Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education: Q&A with authors Joshua Kim and Edward Maloney

“We wrote this book to open up a conversation about how colleges and universities might evolve their institutions to better align teaching practices with the emerging science of learning.”

That sentence is from our recently published book, Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education (Feb. 11, 2020). If you’ve read any of our articles over the past six months, you probably have noticed us referencing the book. You wouldn’t have to look too hard – we’re pretty excited about it and hope, as we say, that it will open up a conversation about the future of higher education.

To get this conversation going, our publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press, has generously provided us with six questions.

Why did you write the book?

To elaborate a bit more on the first sentence of our book, we wrote Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education for three big reasons. Our first motivation was to mark what we are calling a turn to learning in higher educationWe looked around at our own work at Georgetown and Dartmouth – and what we have watched go on at colleges and universities across the country and in fact the world – and we noticed all these amazing developments related to student learning. It seemed as if many schools were (and are) doing cool things at the institutional level to advance how their students learn, and much of it was hidden. We wanted to try and figure out if what we were observing in this institution-led learning innovation is a trend or a mirage.

The second reason that we wrote the book is related to the first. If the growth of institution-led learning innovation really is a trend, then we wanted to unpack the forces behind its development. What are the reasons why a large number of colleges and universities over the past few years have placed advancing student learning at the center of their institutional strategies? Why did learning suddenly become a central priority for schools where learning previously had been only one of any number of priorities? And if we are right that the turn to learning is real, what might happen in the future as colleges and universities continue to face funding, cost, and demographic challenges?

The third reason for writing this book is that we wanted to make sure we encouraged people to share their work widely. As we argue in the book, the strength of higher education is in the interconnectedness of all the institutions that make up higher education as a whole. We are all part of a conversation about higher education, and we are stronger when we collaborate with each other in this conversation. This type of collaboration – the sharing of ideas, of research and of scholarship – is the heart of higher education. It is what forms fields and disciplines. It’s what allows new knowledge to build on existing knowledge. It’s what maintains the lifeblood of ideas. We firmly believe that the ideas of learning innovation need to be shared, to be studied, to be challenged in order to make all of our work stronger. We argue in the book that this field is different from what has been historically studied and needs a new interdisciplinary lens to keep the conversation going.

What was the most surprising thing you learned through your writing or research?

Our biggest surprise was just how widespread institution-led learning innovation initiatives seem to be. We did in-depth interviews with 15 separate schools and conducted less structured research on many others. The colleges and universities that we studied ranged in type from large public institutions with missions to educate first-generation low-income students to wealthy small private liberal arts colleges. The schools we looked at differed along every dimension imaginable, from the challenges that they face to the way that they are organized and funded. The common thread we found in all these colleges and universities was that, over the past few years, they have all created major campus-wide initiatives to advance student learning.

At each of these schools, the last few years have witnessed investments in growing their centers for teaching and learning (CTLs), bringing in new expertise in the form of instructional designers (often to build online learning units), redesigning gateway courses, renovating large classrooms to be active learning spaces, experimenting with analytics for data-driven course redesign, creating new experiential learning initiatives and much else. The common thread seemed to be a commitment from institutional leaders to invest in learning R&D in order to overcome challenges ranging from unacceptably high levels of student attrition to disproportionate losses of first-generation and underrepresented groups in STEM majors.

A second surprise, a criticism of which we’ll also likely pay dearly for in the comments (in for a penny, in for a pound), was realizing just how much of the thinking about higher education is happening in social media. This is especially true of Twitter, but it’s surprising how much happens in the comment sections of blog posts and online publications. We’re concerned about the ephemerality of all this (often great) thinking. Social media has reinvigorated the orality of academic debate – not to mention providing trolls an opportunity to step out from under their respective bridges – but in doing so we’ve lost opportunities for deep, engaged, reflective conversation. We know writing a book will not change this, but we hope to at least provide a space for resisting this trend.

What is new about this book that sets it apart from other books in the field?

There are a growing number of wonderful books being published on the current state and possible futures of higher education. There is also a growing library of books about the science of learning and the best ways to utilize that research in teaching and course design.

Many of these books are written by our colleagues and friends, and a surprising number share our publisher (JHU Press) and editor (Greg Britton). Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education is the first book, as far as we know, to try to connect advances in learning science (including the scholarship of teaching and learning) with an eye on the organizational structures of colleges and universities.

What is the most important fact that your book helps to reveal?

While we argue in the book that we are in the midst of this turn to learning – a largely unrecognized renaissance in postsecondary learning – it is also true that this (happy) development was not completely planned. There remain large variations in the public commitment of resources, status and people among college and university leaders to institution-led learning innovation. Rather, this trend of a turn to learning that we identify in the book is the result of a confluence of trends, not all of which were intended to drive nonincremental increases in student learning.

These trends range from the laudatory, such as institutional investments in CTLs and faculty development, to the bizarre (the MOOC craze of 2012). Shifts such as the growth of (traditional) online learning have not gotten enough attention as drivers of residential educational quality, even though the introduction of large numbers of instructional designers to our campuses has been a game-changer for learning. We hope that the book will contribute to a larger recognition of this turn to learning and will perhaps contribute to opening up space for conversation about how our colleges and universities can build on this momentum, rather than revert to prior practices in the face of mounting financial and demographic pressures.

How do you envision the lasting impact of your book?

As we noted, in the book we call for the creation of a new interdisciplinary field of learning innovation to be created. We argue that the analysis of institution-led learning innovation should be recentered from a predominantly professional exercise to a scholarly line of inquiry.

Further, we make the case that the academics best positioned to develop this new interdisciplinary field are those practitioners working in the liminal space between serving their institutions (nonfaculty educators) and researching the impact of institutionally scaled educational interventions (scholarship). We hope this book will be one among many written and shared among academics and professionals interested in the future of higher education.

 What do you hope people will take away from your work?

One of the hopes we have for the book is that it will lay the foundation for other scholars to tackle the study of institution-led learning innovation. There is a pressing need for those of us in higher education to develop theoretical frameworks and methodological approaches to studying how schools align their structures to the science of learning.

Collectively, those who do this work do not have a very good idea about the conditions that catalyze or inhibit organizational change within colleges and universities to advance student learning. Nor do we know if the current efforts that schools are taking to advance learning will be effective as measured in outcomes such as graduation rates or STEM majors or other measures of student success. For us, our biggest hope for Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education is that the book plays even a small role in developing this line of scholarly inquiry.

This post from authors Joshua Kim and Edward Maloney first appeared on InsideHigherEd.com

Order Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education – published on February 11, 2020 – at the following link: https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/title/learning-innovation-and-future-higher-education

Joshua Kim is the director of digital learning initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning and a senior fellow at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University. Edward Maloney is a professor of English at Georgetown University, where he is the executive director of the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship and the founding director of the Program in Learning, Design, and Technology. Together, Kim and Maloney are the authors of Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education.