• Monica Simonsen, Ph.D.

Building Learning Innovation Professional Learning Networks

by Monica Simonsen, Ph.D.

As the role of online learning in higher education evolves, those tasked with managing online learning programs and promoting learning innovation often find themselves craving the connectivity of other professionals who understand the unique challenges they face. As Maloney and Kim (2019b) point out in a recent blog post, a number of professional learning associations have emerged to provide critical frameworks, structure, language, standards, and to foster networking and collaboration among the membership, typically comprised of individuals with similar professional goals. When I attend conferences or participate in webinars sponsored by OLC, EDsurge, UPCEA, etc. …., I take away specific knowledge and new ideas about how I might apply models and strategies to my own work.

Spending time with people who share our preferences and attitudes helps to validate our own- this is called consensual validation (Hampton & Fisher Boyd, 2018). I have certainly done this in my personal life- When one of my friends laments the challenges of staying up late to grade students’ work or worries about missing a meeting because her son is sick, I feel a kinship and empathize immediately- after all, I have been there. I feel comfortable sharing my own experiences and feel validated by theirs. And much like the conversations over coffee with friends, engaging with professionals who I perceive to be similar to me, validates my own experiences. But learning innovation is by definition interdisciplinary (Maloney & Kim, 2019a), existing at the intersection of higher education, learning science, technology, learning analytics, design theories, equity, inclusion, etc. and requires us to collaborate outside of traditional associations and structures.

Maloney and Kim (2019b) argue that scholarly networks must emerge to examine how learning science get translated into the organizational structures of higher education. Consider the following sample learning innovation questions:

· How do I navigate the tension between faculty and administrators in the pursuit of innovation, quality and efficiency?

· How do I manage the risks associated with innovation and facilitate buy-in from the school for a long-term commitment to experiment, learn and adapt?

· What steps can be taken so that faculty are making data-informed decisions in their teaching and advising?

What type of network would be best to address these questions and promote the applied work of learning innovation? Sustained commitment to learning innovation requires an investment of resources. Learning innovation has been described as “applied work” with institutions serving as “informal’ [laboratories] (Maloney & Kim, 2019a) where scholarship is embedded into practice. Thus, the most effective learning innovation networks, regardless of their origin, must include membership from those practioner scholars whose own work is situated between academics and administrative. In the absence of learning innovation departments and/or widespread institutional commitment for the learning innovation, it is imperative that scholars work to create their own interdisciplinary networks- which may include looking outside of one’s institution. While these networks may emerge from professional associations or conference networking, effective networks will persist beyond the conference circuit and have a shared commitment to sustained collaborative work.

It was in this vain that along with a few colleagues from the 2018 OLC IELOL cohort created a network (Collegiate Online ReseArch Leaders) built out of our shared desire to understand organizational structures that promote online learning. CORAL's team represents leaders in online learning from across the United States and has grown through pooled resources (e.g. time, money, graduate student support, etc.) from members with varying degrees of formal institutional support. For example, one member works closely with organizational design faculty and has been able to help our network leverage their expertise. The members with strong technology skills have been tasked for developing and maintaining our social media presence. One member has had some work-study students available to support some administrative tasks.

Our network is committed to collaborating with formal professional organizations but currently exists independently. Over these first six months, we have worked to develop norms and processes to guide our collaboration. We have branched out from one research study to three and from a research-focused collaborative to one that is committed to knowledge dissemination, which is closely aligned with the applied nature of learning innovation. Every founding CORAL member has expressed that participating in the network has resulted in unanticipated professional growth opportunities which has led to a new line of research around the promotors, challenges, and outcomes of professional learning networks.

Investing in sustained learning innovation at the institutional level will require a significant investment of resources. Imagine if we had waited for that commitment to come from each of our respective institutions? As leaders in the field of learning innovation, we cannot wait to innovate! We cannot wait to have enough time, for the university to provide course releases and a budget, for formal structures to emerge, etc. Napoleon Hill once said, “Do not wait; the time will never be ‘just right.’ Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along.” A few tips to help you get started in building your own network:

· Step 1: Join professional organizations. The field of online learning has terrific organizations and many opportunities to connect in person or virtually. Start to identify the questions you have about how learning science and organizational structures within higher education intersect.

· Step 2: Identify a burning question- what is it that you want to understand? What knowledge base do you bring to the conversation? What expertise/discipline/skills would be helpful to answer the question? Who do you already know? Repeat step 1- network with a purpose! Think within your institution and beyond!

· Step 3: Identify what logistical supports are needed Time? Money? Technology? Consider strategies to blend funding and resources efficiently.

· Step 4: Develop a shared vision for the network and establish operating guidelines. Investing in the processes that guide you will foster sustainability.

Good luck in your pursuit of learning innovation! Our work with CORAL is just getting started! Reach out to stay connected! www.coralcollaborative.com


Hampton, A.J., Fisher Boyd, A.N., and Sprecher, S. (2019). You’re like me and I like you:

Mediators of the similarity-liking link assessed before and after a getting acquainted social interaction. Journal of Social and personal relationships,36(7).

Maloney, E.J. and Kim, J. (February 27, 2019). Arguments for a new field of learning innovation. Inside HigherEd.

Maloney, E.J. and Kim, J. (June 26, 2019). Building a learning innovation network.

Inside HigherEd.

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