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In an upcoming book from Johns Hopkins University Press, we make the case -- among other things -- for a new interdisciplinary field we call learning innovation. This new field, we argue, needs to be built on the scholarship that explores the forces and consequences of postsecondary structures and changes meant to advance learning. This emerging academic field integrates theoretical frameworks and methodological practices from a range of disciplines in service of understanding how learning in higher education is changing. Woven into the field of learning innovation are threads from the scholarship of higher education, learning design, organizational change, analytics and educational technologies.

If a new multidisciplinary field of learning innovation is to emerge -- one with a separate academic identity from the existing and established disciplines from which it evolved -- one thing we imagine this new discipline will need is its own terminal degree.

Terminal degrees consolidate a disciplinary field while also ensuring that its thinking is continuously renewed. This is particularly important in an interdisciplinary field for which there is no existing disciplinary path for students to follow. A terminal degree within a discipline or interdisciplinary field serves four purposes:

  1. The terminal degree credentials the recipient as an expert within the field.
  2. New entrants into the field are socialized into the language, methods, theories and worldviews of the discipline.
  3. A terminal degree prepares graduates to be practitioners within the discipline, inclusive of both teaching and practice.
  4. Receipt of a terminal degree is dependent on successfully creating new knowledge within the existing literature, methods and goals of the discipline.

Different types of terminal degrees emphasize these attributes to varying levels. A traditional Ph.D. program is designed largely around the creation of new knowledge. Ed.D. programs are more heavily grounded in preparing participants for hands-on leadership roles, often more administrative roles, within the field. There are also executive Ph.D. and Ed.D. programs, created largely for professionals to receive a terminal degree while also working full-time, and designed for those with leadership ambitions within their fields.

As we think about the contours of this field, one question is worth engaging in a bit of a thought experiment: What would a terminal degree in learning innovation look like? Should it be a Ph.D. or an Ed.D.?

On a practical level, an executive Ph.D. or Ed.D. or seems like the right choice.

Those attracted to a terminal degree in a new interdisciplinary field of learning innovation are likely to already be working in a higher education learning organization, such as a center for teaching and learning, an academic library, or an academic technology or online education unit.

A terminal degree in learning innovation such as this seems to track well to those academics preparing for a leadership career in the liminal space between faculty and staff, scholarship and administration. These existing and emerging leaders in higher education are focused on some aspect of teaching and learning that is at some institutional/organizational level of responsibility. An executive Ph.D. or Ed.D. in learning innovation may be perfect for anyone wishing to lead campus learning initiatives in online education, learning analytics and educational development, or experiential learning.

One challenge is that while an executive Ph.D. or Ed.D. in learning innovation aimed at higher education professionals would certainly fulfill a need, and would likely be economically sustainable through tuition dollars, we think it’s worth considering what someone engaged in critical studies in higher education with a focus on learning innovation needs to understand and perhaps more importantly needs to explore to fully understand the field.

We think back to our own Ph.D.s, received in traditional academic disciplines of English literature and sociology/demography, and we wonder if this is the type of graduate program that we should be shooting for.

Perhaps the most important difference between a more traditional Ph.D. and an executive Ph.D. or Ed.D. is time.

While there are always exceptions and various circumstances, enrollment in a traditional Ph.D. program entails being a full-time graduate student. Full-time Ph.D. students usually have their tuition paid for, and they often receive a small stipend as part of matriculating into the program. In exchange for the tuition and stipend, Ph.D. students often serve as teaching and/or research assistants.

The identity of a student in a traditional Ph.D. program is that of a graduate student. While it is also true that a great many traditional doctoral students combine studying with full-time paid work, this shift usually comes after the student has completed their course work and preliminary exams and is in the dissertation stage or ABD (all but dissertation).

The full-time life of a graduate student in a traditional Ph.D. program is different from that of a professional working to combine full-time work and graduate school. The time allocated to getting that Ph.D. is a mix of exploration and productivity. A full-time graduate student is likely to go down any number of unknown intellectual paths before settling on the specialized research question that will be tackled in a dissertation.

Almost always, writing a dissertation in a traditional Ph.D. program is an incredibly deep dive into an incredibly narrow subject. The goal of the dissertation is to add to the knowledge of the discipline, as opposed to preparing for an academic life of teaching or administration. In this respect, traditional Ph.D. programs are also mostly seen as helping to create scholars in the discipline. They are optimized largely around training the next generation of professors at the sorts of institutions in which Ph.D.s are granted.

It is for all these reasons that we suspect that a viable path to a terminal degree in learning innovation will not flow through a new traditional Ph.D. program. There are few, if any, traditional faculty positions now available in learning innovation. The discipline, and therefore the departments, don't yet exist. We are at the beginning of imagining this interdisciplinary field into existence.

And yet, to create a new academic field of learning innovation, we need scholars of learning innovation. We need to have academics who create the knowledge of the field. The ideas of learning innovation are the foundation of its practice. As an established discipline, an Ed.D. in learning innovation might make sense.

But perhaps most lost in this result is the role of time we mentioned above. If a new academic field is to come into being and to flourish, graduate students, perhaps above all else, need to spend time exploring. Many schools are starting to recognize the need for an internal R&D unit (or in some cases, units) to give faculty, staff and students time to do the deep dive of the work of higher education. If a terminal degree was created to train the next generation of innovators, wouldn’t it too need to give students that R&D time, that exploration time, that design time?

One value of higher education is the time we give our students to explore, to learn and to grow. Surely an interdisciplinary field dedicated to the study of this environment, in all its complexity, needs to create the opportunity for graduate students to have the same kind of time for learning.

Where do you think we should go from here?

Even if you don't believe in our vision of a new multidisciplinary field of learning innovation, please set those concerns aside for now.

If you were trying to create the intellectual foundations of a new academic discipline, and train those who will be both creating knowledge and practicing within the field, what sort of terminal degree program would you seek to create?

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