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Educational Technology

Early-career learning technologists professional development: What is the role of a learning technologist?

This month, for the Early-Career Learning Technologist professional development group on LinkedIn, which I coordinate with Daniel Scott and Sandra Huskinson, our starter posts are on the theme of ‘the role of the learning technologist’.

What is already apparent is that the role definition of a learning technologist can be very broad, and has been for decades. This is shown not just from the range of people in the LinkedIn group, but in sector reports (Beetham et al., 2001), literature (Shurville et al., 2009; Walker and MacNeill, 2015), and surveys such as the ALT Annual Survey (ALT, 2021). Many professionals, myself included, will identify with being a learning technologist even though their role is very different from a formal specification that has ‘learning technologist’ in the job title. Is then ‘learning technologist’ not a role, but a professional perspective? 

Findings from the ALT survey

In addition to calling myself a ‘learning technologist’ I also use the label of ‘educationalist’, as I am interested in education, draw upon educational theory in my work and believe in a set of educational principles. A teacher or lecturer will also have a professional perspective based on the discipline of education, but few would have the job title of ‘educationalist’. The same could well apply to ‘learning technologist’.

Looking at the raw data for the recent ALT Annual Survey (2021), from 191 responses to the question ‘What is your job title?’ 33 respondents (17%) answered ‘learning technologist’ or close variants thereof. 10 respondents (5%) had a job title that included ‘technologist’, such as ‘digital learning technologist’ or ‘educational technologist’. 23 respondents (12%) had titles including the noun ‘technology’ (inclusive of ‘TEL’ standing for technology-enhanced learning), which also covered a number of team managers. However, 115 respondents (60%) had role titles with words related to ‘learning’, ‘teaching’ and ‘education’. Though these are not mutually exclusive groupings of role titles, the inference is that what brings ‘learning technologists’ together is not the technology aspect, but the context of the educational setting. 

Characteristics of learning technologist roles

Looking back to one of the earliest reviews of the role of the learning technologist (Beetham et al., 2001), the term itself encompassed professionals working in technical roles, educational development, learning design at both institution-wide and discipline-specific level. 

“’New specialists’ included the roles of educational developer, educational researcher, technical researcher/developer, materials developer, project manager and general learning technologist: In practice these roles were rarely carried out in isolation, with most individuals having responsibilities across at least two different areas… ‘New specialists’ were perceived by all the groups involved in the study as the ‘true’ learning technologists: multi-skilled and peripatetic but with learning technology work at the core of their professional identity.”

(Beetham et al., 2001, p.4)

Going back just over a decade, Shurville et al. (2009) explored the role of ‘educational technologists’ with a critical appraisal of how professionals in this field were embedded (or perhaps not) within higher education institutions. Though at that time the authors argued that the visibility and influence of educational technologists had appeared constrained by institutional structures that couldn’t quite place the mix of skills and backgrounds that learning technologists bring, there was one characteristic they explored that I think still resonates in the profession: “trusted local champion” (Shurville et al., 2009, p.210). 

In that role as a trusted colleague and advocate for learning technology, learning technologists have a responsibility to keep aware of the ‘shiny new’, but to advise, guide and challenge adoption of educational technologies (#edtech). Whether you become a learning technologist from a technical background or an educational background (teachers, lecturers, educationalists), you do need to be comfortable in justifying decisions from both a technical and pedagogical perspective. Of course, not all learning technologists are in advisory roles, and some will be directly applying their knowledge of educational technologies to learning and teaching projects and problems posed to them, through building #edtech platforms, creating online learning packages or teaching directly. Yet, they still adopt the position of a trusted champion for their colleagues, other educators and ultimately the learners who will benefit from their expertise. That trust is not solely formed from knowledge of all technology and approaches, but how you communicate, listen and understand requirements within a specific educational and subject context.

“Learning Technologists – operating across academic disciplines, support services and more senior management positions – with their ability to engage in discussions with colleagues from multiple disciplines beyond simply the use of technology identifies them as our most rounded pedagogues.”

(Walker and MacNeill, 2015, p.103-104)

What unifies learning technologists?

The variation in backgrounds and skills that learning technologists bring to their profession makes the sector such a diverse and interesting one to work in. Within any team, you will have individuals who can approach projects and discussions from different perspectives. Some will have expertise in platforms (VLEs and equivalents), some may have academic backgrounds, some may excel in front-line support and some may be perpetual innovators. For me, this has always meant that collaborating and learning together has been at the heart of the learning technologist’s role. 

For anyone considering or starting out a career as a learning technologist, whatever job title that might actually be, a good starting point is the core principles of CMALT:

A commitment to exploring and understanding the interplay between technology and learning.

A commitment to keep up to date with new technologies.

An empathy with and willingness to learn from colleagues from different backgrounds and specialist areas.

A commitment to communicate and disseminate effective practice.

(ALT, 2019)

If these principles form part of your professional identity, then you may well be a learning technologist.

References

  1. ALT (2019). CMALT Guidelines. Association for Learning Technology. Available online.
  2. ALT (2021). Survey data. Findings from the ALT Survey 2021. Association for Learning Technology. Available online.
  3. Beetham, H., Jones, S. and Gornall, L. (2001). ‘Career development of learning technology staff: scoping study final report’, JISC Committee for Awareness, Liaison and Training Programme. Available online (Web Archive).
  4. Shurville, S., Browne, T. and Whitaker, M. (2009) ‘Accommodating the newfound strategic importance of educational technologists within higher education’, Campus-Wide Information Systems, 26(3), 201-231.
  5. Walker, D. J. and McNeil, S. (2015). ‘Learning technologist as digital pedagogue’ in Hopkins, D. (ed.) The Really Useful #EdTechBook. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. Available online.

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