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Innovations in education today spread at two discrete scales. One scale is individual institutions and the communities of faculties and students within them -- the micro scale. Innovations also spread on the macro scale, whether through social media, open educational resources or online courses and programs.

But in between the micro and the macro there is an equally important meso scale. The meso is the scale at which innovations are shared among institutions and between education and the private sector. Meso-scale networks and communities complement the campus micro and global macro scales and offer opportunities for different kinds of projects and knowledge to emerge.

It is to contribute to this meso scale of impact that Michael Feldstein and Phil Hill of the consulting firm e-Literate launched a new initiative called the Empirical Educator Project at a recent conference. The discussions at the event were held under the Chatham House rule, but Michael and Phil encouraged participants to share reflections on what we learned.

This event was different from the dozens of higher education conferences held each year. Most higher education conferences promote idea sharing and collaboration among educators (e.g., professional society gatherings) or within the private sector. When educators venture into commercially oriented events such as ASU GSV, the interactions are often transactional. The scale is overwhelming and exchanges are superficial. Firms pitch their goods and educators nod (or shake) their heads. Feedback is given. Everyone heads home exhausted from selling or being sold to.

The Empirical Educator event was different. It was intentionally limited to the meso scale of 40 or so participants, half from education and half from the private sector. And it provided an opening for educators, publishers and education technology leaders to interact more meaningfully as partners, not as buyers and vendors.

In our experiences (Matthew at two universities and at an education technology company and Bridgette at two universities and working with an educational publisher), it is rare for educators to get past the salespeople to collaborate with the executives, researchers and product managers whose road maps shape the future of ed tech and who have the power to make products that better meet the needs of learners and instructors.

At various points we spoke with a senior executive at Pearson, a psychometrician from James Madison University, a learning analytics researcher at Blackboard, an online learning administrator for the California Community College system, the provost of Coppin State University and an anthropologist from Carnegie Mellon University’s faculty development center. It turns out the people with creative control, the ones who determine what gets made, are also interested in more productive collaboration with educators.

Such collaborations are essential. As education is increasingly mediated by digital technologies, platform choices and features become an expression of academic freedom. If educators hope for ed tech that represents their values and meets the needs of their students, they need to get involved early in the process by which it is created. Ed-tech companies should invite educators to participate in their R&D, and educators should enlist technology transfer offices, start-up incubators and open-source organizations to scale up innovations that are proven to be effective on their campus -- from the micro, through the meso, to the macro.

Bridging the divide that separates the education and private sectors is a challenge. But this small meeting showed that it is possible. It achieved a level of communication across diverse backgrounds we’ve not experienced at larger events. That is a credit to Michael and Phil, whose relationships range across the higher education sector, and who could organize such an eclectic group to address systemwide challenges.

So what progress did we make in this meso-scale environment? The conference encouraged participants to explore and discuss several hypotheses described by Michael in a recent article. Out of these discussions, we heard consensus on some basic principles:

  • Across the higher education sector, change is needed in the way we support teaching and learning. More diverse student bodies require active teaching and learning strategies that are more effective for equity and inclusion. Faculty are routinely asked to teach in online and blended modalities in which they themselves never learned. These changes require empathy and support.
  • Improving teaching and learning is hard but possible with commitment and investment in two areas: technology and professional development. Better technologies are part of the equation of improving performance. But human beings -- the eponymous empirical educators -- are essential. Thus we also need to invest more in professional development. The quantity and quality of faculty development is usually not commensurate with the task of college teaching.
  • For the necessary changes to happen in an education system of networks, institutions and ultimately humans, we need to recognize the nature of the problem as a diffusion of innovation problem. There is no dearth of innovative projects and ideas from individual educators. But instructional methods that prove effective, and could have widespread impact on student success, remain in pockets and do not disseminate as quickly as they should. As with Mendel’s plant genetics discoveries, which were lost to science for decades before they were “rediscovered,” effective teaching practices are too often ignored. Ken Bain described the problem eloquently: “Teaching is one of those human endeavors that seldom benefits from its past. Great teachers emerge, they touch the lives of their students, and perhaps only through some of those students do they have influence on the broad art of teaching. For the most part, their insights die with them, and subsequent generations must discover anew the wisdom that drove their practices.” (What the Best College Teachers Do, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004, page 3).
  • The systemic amnesia of effective teaching Bain describes is tragic and unnecessary. In research, a system of scholarly communications ensures that future Mendels are not ignored. It is not perfect, but it is largely effective and is constantly being improved by publishers, librarians, open-access advocates and entrepreneurs. What if there were a system to transparently share and apply knowledge in teaching and learning? That is a dream of empirical educators.
  • When we find approaches that improve learning outcomes and equity, it is our responsibility as educators and product developers to apply and build on them. That is what it means to be an empirical educator. That is our obligation.
  • Active learning is a prime example of an educational innovation with solid evidence that has not been adopted as widely as it should be. If your faculty colleagues are debating whether to use active learning methods in their teaching, or your product management colleagues are wondering whether to include active learning strategies in their road map, they’re asking the wrong question. What they should be asking is the second-order question that builds on the evidence and advances the field: Not whether, but what kind of active learning is appropriate to the discipline, course or learning challenge?

How can we change those conversations and accelerate the diffusion of evidence-based teaching and learning practices? There was no consensus on this front but a recognition that further collaboration and knowledge sharing at the meso scale may offer promising routes from which to approach these questions.

We might begin by acknowledging that fulfilling the educational part of our missions is a social responsibility that we have in common across the higher education sector -- from community colleges to research universities. Research universities should acknowledge that most of our Ph.D. graduates will work at institutions where teaching is the main faculty responsibility.

Doctoral programs need to prepare graduates for the jobs they will likely get -- the majority of which are in regional public institutions, which make up the largest segment of American higher education. (Nearly a quarter of University of North Carolina system faculty teach an online course each year; almost none of them received training in how to do so effectively.) We must prepare faculty with the breadth of knowledge, skills and experience they will need -- teaching and service as well as research -- to contribute as scholars and educators across the country and around the world.

With that responsibility comes a mostly unrecognized opportunity: only a few hundred research universities in the U.S. grant all the country’s Ph.D.s. We send our graduates to teach at thousands of institutions that collectively enroll millions of undergraduates. So in fact research universities are a natural fulcrum of reform for the U.S. higher education system. If a few hundred can change, millions would benefit.

The approach we shared at the conference from Duke is to invigorate Ph.D. education with more teaching training. The Duke Graduate Certificate in College Teaching enrolls 500 out of 3,200 doctoral graduate students, and we are working on new future faculty programs that build on that success. Programs like these are only one variable in a complex equation. But it was exciting to see leaders energized by diverse approaches, from academic R&D to anthropology to efficacy frameworks -- all trying to solve different parts of the same equation.

The Empirical Educator Project is a promising effort to contribute to the diffusion of innovations at the meso scale. We are optimistic that the project will deepen collaborative opportunities for colleagues in education and ed tech. Michael and Phil must now figure out how to expand the project beyond the initial gathering without losing the authentic conversations across sectors and backgrounds that made the initial gathering distinctive. That is a good challenge for all of us who work in higher education and around it.

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