Don’t be an authority on meta-meta-learning

I’ve seen yet another tweet extolling the benefits of adhering to an educational developer’s perspective of what should happen in a classroom. This concerns me.

As a learning technologist, course developer and online coordinator, my knowledge is only as useful as the willingness of subject experts to collaborate with me. Should I decree a particular approach without discussion or justification, this would unduly elevate my position beyond that of the discipline being taught. Without understanding the context of the teaching, the best that learning technologists or educational developers can achieve is a panacea of meta-meta-learning that encapsulates everything for no-one. Generic principles may (or should?) come from specific cases and the two together are required to understand the strengths and limitations of particular technology, designs and approaches.

Who knows best

There are startling similarities with a situation embodied by a recent radio ad. This particular advertisement, you may have heard, is promoting the virtues of radio advertising. Aside from this being an excellent demonstration of leading by example (lesson one for our profession), it’s the character that features in the advert that I fear may be representing the worst traits of ‘a learning technologist’ and may go some way to explaining the fringe effect of learning technology.

The character is a marketing consultant who always pushes social media even though his clients are “banging on” that it doesn’t reach their customers. This chap is the embodiment of a mindset insistent on jumping on the latest bandwagon, convinced of its virtues, regardless of the context and evangelising its universal application. Perhaps someone high up in the organisation heard of the money being made in social media and, presumably with some research, but likely not, commissioned a subordinate to ‘take it forward’ to fill some sort of need for a majority. Either that or some other organisation is doing it and to win an award we mustn’t be left behind.

Virtual learning environments? Lecture capture anyone?

The most important question

Unquestioning championing of technology is, thankfully, not what learning technologists tend to do. Far from it. Effective learning technologists always start with the most important questioning word: why…?

However, the point to be made from the comparison with the social media marketing guy is that an understanding of your ‘client’ is paramount. Sometimes, for whatever reason, the work that is produced by learning technologists, educational developers, big thinkers and expert independent consultants, is just a little too “expert”. There’s a risk that we say with maybe too much authority that a new approach should be adopted or a scaffolding framework will help us find a way through our digital woes. Arguably the tone conveyed alludes to a self-perception that our view as learning technologists and educational developers is more objective, able to focus just on the pedagogy and use of technology without being clouded by subject knowledge and the nuances of discipline differences. This must surely rub those outside the field the wrong way.

The suffering of abstracted frameworks

As I begin my participation in another conference, I contemplate how many abstracted approaches, frameworks informed by focus groups and models for effective learning design I will come across. I know I’ve offered my fair share too.

Clearly, when disseminating work, abstraction is required. It makes it more pallatable to a broad audience and supports those who lack the capacity for interdisciplinary thinking. However, what is often missing is the essential means to de-abstract a model or framework into something that is practical for our subject experts and lecturing colleagues. Learning technologists, and educational developers alike, mustn’t fall foul of the sage on the stage position they could so easily jump into. The main take away here is the importance of listening.

De-abstract by listening

When working with academic staff, the most valuable time I’ve spent is just listening to them talk about their subject, their students, the way they teach, the way they think. Whilst this might sound a little passive for change agents (also known as learning technologists), it’s the follow up discussion that allows ways in. Finding out about the inner workings of a discipline starts to erode assumptions and helps to avoid the feeling of consultant-client and develop meaningful collaboration. You may eve go so far as calling it a mutual partnership.

Ask your colleagues to explain why they teach a particular way, forcing an academic justification. For sure, draw upon your own critical appreciation of the literature to suggest (not require) an alternative approach. But, listen. Listen and adapt your suggestions. Tailor your interpretation of those abstracted frameworks so you can convey an understanding of your colleagues. That is surely the path to embedded and worthwhile adoption of learning technology.

So, as you go forth into that conference and hope to fill your notepad, iPad, Google Doc or Storify with all the good ideas to take back to your organisation, consider not what your colleagues can learn from you, but what you can learn from your colleagues.

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