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Book Review: Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education

By Katie Reynolds

Innovation is a word that evokes a variety of emotions and even more numerous definitions depending on who you ask. In the book Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education, Joshua Kim and Edward Maloney attempt to define innovation more precisely, especially as it relates to learning innovation. Kim and Maloney serve as directors of learning centers at Dartmouth and Georgetown, respectively. As early adopters of innovation in learning, they have a depth of experience about the historical route learning innovation has taken. More importantly, they have insight into what practices are working and benefiting higher education. They emphasize why learning innovation should not be mistaken for disruption theory. Instead, learning innovation is about how theories of design, technology, innovation, and analytics challenge fundamental assumptions about teaching and learning in higher education.

Whether or not educators have realized it, we are in the midst of an important shift in higher education, which Kim and Maloney describe as a "turn to learning." The rise and fall of massive open online courses (MOOCs) was one of the main instigators of a renewed reflection by higher education into how they approach learning. MOOCs did not turn out to be the disrupter of education that many heralded it to be. Still, their entrance into the education scene finally ignited the conversation on learning science in higher education and bringing resources to learning innovation. On top of this conversation is the explosion of research on learning sciences and the establishment of the importance of the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). 

 Online learning has been a prime catalyst for innovation in learning across the entirety of higher education. Practitioners of online education are usually the ones instigating the principles of learning design. This is due to their increased level of exposure to instructional design. "The differentiating factor for educational quality is not whether the course is residential or online. Instead, quality is a function of the degree to which the structure of the course aligns with pedagogical strategies that emphasize active and experiential learning" (Kim and Maloney, 2020, p. 36). One of the more controversial claims made by Kim and Maloney is that the most successful innovative learning educators in higher education are those willing to shift their primary focus to teaching in ways that promote student learning rather than expending the bulk of their time and energy on research. This shift may require a focused effort on course redesign. Course redesigns "can achieve incrementally better outcomes in retention, performance, and other measures of student success" (p. 64). However, before this can take place on the scale needed to improve student learning in higher education dramatically, there needs to be a transfer of the risk "of engaging in educational R&D efforts from the faculty to the learning organization" (p.65). Otherwise, the fear of potential failure will inhibit faculty from taking risks. For most institutions, this will require a philosophical and structural shift from the status quo.

This shift toward learning has already begun in many institutions and is being manifested by developing new centers of learning in higher education institutions. Unlike MOOCs, these centers have had essential impacts on student learning by helping people do the work of higher education in new and different ways. The most successful centers have merged existing departments into one entity that collaborates to address the critical aspects of learning innovation. These previously separated entities focus on faculty development, instruction and learning, media and application, technology integration, online learning, experiential learning, and educational analytics. Kim and Maloney provide multiple stories of what is happening in these centers in universities across the country. They also give valuable specific examples of their impact on learning at these institutions. 

This book will be of greatest interest to higher education administrators and leaders responsible for academic outcomes, online learning, teaching and learning support, and strategic planning. Higher education faculty members will find aspects of this book applicable to their practice but may find greater benefit in spending their time reading other books and research on learning theory and how to apply it to teaching in their discipline. It was reassuring to read this book and recognize that the University of Dayton is already putting much of what is discussed into practice. We are, however, still in the early stages of fully integrating the recommended entities into one unit. Still, high levels of collaboration are already taking place, which positively impacts student learning. We can continue to work on developing a culture of learning that permeates the University at every level. This effort will require all departments to ensure that learning innovation is a core component of their practices and that faculty are rewarded for their actions and not unintentionally inhibited.

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