A Response to ‘What is a Learning Technologist?’

I recently stumbled upon Sheila MacNeil’s blog post asking for thoughts on what characteristics distinguish a Learning Technologist for a new #EdTechBook, by way of a discussion on the ALT Members Mailing List, and thought that I would share my own experience.

‘Learning Technologist’ is indeed a broad brush which covers people from different backgrounds and bringing different philosophies, experience and perspective with them, part of what I think makes it such an exciting and rewarding field in which to work. My own background is from IT support which I pursued due to an easy affinity with technology, the enjoyment I get from fixing things which are broken or finding ways to improve things, and because of a general desire to help people. But of course there comes a time when a wish to move your career on means you have to specialise in an area, and I was fortunate to stumble into the Learning Technologies team (LTech) at Northumbria University in order to provide second line customer support for people using the University’s learning technology systems, principally Blackboard. From there my role expanded to encompass, to a greater or lesser extent, systems development, learning materials content development and staff development covering both the ‘which button to push’ instructional element as well as pedagogic considerations such as ‘why you might want to push that particular button in order to make your learning materials more engaging’ and to help with that side of things I was supported to gain CMALT accreditation and fortunate enough to work with some really quite wonderful academics on the team who taught me a great deal.

My role now at Sunderland involves a great deal of project management and contributing to learning development policies and strategies, and finding ways to implement those. Everyone on the team has ‘Learning Technologist’ in the job title and most of us have at least one of CMALT, PGCE or HEA Membership, but in spite of this I find that many academics still think of us a ‘techies’ not realising that we have such teachings skills and pedagogic experience. I recall attending a training event some time ago, principally for academics, where, after introducing myself as a Learning Technologist, one of the other attendees was delighted and asked if I could fix the Wi-Fi on her laptop! (I was happy to help of course, and it did give me the opportunity to have a chat with her and talk about the ways in which I could really help her.)

Many of my colleagues have come from similar technical / IT backgrounds, but there are other common ‘types’ who come under the umbrella of ‘learning technologists’:

  • Academics with an interest in learning technology or who research in the field to improve their own teaching. I find that many such people may not work in an LT department themselves, but in Faculties where they work with us as advisors, champions and ambassadors.
  • Academic advisors, similar to the above, but based in the LT team with responsibility for providing in-depth academic support and pedagogic guidance.
  • Content developers who perhaps start their careers as graphic or web designers but come to specialise in learning material content production.
  • Systems developers, the real ├╝ber-techies who manage the learning technology platforms and servers.
  • Trainers who come to specialise in learning technology systems.
  • And finally managers and project managers who may have progressed from any of these backgrounds.

The common thread bringing all of the people together under the umbrella of ‘Learning Technologist’ is a thorough specialist knowledge of the core LT systems where they work (the VLE, the ePortfolio, etc.), along with external tools such as iTunes, Google Drive or WordPress, combined with at least some knowledge and experience of how they can best be used to provide a solution to some teaching and learning need.

The whole conversation in response to Sheila’s questions has been interesting, but I particularly liked some of things which Amber had to say. I especially liked the neologism ‘para-academic’. In the past I have often described myself to people who don’t know what I do as being a bridge between technology and the academics who want to use technology in their teaching but don’t necessarily have the skills to do some themselves, but I may use ‘para-academic’ to start the conversation now. I also liked that comment that ‘Universities are multi-professional places and learning technologists, in all their flavours, have a rightful place at the table.’ A sentiment with which I can wholly concur as I have often felt, and seen colleagues feel, somewhat reticent about their own skills in the company of academics.

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