Sustaining the digital transformation momentum through collaboration: why I have a problem with hero rhetoric 

Opinion piece.

Whatever the job title, whether it’s learning technologist, educational developer, learning designer, in my roles I’ve always seen myself as an enabler. The work I do has meaning only through the collaboration and partnerships with others. This work with others has a common goal, usually around enhancing the student learning experience as an ultimate objective, with many incremental steps along the way. In my roles in the sector, my enjoyment comes from discovering colleague’s professions, understanding their expertise and developing ways for our knowledge and skills to intersect. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, those working in many professions were put under considerable strain. The positive outcomes in our sector led to step-change in adoption of educational technology, increased flexibility and access to education, and a willingness to take risk and explore new ideas. There is a counter to this which reflects the burnout of many, a labour market shortage, and a post-pandemic want to return to a previous norm perceived as slightly more manageable. 

As Lorna Campbell articulated at the ALT Annual Conference 2022, “there is no back to normal”. We are all changed, informed by our experiences, and unlearning is hard. Keith Smyth, also at the ALT Conference, described the situation as “everyone is a learning technology practitioner” yet not all are learning technologists. I wonder if that change in context has led to an increase in heroic rhetoric to justify our role. Heroism implies self-sacrifice, a special skillset that addresses emergencies and saving others, but when self-declared it also implies individual significance over joint venture. Hero language may also convey the feeling of just in time support, and at worse a lack of shared responsibility (Cox, 2020, discusses this in the context of the medical profession). As we enter a new phase for the profession, I believe we need to keep looking outward, to re-establish the place of learning technologists as both leading and supporting others. Our collective contribution during during pandemic cannot be understated, but now we have a greater responsibility to focus on quality, innovation and transformation away from the online pivot.

In the digital education sector, I would like to spend less time talking about ‘us’ as a group of learning technologists or learning designers, and more time talking about ‘us’ in partnership and what we achieve collaboratively. Digital education is an amazing sector that demands people working together with many roles, such as academic, administration, student support, learning technologists, learning design, quality assurance, project management, finance, partnership management, IT, marketing, digital design and production. Where this works well is by everyone considering the value of each party round the table. Cox (2020) describes a need for reciprocity of responsibility, recognising the obligations of all in in sector, to avoid falling into in heroic narratives. In the context of learning technology and learning design, particularly in higher education, there are compounding factors of hierarchies and misunderstanding of our roles as being ‘tech support’. In view of that, as learning technologists and learning designers our role is to enable those teaching to bring to light their discipline expertise and for us to bring to light our discipline expertise. That takes the form of frameworks, research, literature and above all creativity and examples. Our place is to influence and inspire those we work with, selecting appropriate techniques and technology to complement subject disciple knowledge. 

Simon Thomson, again at the ALT Annual Conference 2022, presented a framework for enabling discussion and driving from forward the Hybrid and Blended Learning agenda. The focus is not on technology, but on subject, pedagogy and modality. The key to this approach is locating discussions in personal passions and professional motivation, not from the perspective of what ‘our sector’ wants to push, but from finding common ground with our colleagues and their interests. The SPaM framework (Thomson, 2022) deliberately puts academic interest through subject discussion back at the forefront of our practice. 

I have long talked about the importance of understanding discipline approaches to teaching and learning, and long talked of my enthusiasm working in this sector because of the exposure to so many topics and those with expertise. I am very happy to say that I am not a hero or an expert who can fly in with all the answers, but I do have expertise in how to design learning experiences and the appropriate use of learning technology. This expertise can be applied to a particular context by discussing and understanding more about the subject area, but that only happens in collaboration and through influence that is dependent on relationship building and shared goals. 

In my view, sustaining the growth in digital education is about centering the discussion on what we can achieve together. We have a role to bring together everyone involved in education, each with their own discipline expertise, to address institutional, global and social objectives. Let’s learn from each other, invite debate, but ultimately remember we can only do this together.


  1. ALT Annual Conference, 6-8 September 2022, Manchester, UK.
  2. Cox, C. L. (2020). ‘Healthcare Heroes’: problems with media focus on heroism from healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, Journal of Medical Ethics, 46, 510-513.
  3. Thomson, S. (2022). SPaM, A framework for developing hybrid education.





2 responses to “Sustaining the digital transformation momentum through collaboration: why I have a problem with hero rhetoric ”

  1. […] the basis of considered application of learning technologies and learning design. There is one reflection from earlier in the year, in part a reaction to some of the rhetoric in the sector that conflicted with my values, that I […]

  2. […] our team and organisational objectives. Collaboration is one of my underlying principles and I have shared my thoughts on this previously as particularly important in educational settings. Recently, I have been leading a significant and […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.