Higher education careers in digital learning are rarely linear. Leaders in digital learning come from a mix of traditional and non-traditional academic backgrounds and disciplines.
We are often asked how important it is to have a Ph.D. is for a career in digital learning. If an instructional designer with a master’s degree in the profession is seeking to enroll in a Ph.D. program? If you are pursuing a doctorate, should this program be in a traditional academic discipline or in a specialized program in higher education leadership?
The answer always depends on the individual asking, but anyone who claims there’s only one path to a career in digital learning hasn’t spent a lot of time with the leaders of the profession. A strength of the field is the range of diverse perspectives and training that practitioners bring to the job.
Regardless of background, and regardless of the decision to study for a PhD, there are a number of areas anyone working in digital learning should be aware of. These are subjects that none of us learned anything about in our own traditional doctorate. programs, but they have proven essential in navigating our careers in higher education digital learning.
No. 1: Science Learning and Fellowship in Teaching and Learning (SoTL)
This field encompasses a wide range of theoretical frameworks and research-based practical methods related to teaching and learning. Digital learning leaders must know the theoretical underpinnings and methodological practices of instructional design and educator development.
While it is impossible to develop expertise in all areas of science learning and SoTL, it is important to be aware of the major themes and developments in these areas. Increasingly, skills in learning analytics, design thinking, and media creation are valued in digital learning roles.
The key here is to discover, and then immerse yourself in, both research and communities of practice related to digital learning. Historically, the fields of instructional design and instructional development have been somewhat separated. Today, these areas of professional interest come together.
This trend is spurred by organizational changes within universities as Centers for Teaching and Learning (CTLs) take on more responsibility for digital learning. The growth of online and blended learning, even in traditional residential settings, will accelerate the need for design, analytics and media expertise.
No. 2: The role of technology
Understanding digital learning goes far beyond understanding how the latest course management system works, although it’s also useful to know that. It goes beyond understanding how networks work or what cloud computing means, although it helps to know those things as well.
One of the most important things for understanding digital learning is having a deep sense of the history and theory of technology, both in and outside of education.
In many ways, technology and education go hand in hand. From printing to e-books, technologies have long played an important role in universities. But many of the technologies adopted by higher education were not originally intended for use in colleges and universities. This means that the digital learning innovator must understand past and present technologies in ways that can inform future decisions.
Knowing the relationship between what it means to be human and technology can be a crucial part of understanding the good, bad and ugly of technology in teaching and learning.
No. 3: The structure, economy and history of higher education
Understanding the context in which teaching and learning occur is as important as developing expertise in instructional design and analysis. Taking a leadership role in digital learning will require developing a deep understanding of how the university functions as an organization and how individual institutions fit into the larger education ecosystem. superior.
The reason for this is that every digital learning leader will increasingly be called upon to manage scarcity, as well as competing institutional demands, in the creation and management of educational programs. Leaders in digital learning work in a context of challenging demographic, economic and political forces. The high costs of education continue to rise as student availability and public funding continue to decline.
Anyone in a leadership position will need to compete in a marketplace of ideas and a scarce local attention economy to launch new digital learning programs and initiatives. Understanding the perspectives, motivations and constraints of university colleagues will be a prerequisite for advancing proposals related to digital learning.
#4: Driving Change
The final knowledge area we highlight for tomorrow’s leaders in digital learning is the ability to lead change. Leadership in higher education does not depend on the title. Leadership is not the exclusive domain of deans, directors and chief information officers. Instead, leadership in digital learning comes from everywhere within the university. Change leadership is as local as a faculty member a digital learning professional partners with or a program or school in which a new initiative is being developed.
Nor is the ability to lead change within a university dependent on the number of direct reports one manages or the budget one controls. Leading change begins with developing and cultivating personal leadership skills, including self-awareness, humility, and a commitment to diversity and inclusion. Equally important will be the development of a strong set of professional networks with peers and those further along in their digital learning careers.
These four areas of knowledge should be pursued regardless of the decision to pursue a PhD.
For those who are in traditional doctorate. programs, it will likely be necessary to step outside of the established course-work sequence and departmental expectations to develop these areas of expertise. A terminal degree can give a non-traditional scholar a head start in starting a career in digital learning. This advantage, however, is diminishing as the demands of leading digital learning organizations continue to both grow and deviate from traditional academic training.
Those looking to build a career in digital learning and who do not wish to pursue a PhD. will need to find opportunities to develop and display skills in all of these areas. Not having the credentials of a Ph.D. should not be limited in developing a leadership career in digital learning. However, forgoing this educational path will likely require future digital learning leaders to demonstrate in other ways that they have developed mastery in the areas we have described.
What areas of knowledge have you found essential in your journey as a digital learning leader?