Where Should We Talk About Learning Innovation and Postsecondary Change?

An attempt to answer a tweet by Joshua Eyler about the conversation about that crucial intersection.

May 2, 2018

This blog post is, in part, an answer to a tweet.

My ambition, one that I share with some close colleagues across different institutions, is to start a discussion about how we might study higher education change through the lens of learning. We are hypothesizing that this area of inquiry is rich enough, and different enough from existing domains of scholarship, that it calls for the creation of something like a new academic discipline.

First, the tweet:

Dear @joshmkim: there are more than a handful of people interested in this. If you were genuinely interested in talking to people about your posts (which you claim to be), we'd be happy to have a conversation about it. Until then, we'll just tweet our frustration into the void.

Joshua Eyler, director of @RiceCTE & adjunct associate professor of humanities at Rice University. @joshua_r_eyler

(Note: I hope that everyone puts Joshua’s upcoming book How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching in their preorder/wish list/must-read categories).

My answer to Joshua’s tweet is that yes, I’d like to have that conversation. The place that I think we need to have that conversation is within the framework of an academic discipline.

An academic discipline is, at its core, a sustained conversation. It is a conversation that persists over time.

It is a conversation where the participants may disagree on conclusions, but share at least a basic agreement on what questions should be asked.

Within an academic discipline there are fierce (sometimes vicious) fights about values, world views and results. What holds academic disciplines together are shared languages of inquiry and recognized methods of scholarship. Those within an academic discipline may disagree with everything their colleagues believe, but they still recognize each other as part of the same collective field of scholarship.

Academic disciplines are never done. They are constantly reinventing themselves. New theories are developed to make sense of new data. New data is brought to test existing theories.

Academic disciplines are about building new knowledge. They are also about training the next generation of scholars within the academic tradition. Among the most important aspects of membership in an academic discipline is to train one’s replacements. If you do this well, those who come after you will disconfirm your hypotheses and create superior methods to answer the big disciplinary questions.

One response that I often hear in proposing that we need a new academic discipline to study how learning is changing higher education (and how higher education is changing learning) is that many academics (in established disciplines) are already doing this work. They point to the educator developer community in centers for teaching and learning (CTLs).

They point to schools and programs devoted to improving both student learning and educator teaching. The academics responsible for training the next generation of instructional designers, and those who work directly with faculty to improve their teaching, are also creating knowledge in basic and applied learning science.

This is all true. Academics doing research at the intersection of postsecondary organizational change and learning science are all over. They are in schools and departments of education. In programs devoted to studying postsecondary leadership and change, and of training the next generation of postsecondary leaders. In centers for teaching and learning. In schools and departments that grant advanced degrees in instructional design and educational technologies.

What is missing -- at least what I hypothesize is missing -- is a home to bring all these folks together.

It is also true that much of the scholarship being done that looks specifically at how learning is changing within higher education (and how these changes are pushing our institutions and the larger system to evolve) is undertaken by nonfaculty educators.

It is rare for those who spend their days thinking about how digital, blended, low-residency and online learning is changing higher education to be able to do so full time. Rather than build our academic lives around teaching, scholarship and service, we instead occupy liminal academic roles that usually include large degrees of program management.

In this age of the adjunctification of the faculty, the benefits of academic freedom and tenure may be being enjoyed by a diminishingly fortunate few. Almost none of the nonfaculty academics who are in the middle of the digital learning/learning science revolution enjoy these protections.

There are other good arguments that this scholarly project should not be constrained by traditional disciplinary thinking. That studying the intersection of how institutions and learning are changing, and what the future of both may be, is a fundamentally undisciplined project. Undisciplined in the sense that it does not fit into any single or combination of traditional academic disciplines. This work requires that the scholar bring in a wide variety of perspectives, methods, and tools.

This un-disciplined approach may one of the reasons why some of the most impactful, critical and creative voices in the digital learning/higher education future world are independent scholars. One need not look any further than the work of Bryan Alexander, Audrey Watters, Phil Hill or Michael Feldstein to make this case.

Again, my response is that this is all true and reasonable.

What I’m looking for are physical places where all of us looking at how higher education is changing through the lens of learning can come together. Preferably under one roof. Or at least one roof within our institutions.

I’m looking for a way where we can have the time it takes to do deep dives into narrow areas of inquiry.

The idea of teaching courses in what I study and do each day is exciting. After all, this is an applied academic discipline.

The dream that one could pursue intellectual lines of inquiry without the worry about losing one’s livelihood remains only that. The unpopular, controversial, difficult or just bad ideas about the world of our higher education that we may develop and share could also cause us to be fired. We don’t enjoy the protections of academic freedom. (Ironically, it is those scholars working outside of academia who may have the most latitude to be critical of higher education).

We need to figure out how to extend this conversation beyond social media -- an on to platforms that are more durable. We should always take advantage of the immediacy and openness of social media for this scholarly conversation. To blogs and tweets we need to add journals and books.

Again, these journal articles and books are being written -- but they are being written by people distributed throughout the academy -- and often in addition to their daily work responsibilities.

This conversation also seems to be occurring largely at academic conferences and existing professional associations. At small ad-hoc meetings and at unconferences. Is it too much to want for these conversations to also take place within the contexts of established academic departments? Places on campus that have a critical mass of people studying the intersection of learning innovation and postsecondary organizational change?

So to (finally) answer Joshua Eyler’s tweet, yes -- I want to have this conversation.

It is just that the way that we have been having this conversation to date no longer seems adequate to the opportunity. I’m no longer sure where this conversation can productively occur.

The model I have to create new knowledge and to move a field forward (while training the next generation) is an academic discipline. The reason that I gravitate towards the language, structure and framing of an academic discipline is that it has been a successful vehicle for advancing understanding and impact.

Have you figured out how to spend your days researching and teaching about the future of higher education?

Do you work with colleagues who are both immersed in the worlds of digital/blended/low-residency/online education, and whose main job it is to create new knowledge and train the next generation of scholars and practitioners?

How would you suggest we follow up on Joshua Eyler’s tweet to move this conversation forward?


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