Answering the Question ‘Who Leads on College Learning?’

Why we call for a new interdisciplinary academic field of learning innovation.

February 5, 2020

“How can we align into a coherent whole the enormous amount of exploration that many individuals and organizations have been doing in classrooms, on campuses and in disciplines to understand and improve learning?”

“Who Leads on College Learning?”
Doug Lederman, Jan. 29, 2020

We think this is an excellent question. So much so that it’s one we explore in some depth in our book, Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education. The answers, as one would expect, are not simple.

To get at the question, we suggest a direct connection can be drawn between the research on how people learn to the structures in which learning is embedded. That is, the shift in thinking means broadening the unit of analysis from (only or primarily) the faculty and students to one that takes into consideration the institutional context, structures and, most importantly, investments made (or not made) in learning innovation.

Asking this question from within an institutional frame invites (in fact demands) the inclusion of those external forces (demographic, competitive, policy, economic, etc.) that most impact colleges and universities.

Expanding this framework of investigation helps situate the importance of Doug’s titular question: “Who leads on college learning?” The answer is that it depends.

Universities are complicated and decentralized places, with wide variation in governance structures and priorities both within and across institutions.

To answer “it depends,” however, is different from saying “nobody.”

Our big discovery in researching Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education is that the postsecondary ecosystem is experiencing a renaissance in teaching and learning.

We name this trend a turn to learning, and in the book, we try to discover its roots and likely future directions. What emerges is that the turn to learning -- or the alignment of organizational structures to the research on learning -- is the result of a number of distinct but co-emerging trends.

Among the trends that we identify as most important in this turn to learning are:

  1. The diffusion of learning science
  2. The ubiquitous learning management system
  3. The growth of online learning
  4. The impact of the MOOC bubble
  5. The emergence of new campus learning organizations

There are, of course, many other influences, including the role that foundations, government agencies or professional organizations are playing, just as new learning technologies -- from analytics to VR -- are starting to emerge.

The productive tension, we believe, is in fact between all of these forces. Advances in teaching and learning on college campuses are not solely driven by advances in learning science or new pedagogical methods. In fact, these advances may not even begin with that as the goal.

Certainly, the speed at which schools have adopted online learning programs was not driven by a belief that online education would improve residential teaching and learning. But the introduction of a new cadre of instructional designers to campuses to enable online programs has resulted in significant shifts in how face-to-face classes are taught.

Similarly, the learning management system is likely the worst technology to support authentic learning, as its design and implementation often violate core principles of active learning. And yet, the ubiquity of the LMS has enabled a generation of instructors to create blended and online courses without knowing how to design webpages.

A similar story of unexpected consequences around learning can be told for MOOCs. The story of how this overhyped fad of massive open online courses helped many schools to build a long-lasting infrastructure to improve teaching and learning on campus is one that we tell at length in our book.

Our point, and perhaps the start of an answer to Doug’s excellent question, is that any effort to truly understand how learning is changing in higher education will require us looking at more than one single factor or one single leader.

Higher education is a complex system.

Answering that big question of how colleges and universities are evolving their structures to align with the research on learning requires a study of this complexity.

We argue for the development of a new interdisciplinary field in our book. An interdisciplinary field is how academia organizes itself to tackle difficult questions and address persistent challenges.

To date, we have been lacking in a coherent space where academics from different traditions can come together to develop a common language, a set of tools and ideas (theories) for how learning changes in higher education.

We call this proposed interdisciplinary field learning innovation. And we think that bringing this new academic discipline into existence offers the best chance to understand how learning is changing in higher education.

But perhaps there are other better ways of studying the complex set of factors, contexts, influences, structures and roles that make higher ed what it is?

What do you suggest?

Back to Top