Framing R&D Questions
A recent article in Inside higher Education asked the question, How Much Should We Be Spending on Learning R&D? In that article, the author notes the R&D expenditures of leading companies and wonders if higher education should be doing the same thing and, if so, what that kind of R&D would look like. The article didn't get much of a response but it should have. It asks a fundamental question that illuminates one undesirable consequence of higher education's emergence from its legacy as a guild in which product management is controlled by the talent and energies (or the lack thereof) of those who deliver its products rather than by intelligent design of the enterprise.
Who Is in Charge of R&D?
We are all well acquainted with the received view that each member of the faculty directs her own R&D more or less without oversight. In my view, a stronger case can be made that the executive leadership of the institution is in charge of determining how much revenue should be allocated to R&D to support continuous improvement in the institution's basic function. Executive leadership is also in charge of ensuring that budgets, behaviors, and results reflect those allocation decisions.
R&D on What?
How much R&D is appropriate? To what focus? How much are we spending right now?
Colleges and universities deliver a number of services and products that define their overall structure and place in the community. For most colleges and universities, the case is overwhelming that teaching is the institution's core function. Yet teaching is complex in that it entails learning and learning entails assessment of learning which may go so far as to entail the impact of learning which is linked to credentials (credits, certificates, degrees, licenses, etc.) which can also be viewed as products. Teaching can also be complex in that process and product are sometimes difficult to separate, although seldom difficult to distinguish. These kinds of complexity give rise to disagreements about the merits of various ways of looking at teaching, learning, outcomes, and impact as the institution's central mission.
These disagreements about the complexity of teaching, learning, and impact are sometimes exploited as a basis for doing nothing. Doing nothing in the way of R&D is a path most institutions have been following since 1906.
The magnitude of this mistake is revealed by asking a simple question. How much better would we be at teaching if every college and university had, for the last 110 years, allocated 2% of its teaching revenue to improving teaching?
While these legitimate disagreements may alter the focus of an R&D strategy and agenda; they do not alter the rationale for performing it.
Nature of R&D
When R&D focuses on teaching and learning, the learning and measurement sciences are central to most investigations. Robust experimental and quasi-experimental designs are possible and findings, when aggregated and disseminated, will improve one or more aspects of the instructional process.
Different methodological approaches may be justified when R&D focuses on the dissemination of knowledge, credentials, and other forms of impact. It is unlikely that we can or would always want to secure tight control over variables when we are assessing downstream effects and corollaries.
In all, teaching, learning, credentialing, and assessing outcomes and impact represent a large, interesting, and challenging field. A field, by the way, shared with cognitive and brain scientists, research methodology, and measurement statisticians.
How Much Do Other Sectors Spend?
While each industry and institution within it must set its own R&D targets, it is possible to derive some guidelines from similar disciplines. Looking at PWC's chart on 2015 North American R&D expenditures by sector we see Software at 16%, Healthcare at 11%, Telecom at 8%, Aerospace at 3% and the lowest, Consumer, at 2%. Aggregate R&D spending is approximately 5% of revenue.
How Much Do We Spend?
If we limit our focus to R&D funded by the institution for the specific purpose of developing and evaluating more effective and more efficient ways to teach and ensure learning, most US colleges and universities spend nothing.
The picture improves somewhat if we expand the notion of R&D to include externally funded research projects carried out by researchers in departments of education, psychology, cognition, brain sciences, and others. Should these funded research projects count as institutional R&D expenditures? They should if the findings are applied and tested more broadly throughout the institution. They should not count if no one outside of the department is aware of the research and there is no initiative to apply findings to improve teaching and learning.
How to Think About Education R&D
Having sketched the affirmative case, let's look at the other side of the argument. One could argue that a particular college or university is a structural template analogous to a franchise. In this analogy, the R&D is conducted elsewhere (e.g., McDonald's corporate research facility) and the individual franchisee delivers the products or services structured by that R&D. By this analogy, schools simply deliver the teaching and evaluation practices extant in the profession and among those whom they hire to teach.
This would be a good argument if there were a robust research and development community whose responsibility it was to train college professors how to teach. Unfortunately, there is no such community and most college professors have no idea how to teach in ways that rest on the modern learning, measurement, and brain sciences. Most professors teach the way they were taught and so it goes, recursively, back to 1906, the period in which we developed the "read this chapter, listen to me lecture, ask questions, take this test" model for organizing classrooms.
Why don't we own the fact we choose not to spend a few percent of our teaching revenue on R&D? Why pretend that our classrooms are modern when they are organized around practices that predate the relevant sciences? My recommendation: find a way to fund ongoing research on how to improve quality - especially efficiency - in the classroom. It will pay to do so.