Public Higher Ed Funding and Learning Innovation

Establishing the cornerstone values of an emerging interdisciplinary academic field.

May 15, 2019

Learning innovation is an emerging interdisciplinary field, one that integrates the science of learning and the study of postsecondary organizational change. It is an academic discipline that seeks to understand how colleges and universities can make step-change (nonincremental) advances in student learning.

This, anyway, is the argument about the discipline of learning innovation that we have been trying to make.

If a community of scholars dedicated to the study of learning innovation is to come together as a distinct and identifiable field (still a big if), what should be the discipline's foundational values (if any?).

One of these values, we argue, should be a commitment to focus on the role of public investment in determining individual student learning outcomes. More specifically, research in learning innovation should include an examination of the effect of public funding for public institutions on the quality of teaching and learning.

Our call to bring a focus on public postsecondary funding into discussions of student learning is motivated, in part, by our observation that public disinvestment is often highlighted as a problem but rarely in most of the venues in which conversations about postsecondary innovation are occurring.

As we read the landscape, the dominant strain of innovation talk in higher education is centered around new technologies (such as AI) and industries (such as OPMs), and not around issues of public policy, or as we pointed out last week, faculty workloads and roles.

There is no end of conferences and convenings dedicated to the exploration of the role of technology in higher education. Attend a meeting such as the annual Educause conference, SXSW Edu or ASU+GSV, and you will hear no end of talks about the potential of new technologies to drive step-change advances in student learning.

Only at the margins of these events are you likely to hear discussion of the impact of public postsecondary disinvestment. And even then, academic research on the impact of cuts in government funding to public colleges and universities on student learning rarely accompanies these discussions.

If a new discipline of learning innovation is to emerge, its foundations (we believe) can’t be built on a rampant technophilia while ignoring the policy and political choices that have arguably as great if not a greater impact on student success.

It is a particularly insidious failing of learning innovation if it focuses on emerging technologies over ecosystemwide structural drivers, such as levels and trends of public funding, as it studies how colleges and universities are evolving to advance student learning.

So where do we begin?

A reasonable place to start would be to look at how the precipitous drop in funding for public institutions is having a detrimental impact on student learning. This negative impact on student learning, moreover, may swamp the advances made possible by the deployment of new educational technologies.

A recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities highlights the size of recent public disinvestment in higher education. State funding in 2018 for two- and four-year public colleges and universities was $7 billion less (in constant dollars) than it was in 2008. Forty-five states now spend less on public higher education than they did a decade ago.

The average state now spends 16 percent less on supporting public higher education, per student, than it did 10 years ago. These funding cuts have resulted in higher levels of tuition and debt for students attending public institutions.

Understanding the impact of public disinvestment seems, to us, at least as salient in understanding the future of learning as the introduction of new technologies. And yet it is new technologies that seem to garner the most attention among those meeting to talk about the future of higher education.

Why the disconnect between the excitement about new educational technologies and the realities of public education disinvestment?

Could it be that the belief that the solution to driving big advances in learning will come from the development and application of new technologies blinds many in higher education to the consequences of trends such as state-level funding cuts?

Might it be that in the desire to figure out how colleges and universities might advance student learning, we are looking for technological fixes to what are, essentially, public policy challenges?

Or is it possible that many of the loudest voices working at the intersection of learning science, educational technology and institutional change are employed by private colleges and universities -- and are therefore less impacted by state-level cuts?

Whatever the causes for the public policy blind spot evident in educational technology communities of practice, we don’t want to see this deficiency replicated in the coalescence of an interdisciplinary field of learning innovation.

How might we introduce the discussion and analysis of issues such as public disinvestment into the next educational technology conference?

What steps should we be taking now to ensure that issues of public policy are integral in the development of a new interdisciplinary field of learning innovation?

Inside Higher Ed's Inside Digital Learning

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