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Institutional Ecosystems for Substantive, Sustainable, and Scalable Digital Learning

Dr. Jane E. Neapolitan


I spent 20 years of my career as a faculty member and administrator at a teaching institution. It was only in the last 5 or so years, however, that the question “What makes good teaching?” was raised openly. As we’ve seen from an increase in centers for teaching and learning, outstanding teaching awards, and national and international conferences to support teaching innovation, we are now experiencing a renaissance that compels us to think more carefully about structures and systems for not only teaching but learning encompassed by the higher education ecosystem1 . In particular, when we think about partnerships between educational institutions and technology that seek to align broad institutional goals with student learning, we have to face that each higher education institution is a microcosm unto itself. My long history as clinical faculty and researcher within the school-university-community partnership movement2 prepared me for collaboration with partners and stakeholders who held varying degrees of power, authority, decision-making, and control over critical issues that could either advance or thwart efforts to improve learning. This lens can also be applied when examining intrainstitutional relationships to advance learning in higher education.


The metaphor of “insiders and outsiders” has been used to describe the cultural challenge faced by those who are tasked with managing the change process. 3 As I separate the layers of participants who hold varying degrees of power, authority, decision-making, and control over what is taught and how classroom learning is construed within an institution of higher education, the metaphor of insiders and outsider can also be applied (see Figure 1). In other words, if we put student learning as a set of student-teacher and student-student relationships at the center of the intra-institutional ecosystem, then we can stratify those groups who are the closest influencers (i.e., insiders) and those who have a stake or interest in student learning but are traditionally less influential in matters of curriculum and teaching (i.e., outsiders). Insiders obviously include teacher-student interactions as well as student-student interactions viz-a-viz a course or program. This is where the enactment of the formal curriculum plays out, and where the formal curriculum has its greatest potential to affect learning. Logically, academic departments and programs are also insiders as they communicate curriculum standards and norms for teaching inside the community of practice of a department or academic division.

The formal authority for the quality of teaching and learning is academic affairs. Although some would argue academic affairs is less of a direct influence on the enacted curriculum or learning experience, it is nonetheless held responsible for providing resources and meeting standards to sustain the quality of the classroom experience for all students. Academic affairs enables integrity and quality assurance for the curriculum, and exercises authority for its articulation (vertical organization) and coordination (horizontal organization).

Depending on the culture of the particular institution, instructional technology services can be positioned as either an insider or outsider. In the best situation, it can serve as a bridge between the insider circles of academic operations and the outsider circles that include, but are not limited to, student affairs, athletics, administration and finance, president’s cabinet, board of trustees, and community partners. At its best, instructional technology services impact student learning by creating pathways for improved student success. However, today some would argue that instructional technology services are no longer considered a major influencer for affecting learning. With the adoption (and expense) of the campus-wide learning management system (LMS), we have already made an investment in technology for learning, so why do we need more?


Now with the onset of the COVID-19 virus, preparedness for online learning in higher education is more at risk than ever. Existing threats such as declines in enrollments, decreases in revenue, and pressures to produce evidence of real-world learning are now exacerbated by the overwhelming need to accelerate the construction of well-designed courses that can be readily facilitated by instructors with little or no online teaching experience. Such an emergency requires the collaboration of insiders and outsiders to find solutions that are substantive, sustainable, and scalable during this time of optimal opportunity for changing the dynamics of the intra-institutional ecosystem.

Although the layers of stakeholders that comprise the ecosystem may be separated organizationally, we all continue to be focused on the success of our students. The teacherstudent relationship remains at the center of our work and, as such, is still our core business proposition. In The 2020 Survey of College and University Chief Aca demic Officers , 91% of Provosts said that in the next year they will fund programs aligned with their institution’s mission4. Yet, how can such alignment be achieved in a substantive, sustainable, and scalable way without the input of both insiders and outsiders? One approach is to reposition instructional technology services so that its sphere of influence becomes a flexible one—one that allows for not only the vetting and procurement of new technologies but also for brokering genuine dialogue between educational technology companies (outside-outsiders!) and other stakeholders.


Yes. There are many companies out there vying for your attention during this time of heightened alert. Some are tried and true while others have been seeking newer, targeted solutions in the rapidly changing (and now crisis-ridden) ecosystem for learning. Some companies, such as ClearAlignment, are envisioned and led by experienced professors and administrators who understand the insider-outsider environment of higher education. By creating structures that allow instructional technology services and edtech companies an opportunity to engage in sustained dialogue with both insiders and outsiders, together we can expedite processes to find solutions that are substantive, sustainable, and scalable. Let us help you take a giant step forward.


  1. Kim, J., & Maloney, E. (2020). Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education. Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore, MD.
  2. Neapolitan, J. E. (Ed.) (2011). Taking stock of professional development schools: What’s needed now. New York: National Society for the Study of Education.
  3. Trachtman, R. (1997). The stories of insiders. In M. Levine & R. Trachtman (Eds.), Making professional development schools work: Politics, practice and policy (pp. 185-193). New York: Teachers College Press.
  4. Jaschik, S., & Lederman, D. (Eds.) (2020). The 2020 Survey of College and University Chief Academic Officers. Inside Higher Ed.

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