Friday, 21 February 2020

10 years in learning technology

10 years ago tomorrow, 22 February 2010, I first stepped foot into my learning technology role. 10 years on and what a journey it has been.  I'd like to take a moment to celebrate my commitment and growth in this interesting, ever-evolving and complex field of work… I really did land on my feet with my first learning technologist role in FE.  Not only was I getting job satisfaction with being it people and technology focused, but I feel I found my purpose and connection with what I love: learning, sharing it and supporting people to make the most of themselves and what they're trying to achieve.  Followed by working with educators of all kinds and the creativity and innovation that it brings.  It changed my life.

I regularly share my career journey through this blog, most notably my blog posts Confessions of a Learning TechnologistDescribing my learning technologist role'What makes a Learning Technologist' - my story and Growth - from roots to shoots that detail more about my career/educational origins and direction.  In this blog post I’ll share my observations and experiences of how I feel the landscape of learning technology has changed, since I started in FE right through to my digital practice role in HE.  I share briefly about the differences between FE and HE in another blog post.

To start, here are some remarkable milestones I have achieved in my education career timeline:

Whilst I looked through some old unforgiving pictures of me (below) and some older stills, I felt quite emotional from where I started off in FE.  Many faces I have not seen for a while but instantly brought back memories.  This blog post has been very cathartic and allowed me to actually stop and savour those experiences I had and the situations I put myself in to grow.

The following is a commentary to some questions I asked myself.

What changes have I noticed since my first learning technologist role?

Learning Technologist role - I find that it's not as niche as it was, but remains critical and specialist to organisations.  I'm speaking from the point when I first started out in FE, salaries for senior/manager learning technology positions were much higher and regarded, like IT/network managers.  Perhaps others were unfamiliar/ill-informed on learning technology or it was generally misunderstood/unrealised on its purpose and value, hence offering more pay.  Plus, due to the increasing importance and changes in practice and policy, learning technology roles are now in abundance in an array of forms, but with sometimes decreasing worth and salaries - sector and organisation specific cases.

The overall learning technologist role continues to be pragmatic and a mediator of sorts, bridging pedagogy to digital technology.  A role that requires you to understand digital, exploit pedagogical potential and train/support staff in the appropriate application.  However, I feel that the role is more consultative than before, where previously we were more targeted at 'show and tell' of kit and what buttons to push, which still have their place, but are now more about explaining, guiding and scaffolding thinking on the application of pedagogy.  We are THE people to have in conversations about their pedagogical rationale/application, purpose/value added, course design, implementation/rollout plans, skills development etc.  We respond to digital practice changes rather than just the piece of digital technology itself.  Also, it's not just about moving towards or being digital or supporting them, but also 'health checking' those that are established with digital.  I.e. is it still purposeful to the activity or task?

A learning technologist may not know all the solutions upfront, but being involved in the conversation(s) is to understand the required learning and teaching needs to analyse and (hopefully and successfully) arrive at a possible #edtech solution. #altc

The word digital is more and more being discussed of it's omission from organisational language and job titles and sometimes projects.  The general consensus I am picking up is that the majority of people feel that digital just enhances what we already do - digital is people and that it's not a new thing, just a new place and space for what we already carry out.  In education, I feel there has been a turn in the tide that not everything needs to be digital, as it once was urged to be.  However, innovation with digital needs to take more prominence, which is often inhibited by time, resources and costs etc.  More on this topic in my recent research “What makes a Learning Technologist?” – Part 1 of 4: Job titles, plus the blog posts on my role I mentioned in the second paragraph.

My blog still remains the most appropriate tool for me to develop and structure my reflective thinking.  Without it, I don't think my thoughts could be better realised and structured.  I could use Microsoft Word or a paper-based journal, but the power in publishing it openly to the wider world gives me a greater sense of purpose and direction.  My personal use of learning technology hangs on a Tweet I made on 19 March 2019 - "A snippet of how #edtech supports me. I'm largely a reflector & work best thinking stuff through. I feel I'm not as quick with critical responses face-to-face & articulating myself. Without my blog & other digital spaces, I wouldn't be able to express myself as clearly."

Digital skills - Important as before but now emphasised as digital capabilities.  Interchangeable words with similar meaning throughout the decade include: digital literacy; digital fluency; digital sophistication; digital resilience; digital dexterity; digitally savvy.  For academics, providing Continuous Professional Development (CPD) on different aspects and via creative methods has been the norm.  However, I strongly feel providing role-specific digital skills consultancy in the form of building a bespoke contextual programme has huge potential.  It is something I am currently leading on, essentially its learning design meets digital skills.  For learners, its encouraged by embedding digital skills in the curriculum.  Not just on using kit but enabling and empowering learners to create digital content/artefacts to demonstrate their knowledge, skills and characters, rather just uploading say static documents.

Social media - Back then it used to have a lot of stigma attached to it, i.e, the blurriness of personal and professional boundaries.  In my training sessions it wasn't unusual having a small debate on professional relationships with social media as well as a dash of coaxing.  Most courses now use social media as a staple 'technology requirement', either within the course or encouraged outside of it, or just happens naturally amongst learners.  Social media was and is still is highly popular amongst academics and learners.  Also, back in 2010 it wasn’t used in entertainment and news.  Now it's the norm to promote a hashtag and read viewers comments live on TV via social media, as well as the epicentre of political interventions.

Mailing lists as a concept still have their purpose both in and outside of education.  It's how they are designed for the learning activity and if they have the right eTutor presence and direction.  Due to the rise of Microsoft Teams digital practices have changed, i.e. people don't want more email but a place to access the information when needed, without being bombarded constantly with notifications.  Plus, online collaboration and exchange of ideas have flourished in this new all-in-one concept.  The DigiLearn Sector Community is an exemplar model of this.

From my attendance at the Social Media for Learning in Higher Education 2018 event, I ended my day with a short reflection: What I find noticeable today is that there is little talk of getting students to access, share comments and use hashtags. But specific, critical and purposeful experimentation of connecting, communicating and collaborating, whether it is clearly working or not.  This is possibly due to the wide availability and often free digital tools people can access.  Critical thinking and application are now at the forefront and both academic and learner need to know what tools are fit for purpose and task.  I feel there is less talk of the technology potential and more about what is or has happened on application.  Two main things that were talked about throughout the day (probably due to the keynote and General Data Protection Regulation GDPR) in different forms: 1) Owning your own digital space, via your own domain (website) where you can have better control over your data and content - not relying on other providers to have your long-term interests.  However, comments around that "social media needs us" to move things forward etc.  2) Growing success of hashtags being used not only just for a conference, but having all year round use.  These are not yet replacing conferences as a whole (although some have successfully experimented with it) as people like to attend physical places etc (otherwise it would never be feasible for an organisation to let us go), plus there's the money/profit side of it.

Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) – Intended or not, they were previously used heavily for resource-based learning which turned into bottomless repositories.  That practice is still present today, but VLE’s have now shifted to be more collaborative environments with wider and granular data reporting, intelligent/adaptive conditional release with seamless capabilities to integrate a variety of external/third-party tools and systems.  'Next generation VLE's' are being widely discussed, where 'the VLE is dead' is less talked about.  It's clear there is a need for an institutional VLE but as with most learning technologies, it's about the culture, behaviours and positive relationships we want people to have with them - and often the biggest challenge.

Devices - Mobile phones have improved in higher quality and smartphones are now mainstream.  Mobiles and mirror cast features have prevailed over handheld response devices.  'Interactive slates' - moved towards smart mobile phones, e.g. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), iPads etc.  I recall when we first got Promethean ActivSlates and Flip Mino’s and delivered practical training sessions on them.  This just shows how critical personal handheld devices and applications have become in supporting learning and engagement, which left these peripherals redundant.  Interactive Whiteboards have progressed to touch screen monitors with capabilities for people to annotate through their personal devices.  Accessibility options have become more widely available and usable, supporting people with disabilities and without - learning process itself.  Emphasis has shifted towards inclusivity by design rather than making options available as an after thought.

eLearning - As in objects, was and somewhat still is 'page turners' but has diversified in appearance and interaction.  Microlearning has become more popular for bite size learning, more so in organisational learning and development.  Branching pathways, interactive video, 360° and Bootstrap style content types have become more popular.  Especially, the likes of H5P where I believe this is revolutionary in both rapid eLearning creation and academic usability.  Digital badges took off massively, not only for engagement and completion, but being used to evidence and demonstrate open online education and professional development of new knowledge and skills.

I feel the main change in eLearning is within the creation processes and the job role itself.  There is now more focus on personas, the recipients of the content you are creating for and the process of obtaining information from them to get a sense of their characters, what they need in order to learn, motivations etc.

Data analytics/Artificial Intelligence (AI)/Virtual Reality (VR)/Augmented Reality (AR) - I haven't been involved in these a great deal.  However the rise of GDPR and public data misuse scandals have made people stop and sit up of what actually happens with their personal information and what they should and shouldn't do.  AI is currently talked about in education as chat bots to operate as Frequently Answered Questions (FAQs) to support learners, as well as administrative functions.  But the actual application and deployment hasn't been fully realised yet - how happy are we with it when using it from our banks etc?  VR was once a bought-in solution, many colleges and universities are now developing their own content in-house with academic staff, this shows that it is becoming more widely available.  AR, the likes of PokΓ©mon Go/Jurassic World Alive have took this outlook to a new level, but not seen much beyond that and QR codes.

Open Education - Through the explosion of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in 2012.  Many new, obsolete and introductory courses are now widely and freely available via FutureLearn, OpenLearn, Coursera, LinkedIn Learning etc.  As well as people accessing free online education, these are now being integrated into courses to support and enhance the curriculum offers.

What changes haven't I seen?

🀦‍♂️For some, #edtech needs to be made complex, i.e. excessively overworked with processes, literature etc. Accessible language and ease of use still remain at the top. I've seen enough evidence of this over the years and more so recently.

In my experience in the last 10 years, both in FE and HE.  Regardless of age, role or experience of using digital technology, FACT - academics still need basic support in using digital tools and systems and the application of them, even professors.  All technology needs a basic introduction as the context and environment changes.  However, academics still need support and opportunities to develop their digital skills.  Or better resourcing to support their already challenging roles so they have the time to concentrate on other areas.  This may reduce in the next few decades, but in the last one, there has been no change, but the focus of application.  I am still involved in projects and initiatives in introducing staff to the effective use of digital technology, and always by face-to-face.  A lot of this is still surrounded by introductory and basic skills development, language and pathway setting.  Yes there are people wanting to skip introductory or 'instructions/manuals' and get straight to using it, which is great, but comes with caution.  However, I still find a high percentage of my work is around introducing, comforting/reassuring and influencing people on effective TEL.  Has this evolved since 2010?  Not much but perhaps in the needs analysis areas, they have certainly grown and become more complex.  Hence writing my book - accessible, practical and simplified.

What should be different is having a scaffolded approach and having an exit strategy and not letting training continue into a series of "can you help me with..." on a regular basis.  We need to build stronger digital capabilities within people and I am seeing a lot of initiatives now embedding this throughout professional development and workforce strategies.  A thought - different circumstances but relatable, in most situations when you go to a General Practitioner you get what you need and are weened off.  You don't usually keep going back for the same thing, unless it's reoccurring, bad advice/solutions are given.

Summed up nicely...

Easier vs. enhancing. It's been said to me a few times that using #edtech should not be about making things easier, but enhancing. Well to me it's both, amongst other factors. #teachers/#lecturers have a tough job, + time & #digitalskills, why not make this easier for them? #altc

What I was alluding to was that #edtech is not about changing the quality of teaching i.e. watering/dumbing down. But using it to focus on the enhancement of learning experiences and opportunities through easier access to resources, tools and techniques for all involved. #altc

Any predictions for the future?

In a lot of ways, the learning technologist role is problematic in that we are often looked upon to predict and 'horizon scan' what is not only the next game-changing technology but the associated digital practices that come with it, before and after.  However, we can only do so much as and when these technologies emerge and then analyse the digital skills and pedagogy required.  Unless we were involved/consulted from the outset and during the creation of these technologies.  Maybe we should forecast more in the lens of Black Mirror? πŸ˜œ

I find that change in commercial technology and practice happens more rapidly than it does in education.  Perhaps technology companies need to closely design their products around the expansive, diverse and evolving teaching role, i.e. understand the complexities and issues more.  Rather than hypothesise ‘problems’ that might not be there - emphasis on the challenges of pedagogy and the teaching environment.  Further thoughts in How is learning technology evolving?

As for learning, you don't have to look far.  Due to the streaming era I feel more and more learners will demand 'episodes of learning' to binge on at a time and place they choose.  This may be happening already through microlearning and intelligent conditional release in the VLE.  However, as attention spans are dwindling, i.e shorter series, episodes, albums, songs, what impact will this have on online learning and how can we accommodate it?

Random (odd) thought that has just popped into my head. What will we do when all our favourite & incredibly talented #edtech & #eLearning #bloggers, #thoughtleaders & #keynotes etc pass over? Wait for a successor to inspire us? P.S. I'm not going anywhere yet, I hope. πŸ˜‰ #altc

What next?

I'll be starting this new decade by working towards my Senior Certified Membership of Association for Learning Technology.  I've plans to make further impact in HE, with ambitions to progress into a higher related role (depending on what opportunities await), maybe another book and writing more articles.  Plus, on the side, I'll be learning and carrying out my new EQA role as well as contributing to other pieces of external consultancy.  Oh and something new - early talks on getting involved in a local community regeneration initiative.

After lots of hard graft in shaping my learning technology career, Karoline Nanfeldt summed it all up in a short sentence.  It was a reply to an email she copied me in from someone who was seeking guidance on how to be a learning technologist:

"Dan, you’re such a massive asset to the industry 😊".  9 January 2020

Likewise, Chris Melia gave me a LinkedIn recommendation on 7 February 2020, here's an excerpt:

"Dan has become a hugely influential figure across both learning technology and educational development.

I first became aware of Dan’s work a number of years ago, and personally found his professional blog to be of real interest and insight - particularly as I began to embark on my own career in education.  I’m confident that Dan’s openness and honesty around his experiences, will have equally had a similar impact on other early-career learning technologists."

Thank you to everyone who has played a part, whether small or large in my career, it's known, appreciated and never forgotten.

Reinforced by a recent reflection...  Much of my passion and success derives from the ancient community feel about me. Helping, giving, sharing and collaborating with one another, just because it feels good and right to. Not being transactional, i.e. only engaging with others to gain something in return. #wisdom