Online and Digital Learning

Learning Technologist – Oldest job around?

I don’t write many ‘musing’ posts, but in this one I’ve flung together a few thoughts on the way we all learn to adapt to use technology in our own specific contexts.

Defining the learning technologist role

There are many definitions of the role, all painting slightly different pictures of what a learning technologist does and what the professional identity of a learning technologist is. Indeed, there is a perennial thread on the ALT members mailing list that attempts to unpick this question. What the role boils down to though, aside from all the specialist knowledge, is supporting others in the use of technologies. In our case, as learning technologists, we focus on tools and approaches for learning, but the skills we draw upon are long standing: the ability to find, assess and appropriate different technologies. Yet, this role is an ingrained part of human society, something we all do, through the inherent connection between our lives and technology.

Technology doesn’t need a plug

Technology as a term has come to represent gadgetry, electronic or mechanical tools, designed and engineered. However, as Matt Pole suggested in a podcast recently, technology in so many different forms has affected human evolution. Thinking about the role of the flint tool, as Pole elaborates, this is one technology that stayed and was used by humans for an immense length of time. The flint tool was no fad, short-lived prototype, nor perpetual beta. This tool was necessary to assist feeding, sustaining existence; it became embedded. Within communities, the techniques to use the tool, even develop and refine its design and application, will have been learnt and passed on. Technologists, those people who find, purpose and repurpose tools and new things, would have existed back in the Stone Age.

Moving on a fair few years, the same argument could be made of the writing implement, whether a stylus in the sand or a ball-point pen.  The technology for communicating in written form has existed and permeated human kind for millennia. Whilst the basic technology has stayed the same, i.e. something you hold that has a point on the end that produces a physical record, the specific tool has not. That being said, the use of a writing implement requires training and development of skill. Think back to your primary school days of tracing out the letters of the alphabet and refining your stick-man painting of your family into something a little more… voluminous. Could we interpret teachers of hand-writing as technologists for the pen, guiding others in the appropriate use of a specific tool?

As my other half pointed out, ‘you talk about tools too.’ I was talking about the software we use to create learning resources, casually referring to them as tools. The choices I make about which tool to use, and support others to use, hence has an impact on the proliferation of those tools amongst my community. As these tools are used by my colleagues, they again may appropriate them in different ways. We all have the capacity to consider what tool is most appropriate for a particular task, so aren’t we all technologists? Well perhaps not.

Change challenges our beliefs and questions our skill set

Technology is often seen in the light of a ‘change’ and as the mountains of literature discusses, people are a little adverse to change. Changes in technology and tools, determine what can and can’t be done in an activity. Changes offer new opportunities, and may even close doors. What change does do though is force adaptation and confrontation of ingrained beliefs or developed skills. What is interesting now is that the pace of technological change has jumped up a notch. Perhaps not in the underlying technology, but in the user interfaces, affordances of more intelligent computing and the changing intuitiveness of computing design. Just as one tool comes onto the market, there are several more competing with it. How many times has Google Docs, Facebook, your online banking or energy company changed its user interface? How many different communication channels are you now using to chat with friends and family? People are needing to be more technologically adaptive, and as such are constantly re-assessing what works for them.

This can lead to inappropriate use of technologies, through trying to use a new tool to achieve something it wasn’t designed to do but previously a lesser, defunct technology was capable of. Technological change is the expertise of a good technologist, who can help users adapt and understand their own use of technology, exploring the benefits and constraints of new tools.

Learning technology

Learning technology has existed for a number of years. The wax tablet was the precursor to the iPad as a means of capturing notes; the VHS of a daytime schools programme was the precursor to BBC Bitesize online. Whilst the technology is different, the pedagogy of using both is the same. As before, there are always considerations to each. Although slightly facetious in my example, the wax tablet didn’t have the privacy, content control and cost implications that comes with an iPad, but at least the iPad can record and store more notes (and do a heck of a lot of other things a wax tablet can’t). If the role of the technologist is to understand new tools and technologies to guide others in their use of them, the role of the learning technologist grounds that practice within the educational domain.

Tools cannot be independent of context. Most learning technologists will agree that their first thought is probably not about the tool itself, but the learning problem it is trying to address. My first question when I am approached by a colleague who wants to use a specific tool is: Why? Hopefully in this manner, learning technologists are seen as problem solvers working to understand and improve pedagogy, rather than problem makers who would otherwise try to force technology where it doesn’t fit.

We are all learners

Why is a learning technologist one of the oldest jobs around then? Putting it simply, we all learn. Some of us may self-identify as life-long learners, with a thirst for knowledge, others may just do enough to get by. Whether we have learnt through our use of books to gain new knowledge, diary writing to reflect on our experiences, video-making to understand the human condition, or simply browsing that big old interweb, technology has contributed to human learning back before the recent information age. Each person uses technology adapted to suit their learning need and preferred approach, making judgement calls and recommendations to others. With the changes in technology happening more frequently, applying technological change to our own contexts is the same ‘job’ that learning technologists do applying new tools to the educational context.

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