Inaugural Leadership Roundtable on Academic Transformation, Digital Learning, and Design: Towards The Creation of a Discipline?

I was privileged to attend a gathering recently at Georgetown University to talk about the creation of a new academic discipline around learning design.  What follows are some reflections from that stimulating meeting.

Image credit: Tony Brooks, Georgetown_NonHDR, CC BY 2.0

Image credit: Tony Brooks, Georgetown_NonHDR, CC BY 2.0

There is a flurry of work going on rethinking the space of learning technology and its role in designing learning experiences, conducting learning sciences research, and continuing or expanding the delivery of core services (e.g., video production, animation, and increasingly VR/AR experiences in 3D immersive visual spaces.

Examples include:


But the general result has been the same in both k12 classes and in higher ed – not much has changed. Instead of a tool for learning it has had to make the case that the technology eases the instructors job. Otherwise adoption is thwarted.[1]

There are tensions on a number of fronts. Efforts at the University of Michigan led by James DeVaney, Assoc. Vice Provost for Digital Education intend to gracefully ‘go out of business’. They want the integration of digital tools so pervasive that it no longer needs to be called out. And the location to which they refer is the academic departments.

The vision put forward at the Leadership Roundtable on Academic

Transformation, Digital Learning, and Design attempts to address academic department ‘ownership’ of ed tech research and applied innovation. In this case it involves establishing a new academic discipline all together rather than embedding it as a program in an existing discipline like Ed Psych, or Instructional Technology, where these and related disciplines tend to find homes in Schools or Colleges of Education – something that GU doesn’t have. That may well be a unique opportunity.

But there are cautions nonetheless. The proposal on the table, written by Prof Eddie Maloney, Executive Director of the wonderful organization the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS, founded by Prof. Randy Bass many years ago), emphasized correctly that real innovation happens at the boundaries, of disciplines, research methods, or theoretical models. Instantiating a new graduate program in a department of Learning Design adopts the model of the academy that has served for hundreds of years.

Years ago Seymour Pappert wrote Why School Reform Is Impossible[2], and it in describes a realization that he had come to that “”Reform” and “change” are not synonymous”. Granted Papert’s focus is again on k12 but I don’t think it wise to dismiss this too hastily. He writes about “”assimilation blindness” insofar as it refers to a mechanism of mental closure to foreign ideas” and refutes Roy Peas conclusion that LOGO failed to live up to Papert’s predictions. Papert notes that the ‘grammar of school’ is a deep belief structure that is exceptionally difficult to dislodge and disrupt. It’s rather like the underlying philosophy of teaching and learning that all faculty have, whether self-aware of it or not.

Papert wrote,

Complex systems are not made. They evolve…. education activists can be effective in fostering radical change by rejecting the concept of a planned reform and concentrating on creating the obvious conditions for Darwinian evolution: Allow rich diversity to play itself out”.

What has me thinking is how do we enable the continuation of the creative, messy, but productive interplays at the edges of different systems? Are we sacrificing what makes the potential here so large by becoming another department in the contemporary academic higher ed institution? Does playing inside the square (a play on the Aussie phrasing) diminish our potential to change the organization, especially when we really don’t know the real details of the outcomes we seek? What purpose is this proposal serving? Is it a search for internal legitimacy? What agenda(s) will it enable? What risks are accompany the approach and what opportunities exist to mitigate those risks?

As a post-script I’m pleased to say that the presentation Eddie made to the GU curriculum committee for a new Masters in Learning Design was approved.  We will see in the coming months/years how this grafting of service and applied research through new form a hybrid academic department matures and impacts its surroundings.

One things is sure.  The community that has begun to form around it is rich, rewarding, and intellectually stimulating.  It’s a plus when that’s complemented by deeply generous and open people.

[1] Why Ed Tech is Not Transforming How Teachers’ Teach – Education Week, June 11,2015,

[2] Papert, Seymour (1999), “Why School Reform is Impossible”,  The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 6(4), pp. 417-427, last accessed 5-5-2016,


About longpd

I'm a senior scholar at Georgetown University, in CNDLS, a technologist and lapsed evolutionary biologist with an incandescent passion for new modes of seeing and learning.
This entry was posted in academic_transformation, higher_education, innovation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Inaugural Leadership Roundtable on Academic Transformation, Digital Learning, and Design: Towards The Creation of a Discipline?

  1. David Gibson says:

    Intriguing reflection on the academy, where new disciplines arise, and the melancholy of a creative innovation becoming mainstreamed and thus co-opted in some way.

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