The Terrible Itch That Can’t be Scratched

It’s been a while since my last post, first of the new year actually (so Happy New Year folks!) so I thought I would post something quickly on what I’ve been up to.

The reason for the lack of blogging is simply because I haven’t actually finished anything! I’ve done plenty of work, but for various reasons nothing is in a state where I can declare it to be done. Frightfully frustrating for someone with a little OCD.

One thing I did finish was a training event which I delivered for Careers, on Prezi, which I really enjoyed and I received some really nice feedback from them. I’ve also acquired a Thunderbolt to HDMI adaptor to get the Oculus Rift hooked up to one of our Macs, but haven’t had time to get it set up yet. I have nearly completed two Storyline presentations, a very comprehensive learning unit on the Bribery Act which will be the largest and richest piece of learning material I will have produced to date, and another short video for Careers. Both of these are with their respective project owners at the moment for approval and feedback. Prep work for the second semester of Technology Bytes is well under way, but again not quite finished yet due to a room booking problem, and finally I have had a very productive meeting with an academic today about developing a progress bar widget to use in course sites, similar to what Future Learn have. It will be tricker for us to implement as it will need to be dynamic to accommodate changes to course materials as time goes on, but not an insurmountable challenge.

Technology Bytes, Semester 1

Back in late September / early October I was asked by a colleague in our Academic Development Unit to develop a series of sessions on learning technology to plug into their CPD plan, the result was Technology Bytes! Six sessions running every week starting in late October covering:

  • SunSpace and ClassLive
  • Solar (Equella) and Articulate Storyline
  • Turnitin and Prezi
  • ePortfolio (Mahara) and Thing Link
  • Streaming Service (Helix Media Library) and PowToon
  • SMART Boards and Audio / Video Feedback and Marking

My intention had been for each session to briefly demonstrate one of the University’s core learning technology tools alongside something new, funky and maybe even just a little bit sexy, then to have a discussion on what has been demonstrated and an open Q&A. Once the sessions were going however, I quickly learned that our academic community were expecting more formal planned training which went into depth on each topic.

Now, as I am busy planning the second series to run throughout semester 2, this is a key lesson which I am taking on board and will stick to one system or tool in each session, but will be including a dedicated session on external presentation tools which will cover Storyline, Prezi, PowToon and Thing Link together, and another new one dedicated to mobile apps. Audio and video feedback and marking I want to expand out to a session on its own as there is a great deal of potential here to enhance the student experience and some of the work I have seen where this has been used has had fantastic results.

A further improvement which I will be making is to re-word the titles and descriptions to bring the pedagogy to the fore, rather than the tool itself, in an attempt to reach more people and increase participation in the sessions.

I am reliably informed that the programme as a whole has been very well received by ‘higher-ups’ and that they feature prominently in all of the new Faculty development plans, with strong encouragement for staff to attend. Very encouraging.

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.