The Road Back to Higher Education

In 2012, I left Higher Education to work in the software world. It was bittersweet, because I had finished a Ph.D. on Higher Education Leadership only one year before I left. My decision to leave was a hard one, but I couldn’t see an effective solution path to change learning within traditional higher education. I studied effort after effort to make changes within departments, institutions, and systems, only to see that potential innovations to higher education rarely moved the needle very far from the traditional steady-state.

Maria at PhD Graduation

A proud graduate, but disheartened by the decreasing funding for higher education.

The semester that I finished my Ph.D. was the same one that huge cuts to higher education were announced in several states, most notably in Pennsylvania, where the higher education funding by the state was reduced by 50%.  By 2013, per-student higher education spending was lower than pre-recession levels in 48 states.

From the software world, I have watched as MOOCs, Coding Camps, and Microdegrees have been hyped as the next great thing to disrupt higher education. There’s no doubt that higher ed has been disrupted, though I would say it is more because increased regulation, lower funding, and decreased student enrollments put significant pressure on colleges and universities to increase efficiencies. While innovation like MOOCs show us that there is a tremendous market for learning outside of degree programs, these innovations are not focused at producing more teachers, nurses, or doctors – we still need higher education and traditional degree programs. We just need more affordable ways to get that first degree as well as flexible systems to update post-degree training, and allow quick pivots into other careers as the pool of available jobs shifts.

Finishing up my Ph.D., I knew that our institutions of higher education needed to move faster. Rather than taking years to develop new courses and programs, we needed to find ways to do it in months and without affecting students already in-program. In many degree programs, the curriculum needs to be adapted to the changing world every semester, not every 5-10 years. When I left higher education, I had a plan to learn everything I could about how the software industry uses agile techniques to iterate on solutions and pivot fast. I hoped that one day, I’d find an educational institution that would see the value in this unique learning experience, and take me back so that I could put what I had learned into practice (both from software and leadership). It was a gamble, but I knew that I couldn’t mentally survive at an institution where the pace of change was measured in decades instead of months.

The software industry was an interesting place to learn. It forced me to start thinking about what an agile institution of higher education would look like. What would you “bug” in a college or university? What processes could you refine through iteration? How would you explain the benefits of agile methodology to the stakeholders (faculty, administrators, and students)? Where should an institution be agile and where should it be traditional? This thought experiment has been occupying a processor in my mind, quietly chugging away, producing ideas and working through the implications.

2015-07-20 06.17.58

After a stunning sunrise, I saw this rainbow on my first day of work at WGU. Perhaps it was a sign.

Now I’m excited to announce that I’ve rejoined Higher Education as the Director of Learning Design for Western Governor’s University.  If you’re not familiar with WGU, it is an incredible institution (non-profit and accredited). The degrees are competency based (no grades), the classes are all online, students can begin a program of study any month, learning materials are provided to students at no additional cost, and the tuition is affordable. WGU separates learning, coaching, and assessment into distinct branches of the institution, providing a very unique and flexible structure.

As Director of Learning Design, I am responsible for the design of the student learning experience (from course design to software ease of use). It is an opportunity to help an already innovative institution incorporate agile processes throughout the learning and course design process. I think I’ve landed in the right place and I can’t wait to see what our design team is going to accomplish in the next few years!

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10 Books to Push Your Thinking about Learning Design

Today I was thinking about what books I would recommend to someone in order to have some experience of the learning journey I’ve been on for the last 8 years.

If you’re looking for some summer reading that will help you grow your mind, here’s my list:

1. Theory of Fun for Game Design: This will help you to understand the principles that make games addictive learning activities and help you create more desire to learn for any audience. Really, I’m not kidding.

2. Bringing Words to Life, Second Edition: Robust Vocabulary Instruction: While this is written for teaching vocabulary to the K-6 age group, the research and activities described in the book are fascinating. The research principles and guidance on how to teach for various categories of words are sound for transfer to any age.

3. Design For How People Learn (Voices That Matter) I think this is a must read for understanding visual design principles related to learning. To be fair, I have also had the benefit of many long and interesting conversations about learning and design with Julie, so on this one, I might be biased.

4. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial Modern Classics) During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life. We should seek to get learners into a state of flow, and then do as little as possible that disrupts them.

5. Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (3rd Edition) (Voices That Matter) You don’t really understand usability until you’ve carefully considered how users interact with the digital interfaces they encounter. Everyone should read at least one book on usability if they are designing a digital product.

6. Cognitive Development and Learning in Instructional Contexts (3rd Edition) An amazing book about learning! James Byrnes is a top-notch explainer. It looks like it might be a textbook, but it is a fascinating and thought-provoking read. My copy has notes and highlights everywhere.

7. Understanding Learning and Teaching (Society for Research Into Higher Education S)The research group associated with Trigwell and Prosser has done some absolutely fascinating work related to motivation to learn, perceptions of the learning environment, perceptions of the discipline, and how students perceive themselves as learners. Most of the research is seated in STEM education, but anyone in education can appreciate the elegantly-designed experiments and their outcomes/implications for learning design.

8. Where Good Ideas Come From There are some great gems in this book (like the adjacent possible concept) that will help you to develop your own practice of innovation and understand that ideas are not as rare as you might think.

9. By Clay Shirky: Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age which can only be read in conjunction with it’s complete opposite, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

10. e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning  This is a newish version of an old standard, but I love it because every “prescription” is backed by research and conflicting studies are carefully dissected into their nuanced differences. It’s an easy read and a good “go to” book for when you need research to have your back.

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University of Copenhagen Keynote

Just thought I would share the recording of “Surviving (and Thriving) in the Age of Digital Enhanced Teaching”, recorded at The University of Copenhagen. It includes some research I’ve been diving into about why student engagement, particularly interactions, are so important for learning. Enjoy!

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Canvas Network Social Media Course

I’ve been working hard on developing an open course for Canvas Network on Social Media. The course is now live and publicly visible. This means you can see all the content pages and modules (but not the discussions or announcements). If you’d like to take a peek, visit Social Media on Canvas Network. Here’s a preview of what you’ll see:

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Reason to Calculate the Vertex

If you ever needed a REASON to calculate the highest point of a parabola that opens downward, here’s one.

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