Should Traditional Faculty Pivot to Academic Careers in Campus Learning Organizations?

Should traditional faculty consider a career pivot to a leadership role in a campus learning organization?

First, an attempt at some definitions.

A campus learning organization is, as far as I know, not a real term.  It is one that my research partner Eddie Maloney and I either made up, invented independently, or accidentally borrowed from someone else.  Can you tell us?

We define a campus learning organization as a higher education unit that is devoted to student learning, but that is not a traditional academic department or school.  Under our definition, a center for teaching and learning (CTL), and academic computing unit, an online learning organization, or a division of continuing education would count.  So might other groups that work directly with professors on advancing student learning.

Do academic libraries count as campus learning organizations?  We tend to think of academic libraries as having their own identity and impact related to both scholarship and teaching.  But in many ways, they fit the definition of campus learning organizations.

The question is, should traditional professors – faculty who have been successful in building an academic career within a traditional discipline – think about a career shift to a leadership role in a learning organization?

We don’t have good data, as far as I know, about the educational and career backgrounds of folks who lead campus learning organizations. They seem to come in three flavors.

The first campus learning organization leader is someone I’ll call “the visitor.”  The visitor has taken on a role of leading a campus learning organization, but she is maintaining her primary academic affiliation with her department and discipline of origin.  Their professional identity is based on the discipline that they trained in and the research that brought them tenure.  They expect to eventually go back to their department and discipline.

The second type of person who leads campus learning organizations is “the native.”  The native may have a terminal degree in a traditional discipline, but for some reason made the decision early on to shift their professional identity to a learning organization community of practice.  They are involved with the national learning organizations such as POD and ELI and UPCEA.  Their research – and sometimes their teaching – is in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL). I’d put myself in this category.

The third campus learning organization leader I’ll call “the immigrant.”  And as we know, immigrants get the job done. This is a type of campus organization leader who built an excellent academic career in their first discipline – but for whatever reason, they have decided to make the move.  While not exactly renouncing their citizenship as a member of their discipline of origin, they have become dual-citizens of learning land.  They are making a change in which they are migrating their professional identities from one community of practice to another.  Sometimes they keep a foot in both worlds.  They expect that their long-term career will be in learning and learning scholarship and service.  They are reading the SOTL literature and are thinking about the role of advancing learning in organizational and ecosystem change.

So which traditional faculty – successful in their disciplines of origin (tenured) – should think about leaving their homeland and permanently settling on the shores of learning world?

I’ll go through the “who’sg”, “why’s” and “how’s” to try to answer this question.

The Whos:

A traditional faculty should think about making this switch if they have caught the learning bug.  Sometimes academics become vastly interested and hugely curious about how people learn.  In grad school, in traditional disciplinary programs, they don’t teach us much about how humans learn.  Grad school is about socialization into a discipline through the creation of new knowledge.  It is mostly not about how to be a better educator.

The reality is that the work that most professors do is teaching.  Some professors combine scholarship and teaching. Others focus mostly on teaching.  But teaching is the main gig.  And at some point, some professors want to connect their teaching practice with doing original scholarship on teaching and learning.  They may want to participate to improve teaching and learning not only in their courses but across the university in which they work.  They want their jobs to be about advancing learning at the institution.

These traditional professors are likely shifting their scholarship away from whatever got them tenure, and towards questions and practices related to student learning.  It is these newly minted learning nerds that should consider a pivot to leadership in a learning organization.

The Whys:

The why’s might not be obvious to anyone working outside a campus learning organization.  But for those of us who have built our career within the learning world, the reasons to pursue this sort of academic career are many.  In an age of super sub-specialization of academic careers, campus learning professionals are academic generalists.  We work across the institution with scholars and educators in every field and discipline.  We have to know a little bit about lots of things – and a lot about the science of learning.

The work of learning organizations is inherently collaborative.  Learning professionals always partner with professors and other campus educators to advance student learning.

Leadership of learning organizations is about leading institutional change.  It is a non-trivial problem of figuring out how to align campus culture and resources with the science of learning.  Some will be drawn to the challenge.

The Hows:

How might traditional faculty think about making the switch to evolving their academic identity to a learning organization community of practice?

I would say that this switch should come only after some time as a “visitor.”  You can’t know if learning people are your new people until you spend some time immersed in their culture.  You can’t make a change unless you learn to speak a new language.

Figuring out if you want to make this shift can take some time.  After all, it takes many years (and a PhD program) to be socialized into a traditional academic discipline.  Making the big move to a whole new emerging discipline  – such as learning innovation or educational developers or learning design – is a big move that should not be entered into lightly.

There are lots of opportunities for traditional faculty to spend time collaborating with the learning professionals in learning organizations.  Sometimes traditional faculty can take formal roles in learning organizations.  Other times, they can participate in projects and initiatives with learning organizations, partnering closely with the non-faculty educators in these units.  Anyone thinking of immigrating to learning world should take advantage of these opportunities.