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Innovation Perspectives: A Conversation with Josh Kim of Dartmouth College and Eddie Maloney of Georgetown University

James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation and Founding Executive Director, Center for Academic Innovation


Universities across higher education are developing new models designed to advance student learning. Is it time to introduce a new interdisciplinary field focused on the scholarship of learning innovation? Josh Kim and Eddie Maloney argue that we need to increase peer-reviewed scholarship on the impact of learning innovation.

In February of 2020, Josh Kim and Eddie Maloney will publish their new book Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education (JHU Press). Eddie is the Executive Director of The Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS), a Professor of the practice of narrative literature and theory in the Department of English, and the Founding Director of a new Masters Degree program in Learning and Design at Georgetown University. Josh is the Director of Digital Learning Initiatives at Dartmouth College and a Senior Fellow for Academic Transformation, Learning, and Design at the Center for New Designs at Georgetown. Together, Eddie and Josh write a weekly column for Inside Digital Learning on InsideHigherEd, where Josh has been a long-time blogger.


Josh Kim
Josh Kim, Dartmouth College
Eddie Maloney
Eddie Maloney, Georgetown University









We connected to discuss institution-wide efforts to advance student learning, investments in learning R&D, innovation as a repeatable process, and the need for a new interdisciplinary field.

Q: Tell us about your forthcoming book and what motivated you to offer a new perspective on the state of learning innovation and future of higher education.

James, before we talk about our book, we’d like to say thank you for including us in the Center for Academic Innovation’s 30 Posts in 30 Days event. We can’t wait to hear what the big announcement will be on October 3rd. (Care to give us any hints?)

In our book, we argue that the types of institutional changes that the Center for Academic Innovation is leading at the University of Michigan are also occurring across higher education. We point to what is going on at Michigan as an example of a larger trend, one of colleges and universities creating new organizational structures — and committing significant resources — to drive the advancement of student learning. From this lens, the creation and expansion of the Center for Academic Innovation is not an outlier, but more of a leading indicator of a larger story playing out across the higher education landscape.

As we detail in the book, the story of the widespread trend for colleges and universities to engage in research-driven institution-wide initiatives to advance learning is largely an unknown one — even within the higher education community. Beyond marking and celebrating this trend, we attempt in the book to make sense of both its origins and its possible outcomes. We ask, why now? Why is it that Michigan, and many other colleges and universities of all types and missions, have chosen the last few years to make a strategic pivot to prioritize learning innovation?

Understanding both the origins and potential impact of institution-wide efforts to advance student learning are particularly important at the current moment of stress and fragility that higher education finds itself. In the book, we spend time pondering the question of where institution-wide efforts to advance learning fits into the larger context of persistent and growing challenges faced by the higher education sector. These challenges are well known, and they include both issues of affordability and access for students, along with economic sustainability and resilience for colleges and universities. We ask in the book how to square the amazing developments that are greatly improving the student learning experience, with the worrying trends of public disinvestment, increasing levels of adjunctification, and rising levels of student debt that characterize U.S. higher education?

When it comes to higher education today, It is necessary to hold two conflicting stories together. One of those stories is the amazing advances in the environments in which today’s students are learning. The other story is the unprecedented challenges that the higher education system is changing. We think that the story of the challenges, the public disinvestment and rising costs etc. is absolutely vital to understand and address, but that the competing story of positive change related to student learning is at least as important to tell. In the book, we try to tell that story.

Q: You’ve written at length about the disconnect between the practice and scholarship of learning innovation and have called for the creation of a new interdisciplinary field of learning innovation. What might we accomplish with the creation of a new field that we are challenged to realize today?

Part of the challenge is that most of the conversation about institution-led learning innovation is occurring primarily on social media channels (such as blogs and twitter) and at conferences. What concerns us is that discussions of learning innovation in those places are not substitutes for sustained and rigorous scholarship on the causes and effects of this trend. Compared to journal articles or book chapters, blog posts and tweets are ephemeral and tend not to lend themselves to the sort of sustained and in-depth analysis and critique that we think that institution-led learning innovation deserves.

If the work of institution-led learning innovation is to have sustained impact, then a wide range of stakeholders across the postsecondary ecosystem will need to be persuaded that investments in learning R&D and experimentation are worthwhile. The creation of data-driven, evidence-based, and peer-reviewed scholarship on the impact of learning innovation will be a more solid foundation to sustain the institutional structures and investments that enable this work to proceed.

Q: You’ve both been active contributors to the HAIL (Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners) network. How has this network of problem solvers been useful and why is it not enough?

It has been at HAIL and other gatherings that our ideas around learning innovation first started to gain shape. Conversations at these events revolve around the large-scale investments and organizational changes that schools have been making to advance student learning beyond normal incremental pace of change. At HAIL and other meetings, we began to notice that this prioritization of creating institution-wide structures to catalyze and support learning innovation was becoming common — if not quite universal.

It seemed that every college and university was doing this work on their own, with little understanding of how these experiments and initiatives were playing out at other schools. Meetings like HAIL can help in the sharing of knowledge, but it is hard for even twice-a-year meetings to get much deeper than sharing best practices. What became clear to us from discussions at HAIL and other places was the need for a more sustained, in-depth, and scholarly conversation on learning innovation than any one group or meeting could provide.

At the same time, we’ve found that much of the momentum for these discussions, particularly at HAIL, has tracked closely with the wide-spread doom-and-gloom narratives of disruption that have been so trendy in the past 6 or 7 years. We think it’s important to provide some balance to these narratives, even while we recognize the need for change.

Q: Universities are experimenting with digital technologies to explore not only what needs to be taught but how best to teach. You’ve referred to this as ‘a quiet educational revolution’ sweeping across the U.S. higher education system. What does this revolution look like across the higher education landscape and how does it show up differently from institution to institution?

One of our goals in writing Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education was to advance a counter-balancing story to the dominant narrative that higher education is in crisis. We don’t deny that our higher education sector faces many challenges, from the demographic headwinds of declining numbers of new high school graduates in the next decade to the continuing decline in public funding. While we write about these challenges, there are also an enormous amount of exciting and positive developments across higher education — with advances in teaching and learning the most prominent.

Everyone we spoke to across a range of different types of institutions, from elite privates to open access publics, had stories to tell about new programs and initiatives that are aligning the research on learning with the practices of teaching. At some schools, such as Michigan and Duke, these efforts have taken the form of newly constituted or re-organized learning organizations with a mandate (and leadership support and funding) to engage in disciplined experiments around learning. At other schools, the emphasis has been on investing in redesigning classrooms to promote active learning. At many institutions, we found that instructional designers and other non-faculty educators were taking a prominent role in partnering with professors on course redesigns.

The hypothesis that we advance and try to test in the book is that we are living through a confluence of trends related to the educational mission of higher education, all of which are aggregating toward pushing us to an inflection point in how teaching and learning are occurring across a wide range of institutions. Like most inflection points, it is really hard to recognize that one is in the midst of living through what will be thought of as a seismic shift by future generations. Our idea is that we are in the middle of such an inflection point in postsecondary student learning and that it is worth our while to try to make sense of this shift.

Q: While many institutions have established new learning innovation models they don’t all look the same. Looking across these varied approaches, what elements do you think contribute most to sustainable learning innovation?

What we found in talking to our peers and colleagues at a wide variety of colleges and universities was both variation and consistency in institution-wide learning innovation initiatives. In our book, we highlight the academic innovation efforts of public universities, such as CSU Channel Islands, that are driven by a mission to improve access and opportunity for low-income students. We also focus on innovation initiatives of smaller liberal arts institutions, such as Davidson College. For each school that we studied, we found that successful learning innovation efforts were purpose-built for the scale and goals of the colleges and universities in which they originate.

What we found, to our surprise, was that the availability of money or people does not fully determine the success of learning innovation. Instead, what is necessary is a commitment from institutional leadership to champion faculty and staff as they engage in experimentation around learning. Learning innovation is not an outcome or a goal, but a set of repeatable processes designed to discover what works, and then scale those changes across the institution. That process of discovery and scaling takes time, patience, and a willingness to deal with ambiguity and setbacks.

Q: With new learning organization models emerging across the higher education landscape, what kind of non-faculty career pathways are most interesting to you? Do we have any particularly challenging talent supply problems that need to be addressed?

In making the argument that higher education is at an inflection point when it comes to student learning, we also argue that the key element of this positive shift continues to be the work of educators. We are highly skeptical of the ability of any new technologies to offer students the transformative learning experiences that our 21st-century society and economy demand. So in the book, we put a strong emphasis on the idea that any institution-wide strategy designed to advance student learning must start with a commitment to educators.

Central among the educators that we point to as the most important ingredient for authentic advances in student learning are faculty. We think that professors must be at the heart of an institution-wide effort to create the conditions for non-incremental improvements in student learning. In fact, we are critical of many existing learning innovation efforts that have not included professors in their planning or execution.

We also argue in the book that any institution or system-wide efforts to advance learning will require close collaboration between faculty and non-faculty educators. The complexity and challenges of providing high-quality learning opportunities demand that colleges and universities provide professors with as many resources as possible. These resources, increasingly, include experts in areas of learning that complement the faculty’s expertise in their academic disciplines. Professors need to partner with instructional designers, media educators, assessment experts, librarians, and a whole host of other educators in order to develop the next generation of learning environments.

The growing complexification and intensification of student learning will require whole new categories of educators. Faculty will increasingly move from solo craft workers to that of key members of interdisciplinary teaching teams. These interdisciplinary teams may include professors trained in different academic disciplines, but they will mostly be made up of traditional faculty collaborating closely with non-faculty educators. This shift will require that colleges and universities evolve from rigid models that divide faculty and staff into separate categories (and sometimes castes), to more egalitarian and progressive models of instructional staffing.

In the book, we also try to provide advice for how non-faculty educators can broaden their perspectives to encompass an understanding of organizational and system-wide structures that either enable or inhibit student learning. We try to lay out a roadmap for the growing numbers of educators who work outside of traditional faculty roles within our colleges and universities. This roadmap includes the need for non-faculty educators to gain a full understanding of the history and challenges of the higher education sector, and to participate in the governance and running of the institutions in which they are building their higher education careers.

Q: At some point in the book writing process you have to make difficult prioritization decisions. Are there any big questions that you weren’t able to get to that you hope to turn to next?

Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education is mostly a book of ideas. We think we are at a historical turning point in the larger history of higher education change. And we wanted to mark this time period. We also think that the growth of institution-led learning innovation deserves its own area of scholarship. So we wanted to call for the creation of a new interdisciplinary field to lead this research. What we were unable to do in the book is to connect the changes that we describe in the priorities and organizational structures across a wide range of colleges and universities with measurable outcomes in either student performance or institutional resiliency.

While we think that the confluence of trends related to learning science, educational technologies, online education, and new learning organizations make for an incredibly exciting set of developments — we don’t know what the long-term impact of these trends will be. Will institution-wide learning innovations move the needle on student retention and progress to graduation? Will we start to see colleges and universities that can bend the cost curve of providing high-quality educational opportunities and credentials that are recognized by employers? Moreover, is a focus on learning innovation a viable strategy for schools that are navigating demographically driven declines in demand and increased costs?

We hope that in future scholarship, we will be able to test the ideas that we develop in the book around the importance of institution-wide learning innovation with the student and institutional results that we hope to see. However, we think that the goal of understanding the causes and consequences of learning innovation are much too broad for any researchers to tackle alone. That is why we argue that what is needed is a new interdisciplinary field devoted to the scholarship of learning innovation.

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