Learning technologists as learning designers: towards sustainable online education

By Matt Cornock

This post explores some of the themes from a short workshop Sandra Huskinson and I ran for the ALT Winter Conference on 15 December 2020 (Huskinson and Cornock, 2020a). At the end of the session we invited participants to reflect and set a professional development goal. After you’ve read this post, I’d encourage you to take 10 minutes to do that on Twitter or in the comments below.

In this ALT Winter Conference session, Sandra and I were keen to try something a bit different. Usually conference sessions are about a specific project, a new framework or product launch. Whilst these are valuable for professional development in the form of sharing of experiences, new ideas to contextualise back in your own institution and sometimes challenging how things are done in the sector, few sessions enable individuals to review where they are at in their own professional practice. In my own practice as a learning technologist and learning designer, I’ve drawn upon several design approaches and theoretical models. Inspired by the responses to a #LTHEchat twitter chat on learning design we led (Huskinson and Cornock, 2020b), we were interested in how much learning theories and learning design played a part in learning technologists’ roles. 

In the session we provided an example learning design analysis tool (Conole, et al., 2004) that I had previously used in blended learning design sessions for new lecturers. I then showed how this could inform a learning design by adjusting the intended learning experience by considering the activities learners would undertake, where and how they would complete tasks and what learning technologies would be involved to meet learning outcomes. 

The purpose of our session was less about the specific design approach I was using, but more about why Sandra and I believed that learning technologists should have an awareness of learning design and learning theories to be effective in their practice. In fact, the more practical experience learning technologists have of using such learning models and theoretical frameworks, the richer the discussions will be when working with educators. These discussions are going to provide a crucial point of reflection on the emergency approaches to online learning deployed due to coronavirus. Through this process of reflection and challenge, there holds the potential for establishing effective practices in online learning as an integrated and normalised mode of learning within traditional face-to-face education settings. Learning technologists are in a key position to provide a space for those discussions, bringing different groups of people together, listening to colleagues and informing decisions. To do this effectively, learning technologists will also need time for their own professional development and time to reflect on their own practice.

Building professional competences

My view of learning technologists as professionals comes from the distinct blend of both technical and pedagogical understanding that characterises such roles. In the ultimate ‘bridging’ role, a learning technologist needs to be able to discuss both technical jargon and discipline-based educational nuances. They need to be able to see the use of educational technology from the perspectives of learner, educator, assessor, administrator, IT and in some cases financial management. In this ALT Winter Conference session, Sandra and I wanted to provide a little bit of time to enable participants to reflect on the aspect of their role that requires pedagogical understanding and the contributions they have made directly, or indirectly, to the successful learning of students and development of educators. We looked at just one facet, that of learning design, which aligns to the second core area of CMALT (ALT, 2020). There is clearly scope for further sessions of this nature to explore critical use and deployment of educational technology (CMALT section one), legal and policy influences (CMALT section three), or communicating and working with others (CMALT section four). These are the bases of professional competences for learning technologists.

Professional competences underpin educational practice, not just for educators, but for all involved. There is a huge difference between an individual learner looking on the internet for something to help them achieve a task for work or leisure, and expert-curated resources, sequenced into learning activities and designed to enable understanding, application and creation of knowledge. There is also a huge difference between telling and teaching, with the latter requiring an awareness of your learners (or intended learners) and how to engage, present, and progress learning. Equally, learners require competences relating to how to learn, apply and create, that are refined by educators through learning activities, guidance and support. Learning technologists need an awareness of the competences they will support in educators and learners, so they can explore the strengths and weaknesses of digital learning approaches.

Why YouTube hasn’t replaced the university

Another angle to look at the reasons why learning technologists should have a sound grasp of teaching, learning and assessment is to challenge assumptions about online learning. There may be a (mis)conception that you can learn anything from Google and YouTube (other search engines and video sharing platforms are available). Yet, the formal or semi-formal educational structures provided by online learning design, and specific choices made about technology, community and activities, enable learners to go beyond superficial knowledge consumption and empower them to become part of a subject discipline. This is why online courses still exist in an age where all knowledge can be readily available on the internet. If learning was as easy as reading a textbook or watching a YouTube video, there would be no need for formal education. But, learning is not easy. 

Learning is hard, effortful and individual. Each learner brings their own unique set of preconceptions, cultural and contextual backgrounds and their own imagination to a learning experience. Learning technologists and educators working together can harness this diversity through creating online spaces and learning activities that enable individuals to progress and, collectively, learning groups to flourish. Through this collaboration, appropriate technical and pedagogical scaffolding is provided, online social interactions can be planned for, and educational technology acts as an enabler, not used to meet its own purpose. 

Sustainable online learning

Sustainable online education,in other words, how we don’t attempt to do twice the work to provide both face-to-face and online learning with the same resources and time, is in part about culture change in an institution or organisation (see the latest report by Jisc (2020) which suggests culture, not technology, is the biggest barrier to online learning adoption). That culture can only develop when a shared language of change is established and educational frameworks can be incredibly useful tools for this. Theories and approaches from experience offer a way of retrospectively looking at learning designs, but also support creating an environment for effective learning online. Frameworks and pedagogical theories enable interrogation of how the content, activities and people involved (educators, learners and others), and the technology of course, actually support a learning outcome to be met. That is why I strongly encourage learning technologists to build their confidence in using frameworks and theories, and to understand them. In doing so, they can listen to colleagues, provide meaningful challenge and push our practice in online and digital education further.

That process, involving the learning technologist role, is going to be critical for any educational institution or organisation as decisions are made about the future of educational provision. In the move from reactive, emergency online education to sustainable and transformative education, with an understanding of learning design, learning technologists have an amazing opportunity to collaborate, discuss and develop.

What do you think? 

As a learning technologist (or educator, or indeed anyone involved in supporting education), how might you or your role develop to ensure that online learning is sustainable (in the sense that emergency provision is not)?

Can you reflect on the challenges and successes of the last 6-9 months and identify where you could develop yourself to push the practice of online learning in your institution or organisation? 

Don’t let time be a blocker. Personally, I do have to make a concerted effort to carve out time for reflection, learning and development. That can mean something else gets dropped. However, not just for my professional practice, but also for my own wellbeing, making that time really does matter.

Feel free to share your thoughts below, or as a reply via Twitter

References

  1. ALT (2020). CMALT accreditation framework, Association for Learning Technology. https://www.alt.ac.uk/certified-membership
  2. Conole, G., Dyke, M., Oliver, M. and Seale, J. (2004). ‘Mapping pedagogy and tools for effective learning design’, Computers and Education, vol. 43, nos.1–2, pp.17–33.
  3. Huskinson, S. and Cornock, M. (2020a). Learning technologists as learning designers: reflections, roles and modes of learning. ALT Winter Conference, 15-16 December 2020.
  4. Huskinson, S. and Cornock, M. (2020b). Does learning need to be design and what roles are involved in learning design? #LTHEchat blog.
  5. Jisc (2020). Learning and teaching reimagined: A new dawn for higher education? Jisc Report.


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