found over the years is that the existing professional organizations no longer quite match the work that I do on campus. My research partner Eddie Maloney and I are in the middle of what we envision as a multiyear process of putting the practice of learning innovation on a more scholarly foundation. And we are looking to gather with, and learn from, others who are attempting to integrate the practice and the study of learning innovation into a synthetic whole.

Thought No. 3: This May Be the Most Exciting Time Imaginable to Work in Digital Learning

Eddie and I have this idea -- a hypothesis -- that higher education is in the middle of a renaissance in teaching and learning. As with all inflection points, it is difficult to recognize when one is living through the middle of what will ultimately prove to be a lasting and consequential change.

We think that how learning in higher education is changing today is on par with other lasting shifts, including the enlargement of demand powered by the GI Bill, and the vast changes in student demographics that every campus has experienced.

In our upcoming book, Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education, we attribute this renaissance to the confluence of a number of trends. Included in these developments are:

  • The diffusion of learning science: active learning and student-centered design principles
  • The ubiquitous learning management system
  • The growth of online education
  • The impact of the massive open online course bubble
  • New learning innovation organizations, including new models for centers for teaching and learning

In writing this book, we discovered that the excitement that we both have been experiencing around learning on own campuses is also occurring at every college and university that we researched.

It seems that every school has a new initiative, program or large-scale effort underway to align what we know about the science of learning with how students are taught. These efforts range from efforts to redesign physical classrooms around active learning principles (flat floors, movable seating), to investing in instructional designers to collaborate with faculty.

Much is happening across higher ed to advance student learning. And a large proportion of that action is occurring within digital learning. What we are not doing a great job at is telling this story.

If you are an instructional designer, or work in a center for teaching and learning, or are involved in an online education program, then you know all the exciting stuff around learning that is going on. Outside of these academic specialties, and certainly outside the gates of universities, there is much less understanding of just how quickly and positively learning in higher ed is changing.

The reality is that students today receive a far superior teaching and learning experience than we did when I was an undergraduate in the late 1980s. And if trends continue as we expect, the higher ed learning environments that our grandkids will enjoy will be amazingly improved upon what we have today.

And yet, this story of higher education change in support of learning innovation is hardly ever mentioned in conversations about the current condition, and likely future, of higher education.

The justifiable worry over demographic headwinds and public disinvestment, not to mention rising student debt and faculty adjunctification, has largely washed away the story of higher ed learning innovation.

The question is, is it possible to hold these two contradictory stories about the future of higher education together?

How can we both recognize the enormous structural challenges and deep-seated inequalities that the higher education sector faces while also celebrating the progress we are making in student learning?

As you can gather, I’m left with more questions than answers as I contemplate the next decade of my nontraditional digital learning academic career. Perhaps more than any other career within higher ed, it is difficult to predict what exactly those who work in digital learning will be doing a decade from now.

For those of you who have sailed past your fifth decade, what advice do you have about navigating the third phase of an alternative-academic career?

For those of you who are early or midcareer in digital learning and nontraditional academia, what questions do you have as you look to plot your career path?

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