The year of 2016 ends soon. I didn’t write a post here until now. Giving a brief summary, it’s a year of half of the time spending on family responsibilities and half of the time being busy for making progress in an inefficient process (I don’t like this part, but sometimes I have to accept the fact).

At the end of the two years working on the “enablement officer” secondment role, I see the role of “learning technologist” clearer. Linking back to my previous post, I think it’s necessary to write down my experience and lessons as a learning technologist (if I dare to call myself so).

What it is and what it is not

Basically to me, there are many of us who work in this area have similar background. I use a diagram to indicate it. However, this doesn’t say people who are originally from different backgrounds do not have the capability to do an excellent job in the area. This diagram is a simple example which shows how our own biases can be in the area.

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In the diagram A and B stand for people who work in the IT and the Education. C stands for people who work in Learning Technology area.

A: knowledge originally was from IT background (I mean people understand how/why a system was designed, implemented and developed in certain way). This is gained either from education or from long work experience in the area of IT. Considering a context such as higher education, people in the area need to gain the knowledge of education and pedagogy to be able to understand if a technology helps teaching and learning. Gradually the C area appears.

B: knowledge originally was gained from studying the Education subject or from adequate experience of teaching/researching. It is not easy for people working in education to avoid technology or say “digital”. Some of them start to learn IT or understand how technology works. They see the benefits and the limits that technology brings into education. They are the ones who put spurs to the C area.

C: People who work in this area have the adequate knowledge/experience in both A and B, and I think more and more people are going to work in C area. Trying to separate the IT capabilities and pedagogy support from the learning technologist’s work will make their work even harder.

I like what Matt Cornock said in his blog post “Learning Technologist – Oldest job around?“.

… learning technologists are seen as problem solvers working to understand and improve pedagogy, rather than problem makers who would otherwise try to force technology where it doesn’t fit.”

In higher education, there is a need that staff become more technologically adaptive and confident, but it doesn’t mean technology is the key. I agree that the core of the learning technologist role is not about the technology itself, rather is more about helping to resolve the pedagogic problems that the teaching/learning is facing. Understanding the user experience and help users to adapt and explore the benefits and constrains of using technology is the key.

My understanding of the required skills of a learning technologist role does not change much. According to the particular task we work on, some skills are required more than others. I list the knowledge/skill that I found is essential:

  • pedagogies in higher education (I need to improve myself a lot. This is related to my knowledge of the UK Education and policies.)
  • website, webpage, and HTML(5)
  • the ability to identify if a problem is a technical bug/defect
  • effective communication (I need to improve myself a lot. This is related to my knowledge of the UK culture to a good extent.)
  • both online and face-to-face presentation (I need to improve myself on podcasting. This is because I am not very confident as a ESL person. However strangely I feel fine with face-to-face presentation.)
  • coordinating webinars/virtual classrooms (I need to improve myself a lot.)
  • learn/share good practice and/or lessons from/to peers (Being visible and connected is the way!)

The work wasn’t easy and is still challenging. Below are the areas that I feel difficult in my work over the past two years.

An easy-reach contact/sharing structure 

I like to encourage self-directed experiential learning. My assumption was that nowadays it’s not easy to avoid using technology (e.g., pay bills online, online shopping, video chat smart phone, attending webinars, etc.). People use technology and learn how to use technology unconsciously. With the assumption, my “advocate” approach didn’t work as good as I expected. I thought with telling users where the resources are, they will learn themselves. Actually I realised that I need to work alongside with them. I work in a central division rather than in a school/department, one of the barriers is that there are often too many service/management tiers between us and the actual users. The communication process is lengthy and tardy. Another barrier is that learning technologists were not involved in working with academic/professional services staff at the beginning to avoid many problems regarding to making decisions. This is often impossible.

What I learnt is that learning technologists are the people whom the academic/professional services staff need to contact directly at first when they are starting to think about adopting technology in practice. Learning technologists help them to identify their pedagogic problems, choose tools, learn the tools quickly and prepare/deliver activities. Learning technologists share the user cases with other users, evaluate the technology adoption, and feed the experience/lessons back to the technology providers and user community.

Various methods are essential

Following the point above, another barrier is that users are at different levels in terms of essential digital skills/knowledge, so does the learning technologists have different level of expertise in terms of learning technology support. For example, from my experience of delivering support resources, it showed that working on a single approach to encouraging self-directed experience learning is inefficient. I may have created information-rich resources and made them available for users, however without going through the resources with users, some may say they don’t have time to read, some may say they don’t understand, and some may say they can’t find the specific information. Relating to where the resources were, who created them and who updated them, I realised that we need to provide various types of key resources and deliver them to users by different channels. For example, delivering a user guide in a way that users can learn easily may need us to provide a step-by-step one page printable guide, a 3 minutes audio/video clip to explain the guide, a diagram that shows the relationship between this guide and relevant resources, regular webinar training sessions, and follow-up user experience Q&As and feedback. It requires a lot of work from learning technologists as sometimes many of them are different formats, but similar content; sometimes it needs creativity, and sometimes it’s about project management.

Teams and organisational knowledge

By my own experience, I got the impression that individual learning technologist rather than a team is seen as key resource by institutions, and they have been managed like they can do any other learning technologists’ work at a same quality level, or say, hold the same set of knowledge/skills. In many cases, core values of teams are unseen and not identified, and team knowledge is not addressed. Many learning technologists work on their own without supporting/understanding from the institutional level. What kind of knowledge is shared and how knowledge is shared are determined by the individuals. Meanwhile, likely we only bring users a short-term satisfaction because the technologies are delivered before a responsible robust team is ready. Here what I mean a “team” is that people feel they belong to and work for a team goal rather than a team in an operational framework.

Community of practice is a way that tries to bridge the gap, however learning technologists team building and organisational knowledge management are weak.

Leadership skills

I noticed that it requires good leadership skills in the learning technologist role. One of the important aspects of the role is that learning technologists provide recommendations and work with users toward the most workable solution. They need be creative due to the tight budget. In addition, their work impacts on user’s views, user’s experience, and the proliferation of a technology. They even need to shove people’s (particularly the senior managers, senior academic staff, and “conventional” users) perceptions of IT and learning technologies. There are few opportunities for learning technologists to develop leadership skills. I like this simple video that explains what is leadership; it’s different from management!

At the time I wrote this post, my colleague Dewi Parry sent us a blog post “A Learning Technologists Dilemma” written by @KerryPinny. It’s a helpful post that encourages me to think about what I can do next.

Understanding the situation more

I read a book “Scarcity: Why too little means so much” recently. Although the empirical research was from economists’ focus on the problem of scarcity, that is, on how people allocate their resources in the face of many competing demands, I recommend this book to everyone. I found that I was in the situations too many times like the cases discussed in the book. I was thinking it’s about self-control, people’s ability to learn or a part of the individual’s natural characters. However, this book sheds light on human cognitive tunnel, which explains the limits what we are able to see, and therefore what we do. It may help us to understand the situation we are in.

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