Thursday, 10 September 2015

Confessions of a Learning Technologist

I've been a Learning Technologist for 5+ years now (at the time of writing), and I feel it's time to express my views of the role and it's expectations and possible concerns.  I will summarise my experience about the fundamentals, pedagogical requirements, application of technology and organisational value and impact of the Learning Technologist through my experience.

I started my Learning Technologist role with little knowledge of teaching and no experience of Technology Enhanced Learning.  However, I always say that it's always down to how much you want something that will determine how much effort you put in.  I really wanted to do this role as it was set in education and applied Information Communication Technology (ICT).  Two things that I was really interested in but wasn't sure what to do with them.  There's more on this story here.

The fundamentals

When I first started my role I had no initial training on what it was about, only the department and what we did, which obviously was a big clue.  But for someone new to it I believe the role needs a proper induction of what it is about and what is expected.  Does everyone know the true understanding of face-to-face, blended and online learning?  We think we do, but the understanding is ever changing and growing.  I've described here briefly what I believe to be expected of a Learning Technologist which I wrote for my apprentices for when I introduce them better on it.  When I started my role I just threw myself into it, literally by getting to grips with Moodle, Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).  Most organisations have a VLE and Moodle was ours.  I knew nothing about it and never used it before.  I was unfortunate to not experience this when I was a learner.  But maybe I was lucky as little eLearning actually occurs on them, which I will talk a bit more on later.  I started off by creating activities and exploring their potential as well as learning the administration features.  When I had meetings with teachers about Moodle, I would always be enthusiastic in getting them to use the interactive functions.  Even if I didn't know at this point the principles of learning and teaching I would still promote them where I could.  I even created examples using their content I found in their PowerPoints and other static documents they had on their Moodle pages.  It's here where I started to learn a lot of pedagogy from teachers through conversations.  They would tell me about how and why they could use the functions and in most cases why they couldn't.  So I got smart and started to find out alternatives of how they could!

I think most teachers and other staff thought I was there only to promote the benefits of Moodle and show the latest updates of it.  Either that or think I am some sort of geeky techie guy that will bore them with lots of fancy technical gadgets that no one will be able to use.  Learning Technologists are not geeks or techie people in disguise.  Although they can be a huge benefit to the role!  We are educationalists, we aim and seek to improve learning and teaching with technology.  The availability of technology is growing more each day and the more it is being used the more pressure there is to use it in education, business or leisure.  With this growing pressure, there is a risk of utilising technology for technologies sake.  This is a great risk to the learner and teacher as they could potentially demotivate learners and decrease their satisfaction and retention dramatically.  Each Learning Technologist is different in every organisation and I believe that they should be adaptable and flexible and mould into their organisational surroundings and/or subjects they deal with.  This is key to the role as it enables you to delve into the subject and collaborate with experts so that you can study the course content and suggest and evaluate the right technologies.

I love this role as you're examining the learning and teaching process and using your creativity with technology to enhance the process.  You shouldn't try to reinvent the wheel, but look at how the process can be redefined for a 21st century approach to education.  Early learning theories are great to start off with and build upon, however a Learning Technologist must also look at ePedagogies and implement these where necessary.  It's here where the Learning Technologist can make a difference by putting theory into practice but with purpose.  Not just using technology for technologies sake.  It has to have meaning behind it and pedagogical meaning at that.  It's my assumption that many believe technology is just there to appear fancy and just to tick a box.  When really it has a lot of value for both the learning experience and teaching practice.  Like with any lesson planning, Technology Enhanced Learning needs good planning and preparation behind it.  If it doesn't, it will fail and leave the learner and teacher feeling disengaged and less confident of it working.  A Learning Technologist should be enthusiastic and proactive in working with teachers at all subjects and levels.  Along with great communication skills, creativity, willingness and self-motivation.  The more a Learning Technologist gets involved with a teacher, the more they will understand the learning, teaching and assessment process.  Even speaking and being with learners is a great way to get involved.  Because at the end of the day, both the teacher and Learning Technologist's work is for the learner.  So why not go straight to the learner and discuss and work with them on how they learn.

Pedagogical requirements

A great Learning Technologist should have sound understanding of learning and teaching theory and practice.  To me this is essential as a Learning Technologist cannot apply the role fully without the science of learning and teaching; pedagogy.  It's also useful for delivering training sessions which is a typical requirement of the role.  Plus, if you have anyone to supervise it helps with line managing.  As a basic, taking the Level 3 Award in Education and Training would suffice at a college, school or community learning centre, however if it's at a University much more understanding is required for complex pedagogical development.  So a Level 5 and above is necessary or have or the ambition of achieving it.  In 2011 I did the former PTLLS which I initially wanted to do to just give me that understanding of teaching which I never had.  After this I was hooked and wanted to learn more about teaching.  So I went onto to do CTLLS in 2012 and then onto DTLLS.  However, I was a bit late to knowing and doing this but the Certified Membership of the Association for Learning Technology (CMALT) was a great way for me to assess what I know, what I need to know and what area(s) I would like to progress or direct myself into.  It allowed me to reflect on my knowledge and skills and think about where I am taking my role.  I wish I could have done this at the beginning as it really did give me a boost of confidence but give me the urge to develop myself more.  I recommend that a Learning Technologist needs to understand and know a great depth of learning and teaching so that when new technologies are being evaluated and developed, relevant pedagogies or ePedagogies are being applied to ensure that learning is at the heart of the task.  Technology does not learn or teach, a teacher and Learning Technologist is required to ensure that this happens and is appropriate to the learners and teachers.

Application of technology

Once a Learning Technologist feels comfortable in their role and duties there comes a need to extend your knowledge and skills outside your office and even organisation.  Not long after I had started my role I created a LinkedIn and Twitter account.  Back then I had never really used these properly.  I used LinkedIn to connect with other professionals and join groups to see the shared practice and resources others were doing.  Although a lot of it was commercial I did find some things that were useful.  I created a Twitter account to initially use the list feature.  I followed various professionals and added them to specific lists so I could look any tweets about particular topics.  I didn't tweet much then, well not proactively.  I began tweeting properly in 2012 when I felt the confidence and urge to share what I was doing and creating.  Today I tweet a fair bit, more so reflective and evaluative expressions, all to do with lifelong learning and eLearning is in there too.  It is essential for a Learning Technologist to keep up to date with the ever growing availability of digital tools.  However it is important these tools are properly evaluated and that they are fit for purpose.  It doesn't matter what technology is used as long as learning outcomes are met.  Technology is not everything, it is as an end, not a means.   I once said:  Everyone uses technology, maybe without knowing. It's tapping into that and making it into learning opportunities.  Learners demands are high for instant and flexible content.  You as the teacher need to enable accessibility and flexibility through imagination and creativity to reach learners of today.  This is what blended and online learning is about, adapting learning and teaching in different ways.

The same year I started this role I went to a number of  regional events such as the Jisc ones like Moodle User Group, Jisc Summer Conference and LearnPod to name a few!  I found these events great to attend to learn about new practices and technologies.  I even participated in some activities and got interviewed on many occasions.  But the most valuable part for me was talking to other professionals informally at the breaks and around lunch.  That's where real networking is and you can learn a great deal from those chats and then getting their contact details and following up with more discussions etc.  I was very vulnerable at these events at the beginning, but when I felt more confident I started to deliver sessions myself.  I shared good practice on what I had been doing as well as asking others on thought provoking questions with what I wanted to gain from the event too.  Which is really important, you need to know what you want to get out or any event or training.  Due to these events I have been recognised for what I know and do which has lead to me supporting other organisations.  It's also good to collect useful links as well as contacts as you'll need this at hand when delivering training or asked about ideas of how people can use the technology.  Joining online groups and networking to build rapport up with others in a similar role is always good, it helps you to bring in new ideas to an organisation and bounce off any other ideas you might have.  Over the years I have created my self a nice little network of individuals that I love to collaborate with and have good chat with.  Today I still talk to these people and we're not just professional enthusiasts, but friends that share.

Organisational value and impact

In many organisations the Learning Technologist may be viewed or perceived to be more than they are (rare) or not (often).  I find the Learning Technologist can be viewed as someone who is known to just manage a VLE (Moodle man/woman) or just showing people the latest technology or training them on how to use it.  True, it is a part, but that's far from the reality of the role.  As I said before you can't use technology for technologies sake.  It requires the understanding of learning, teaching, assessment and skills in using ICT.  But Learning Technologists are also responsible for driving change.  Without them organisations run the risk of using the same technology with the same ideas.  Which can demotivate both learner and teacher.  This also doesn't help 'sell' the notion that technology does enhance learning and practice.  A Learning Technologist acts as a mediator between the pedagogy and technology.  It's a delicate process of translation between teaching methods.

I feel that teachers and higher management still need convincing of learning technology and it's actual role.  Yes it does reduce physical lesson time (depending on how the technology is used) and costs.  But this is the wrong approach and shouldn't be considered to cut quality of education and costs of employees.  I feel that there is mixed messages on how some people interpret the role.  It is somewhat misunderstood what we actually do and the processes we go through.  I feel teachers appreciate the Learning Technologist as they are at hand to help them use technology.  But it always ends up being more than that.  I find I end up giving suggestions on how to adapt teaching methods and creating activities in which the teacher can deliver.  I become a teacher of sorts, a sort that delves into their practice and uprooting their teacher training to remind them of certain aspects.  I even link teachers up with other teachers and internally and externally to share their great practice of technology.

In the future I feel the Learning Technologist role may dwindle in numbers, but the actual duties will become stronger and more powerful.  Perhaps be more incorporated into teacher education programmes.  However, there is an abundance of Technology Enhanced Learning qualifications available now.  As our digital literacy skills grown stronger and more competent the less training will be required.  However, the need for Technology Enhanced Learning theory still remains much desired and wanted to ensure that it is appropriately and effectively used in education.

Finally and thoughtfully...

If eLearning "was" just copying, pasting and uploading a file, there wouldn't be a wealth of pedagogic and academic research on it.

eLearning is really independent learning in disguise.

And one that I found...

 "Technology won't replace good teachers but teachers who use technology effectively will replace those who don't."

EDIT:  I reflected on this further in a later blog post 'Describing my learning technologist role'.