Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education

Just before traditional campuses sent all of their faculty and students home and transitioned courses to some form of online instruction for the rest of the spring semester, I finished reading Joshua Kim’s and Edward Maloney’s new book, Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education. The authors teach and work at traditional universities (Dartmouth and Georgetown) and wrote the book to discuss ways that colleges and universities can better align teaching practices with the science of learning, given the rising cost of education for students and the financial pressures on colleges. Given the acceleration of financial pressures on colleges and their temporary migration to online courses, I have a feeling that the authors have been too busy for a road show to promote their book.

According to Kim and Maloney, the year 2012 marks an inflection point in higher education, and Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were the catalyst that made it happen. While the buzz about MOOCs has settled down, the authors write that the questions of how we teach and how we learn accentuated by the deployment of MOOCs to teach millions of students have not been answered and are not going away.

Furthermore, the growing body of scholarship on how students learn has not been matched by parallel scholarship on how universities advance learning. How we teach and how we learn are changing, and Kim and Maloney argue that both need to change. While there is much-published research in the areas of learning science, design theory, educational technology, learning analytics, and pedagogical theory, there are few publications that discuss how universities are changing in response to innovations in learning.

As defined by Kim and Maloney, learning innovation is as much about leading organizational change as it is about pedagogy and technology. Leading organizational change is important, because the higher education learning innovation community is scattered around multiple centers for teaching excellence, online learning, academic computing, and educational technology.

The authors call for a breaching of the barriers that separate higher education services and operations from the scholarship of higher education. Without this breach, the historical division between administrators and those who teach will only inhibit meaningful change related to learning.

Teaching practices should evolve with learning research and with the tools available to educators. Scholarship should include the review of regular administrative and support responsibilities. If faculty and administration see their roles as linked, a more productive approach to cost and impact would be the result.

In order to kick-start the conversation about learning innovation, Kim and Maloney suggest that universities need to create a shared intellectual space in which learning innovations can be evaluated, debated, and critically examined. Currently, learning professionals in higher education occupy a role in between faculty and administrator. These learning professionals need to gain and keep executive sponsorship from deans, provosts, and presidents.

The more that higher ed leaders view learning investments as strategic, the more they will support those investments. Part of the learning investment called for by Kim and Maloney is for investment in faculty, including visiting and adjunct faculty who make up an increasing percentage of all higher education instructors.

One of the most underreported stories in higher education, according to Kim and Maloney, is the relationship between improvements in residential learning and the growth of online education. The authors further state that online education is fast becoming the new normal in higher education (note that this statement was written before the coronavirus pandemic).

The shift to online is important, because the practice of incorporating the principles of learning science with the scholarship of teaching and learning often originates with practitioners of online learning. By 2015, approximately 30 percent of all college students had enrolled in at least one online course. Most students learning online attend one of a relatively small number of schools with half of all online students enrolled in five percent of institutions.

Kim and Maloney write that the differentiating factor for educational quality in not whether the course is residential or online, but how aligned the structure of the course is with pedagogical strategies that emphasize active and experiential learning. Quality online programs almost always involve a collaboration between a professor and an instructional designer.

Throughout the book, Kim and Maloney continue to write that investments in learning innovation need to be distributed between faculty and administrators. The authors write that in 2018, there were at least 34 conferences, events, convenings, and symposia dedicated to the impact of digital and online learning on higher education.

What was notable was that there were few scholars of higher education who attended these conferences or any faculty from schools of education. As a result, the impact of residential and online programs at universities and the conditions that lead to the creation of these initiatives is relatively unexamined and unreported by education faculty researchers.

Consequently, the most important social media platform for the postsecondary learning innovation community is Twitter. The Twitter dialogue around learning innovation conferences extends far beyond the physical location for the conferences. However, the ephemeral nature of social media, the limited quantity of words posted on blogs and tweets, and the lack of peer review makes researching innovations in learning difficult for scholars and researchers.

Lastly, Kim and Maloney argue that an interdisciplinary field of learning innovation needs to be established in order to increase the academic research necessary to more fully embrace and integrate learning innovation at our colleges and universities. As much as I understand the reasons why they recommend this as a solution, I doubt that this will happen.

There’s a reason that half of all online students are enrolled at only five percent of all colleges and universities. Those who innovate, innovate quickly; they don’t wait for those slow to innovate. Establishing interdisciplinary fields of learning innovation in schools of education or elsewhere will take years, given the current structure of governance. The only thing that might change the normal course could be the financial impact of the coronavirus and the number of college students who perceive that the online instruction implemented in the second half of the 2020 spring semester was inadequate, compared to the residential instruction.

There are many good points about learning innovation in this book that lead me to recommend it as a worthwhile read for college leaders and policy makers interested in leading institutions to the next level of learning innovation. For leaders who want to take their institutions to the leading edge of learning innovation, my advice is to follow the Nike slogan and “just do it.”

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence