The Adjacent Possible for Higher Education: The Digital Transformation of Faculty

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Following a year or more of emergency remote teaching and other disruptions in higher education, now is the time for campus and technology leaders to support the digital transformation of faculty.

The Adjacent Possible for Higher Education: The Digital Transformation of Faculty
Credit: sdecoret / © 2021

As educators try to find their equilibrium following a year or more of emergency remote teaching and other disruptions to their personal and professional lives since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many desire to return to a more familiar "normal." Yet this is undeniably a transformative moment for teaching and learning. It is difficult to predict the degree to which educational models and practices will be impacted by the disruption, but a return to "normal" seems unlikely.

In May 2021, John Nworie provided some insights into "What's next for online teaching and learning in higher education?" Nworie addressed several elements of higher education, including faculty:

A recognizable result of the emergency remote teaching is that nearly all faculty members have been forced to think about online instruction. Regardless of the stage of their career, faculty members were expected to deliver their courses remotely during the pandemic.

Faculty now need to be, and deserve to be, part of a professional development effort to improve on the emergency remote courses, acquiring the necessary skills for developing and delivering online and hybrid courses. Those faculty members who lacked prior online teaching experience before the pandemic will most especially need additional training to engage in online instruction.Footnote1

While Nworie was writing about transforming faculty skills in online teaching and learning, we believe that now is the time for digital transformation of faculty more broadly, for both online and face-to-face instruction.

The Adjacent Possible

In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson describes innovation as a natural movement toward change based on where we need to go. He suggests that innovation does not usually mean conjuring up entirely new ideas or solutions out of the blue; rather, new ideas are "built out of a collection of existing parts, the composition of which expands (and, occasionally, contracts) over time."Footnote2 Further, there are many ways to combine "existing parts" in new ways that upend our routinized approaches to how we live and work. For Johnson, this recombining of existing parts in new ways reveals the adjacent possible. Introduced in 2002 by the biologist Stuart Kauffman, the concept of the adjacent possible is similar to the early-twentieth-century Surrealist cultural and artistic movement that used juxtaposition of unrelated ideas or items to spur new realities.

Individual instructors and institutions as a whole will be reckoning with what "existing parts" of emergency remote teaching and learning to keep and what parts to discard. The new landscape will not snap into clear focus immediately but will look more like a kaleidoscopic panorama as changing practices and approaches continue to swirl and shift for some time to come. Borrowing from Johnson, the adjacent possible for each individual and each community is shaped by the "existing parts" with which they start. What is certain is that the breadth of potential change and transformation is unprecedented thanks to the intense and pervasive remote environment that the world has been experiencing since early 2020.


In April 2020, D. Christopher Brooks, Susan Grajek, and Leah Lang reported that with regard to "the technologies, practices, and supports needed for online learning," institutions were at "differing levels of readiness" to address their needs in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.Footnote3 Since then, campuses have undergone rapid changes and made significant investments in technology.Footnote4 Thus, faculty should have access to more technology and have more familiarity with the technologies available on their campuses. Some high-profile educators are even commenting that they now prefer teaching online.Footnote5

Similarly, students' perceptions of and interest in online learning have shifted, and some students are indicating a desire for continued access to delivery modes implemented during the pandemic. The 772 teaching faculty, 514 academic administrators, and 1,413 students who responded to the Digital Learning Pulse survey in Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 revealed that attitudes toward online learning had improved over the last year and that a majority of students "would like to take some fully online courses in the future."Footnote6

Meanwhile the nation's largest four-year university system, the California State University (CSU) system, will likely see more virtual offerings than before the pandemic. CSU Chancellor Joseph Castro sees the opportunity that online learning has to positively impact student success, improve graduation rates, and address equity gaps. In June 2021 he stated: "I very much want to see the CSU achieve this goal of higher graduation rates and eliminating equity gaps. And I think that we can do this by providing the flexibility. The access is so necessary for our students from all different backgrounds to succeed."Footnote7

Another survey, of more than 1,000 undergraduate students whose Spring 2020 face-to-face courses shifted quickly online, revealed that students' satisfaction with their courses declined. However, the authors of an article reporting on the survey point out that the "majority of students (59%) described themselves as at least somewhat satisfied with their courses after the shift to remote instruction." The authors also stress that students' "satisfaction was higher for those courses using more of the practices recommended for effective online instruction."Footnote8

Remote teaching has revealed, with clearer contours and to a broader audience than ever before, what types of online teaching practices are associated with student engagement, satisfaction, and success. The EDUCAUSE Fall 2020 study of 9,499 students from 58 institutions offers a practical overview of these best practices. The study reveals that students reported learning in all modes (completely synchronous, partially asynchronous, completely asynchronous) and environments (face-to-face, blended, online). Well-organized courses and those that were designed to encourage student-student and student-instructor interaction resulted in meaningful learning experiences. "Furthermore, students rated highly courses that created robust social contexts that included opportunities for students to interact formally and informally with their instructors, to interact with other students, and to learn from and teach other students."Footnote9 Clearly, students have new expectations of their faculty.

The Digital Transformation of Faculty

One adjacent possible for many campuses is the digital transformation of faculty. EDUCAUSE defines digital transformation in higher education as "a series of deep and coordinated culture, workforce, and technology shifts that enable new educational and operating models and transform an institution's operations, strategic directions, and value proposition."Footnote10

The needs and culture of an individual campus should drive its planning for digital transformation of faculty. The best way to know what faculty need is to ask them.Footnote11 In addition, the 2021 EDUCAUSE Horizon Report can provide more general insights about possible needs. For example, the report lists macro trends and key technologies and practices. The macro trends are grouped into the categories of social, technological, economic, environmental, and political. The report lists six key technologies and practices: artificial intelligence (AI), blended and hybrid course models, learning analytics, microcredentialing, open educational resources (OER), and quality online learning.Footnote12

While some of these trends, technologies, and practices fall outside of the scope of most campus faculty development efforts (e.g., public funding for higher education is listed in the political trends), many others can be addressed through faculty development. For example, each of the following trends can be supported and facilitated through targeted faculty development efforts: remote work/learning; widespread adoption of hybrid learning models; increased use of learning technologies; online faculty development; reduction in work travel; and increase in online globalization. Likewise, faculty development can improve skills in all six of the key technologies and practices.

Faculty Digital Transformation in Practice

Higher education leaders can leverage the new adjacent possible by developing support to make the use of institutional technologies even easier for faculty. Widespread adoption of institutional technologies such as the learning management system (LMS) may not seem radical or particularly transformative at face value, but making good use of an LMS can support many of the ideas shared in the 2021 EDUCAUSE Horizon Report, such as remote work/learning, hybrid learning models, and blended or hybrid course models. Many modern LMSs also include some functionality for artificial intelligence and learning analytics. We acknowledge that there are discussions about the shortcomings of the LMS as a vehicle for the innovative delivery of learning.Footnote13 However, the LMS can serve as a foundational component for online and blended delivery; therefore, using it to its full potential across a curriculum can have a transformational impact on an institution's capacity for further innovation.

At the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Charlotte, the use of the campus LMS varied in saturation and in sophistication of use. The Center for Teaching and Learning team developed two easy-to-duplicate tools to extend and improve the use of the campus LMS. The first tool is a standard LMS course template for any faculty member to download and adapt. The template promoted a standard organization and design, one of the most requested features by students immediately after the move to emergency remote teaching. It also features a calendar, easy-to-use messaging, and a gradebook. Self-guided resources, including FAQs and videos, were developed, and two-day bootcamp-style training was also offered.

The second tool is a customizable checklist for online course design. The checklist includes a comprehensive list of elements that students requested and that guide faculty to use evidence-based best practices for online delivery. The checklist was developed based on feedback from students, student support units such as the Center for Academic Excellence, the Office of Academic Integrity, and the Student Success Working Group Committee. It is organized into two categories—Foundational/Must-Have and Extra-Mile/Nice-to-Have—and provides space for departments or colleges to add their own recommended elements.

Comprehensive communication and messaging around these tools helped all stakeholders understand their value and ease-of-use. Messaging to faculty and administrative leadership emphasized that the tools were developed from evidenced-based best practices and, more importantly, were created to respond to students' specifically stated needs. In turn, academic leadership promoted the tools directly to faculty and department chairs, encouraging their adoption and use. This very organic approach to using "existing parts" in new ways responded to the immediate needs at hand to improve the learning experience for students and to provide faculty with tools that would be familiar and easy to adopt.

Another facet of the adjacent possible for UNC Charlotte relates to the university's solid investment in quality online course design, tied to one of the key practices outlined in the 2021 EDUCAUSE Horizon Report: quality online learning. (The report authors noted the rapid ascension of this practice, which was not included in previous reports yet garnered numerous submissions for 2021.) UNC Charlotte has a long-standing and robust Quality Matters program that includes a dedicated course design program, a faculty fellow program, and institutional- and system-level commitment to the program. Nonetheless, before the pandemic, quality online course design and delivery was not extensively normalized beyond courses and programs offered through the Office of Distance Education. The move to emergency remote teaching highlighted the need and value of purposeful and aligned course design and deliberate and meaningful facilitation practices that are unique for the online medium.

For UNC Charlotte, the path of the adjacent possible is defined by the characteristics and existing practices described above. Digital transformation is not one-size-fits-all; therefore, using the Horizon Report to identify areas of activity and strength can be a valuable way for campus leaders to find their own adjacent possible. In an April EDUCAUSE webinar on the topic of the Horizon Report, Mark McCormack, senior director of analytics and research at EDUCAUSE, acknowledged that strategizing in a context of significant and persistent disruption and uncertainty can be a challenge for even the most seasoned leaders. He explained that the Horizon Report format offers multiple scenarios that can be used as starting points for higher education strategists and leaders to initiate forecasting and planning conversations on their campus, and he suggested they remain open and flexible for both the near and the longer term.Footnote14


Faculty have access to more technology than they did in early 2020, and they have more familiarity with that technology. Their skills related to teaching and learning with technology have also expanded. Many are embracing the skills they have developed and the technology tools they have learned to use. It is now up to campus and technology leaders to help faculty embrace the adjacent possible of digital transformation.


  1. John Nworie, "Beyond COVID-19: What's Next for Online Teaching and Learning in Higher Education?" EDUCAUSE Review, May 19, 2021. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (2010; New York: Riverhead Books, reprint, 2011), p. 35. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. D. Christopher Brooks, Susan Grajek, and Leah Lang, "Institutional Readiness to Adopt Fully Remote Learning," EDUCAUSE Review, April 9, 2020). Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. Richard Garrett, Bethany Simunich, Ron Legon, and Eric Fredericksen, CHLOE 6: Online Learning Leaders Adapt for a Post-Pandemic World (Quality Matters, 2021). Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
  5. Beth McMurtrie, "Why an Active-Learning Evangelist Is Sold on Online Teaching," Chronicle of Higher Education, May 27, 2021. Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
  6. Lindsay McKenzie, "Students Want Online Learning Options Post-Pandemic," Inside Higher Ed, April 27, 2021. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
  7. Castro quoted in Colleen Shalby, "Many CSU Students See Big Upsides to Online Learning. Now, There Is a Push to Expand It," Los Angeles Times, June 4, 2021. Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
  8. Barbara Means and Julie Neisler, "Teaching and Learning in the Time of COVID: The Student Perspective," Online Learning 25, no. 1 (March 2021). Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.
  9. D. Christopher Brooks, "Student Experiences Learning with Technology in the Pandemic," research report (Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE, 2021). Jump back to footnote 9 in the text.
  10. EDUCAUSE, "Dx: Digital Transformation of Higher Education" (website), accessed September 10, 2021. Jump back to footnote 10 in the text.
  11. Christine Siegel, "What Will Weary Faculty Members Need Post-Pandemic?," Chronicle of Higher Education, May 5, 2021. Jump back to footnote 11 in the text.
  12. Kathe Pelletier et al., 2021 EDUCAUSE Horizon Report: Teaching and Learning Edition (Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE, 2021). Jump back to footnote 12 in the text.
  13. Kristin Kipp, “Exploring the Future of the Learning Management System,” International Journal on Innovations in Online Education, November 13, 2018. Jump back to footnote 13 in the text.
  14. D. Christopher Brooks, Malcolm Brown, Mark McCormack, and Kathe Pelletier, "Exploring the 2021 Teaching and Learning Horizon Report," EDUCAUSE webinar, April 27, 2021. Jump back to footnote 14 in the text.

Charles B. Hodges is Professor of Instructional Technology at Georgia Southern University.

Heather McCullough is Associate Director of Faculty Development at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

© 2021 Charles B. Hodges and Heather McCullough. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.