The role of a learning technologist during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic

By Matt Cornock

Personal reflection. The last three weeks have been, how shall I describe it, unique. Before I start, although those in the learning technology profession have, most likely, been put under a lot of pressure recently, I hope we can all agree that we are not under the same demands as those in health, care and front-line workers. My comments here should be taken in that light. Since measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak started, there is perhaps an implicit sense that the success or not of whole programmes of work, possibly even colleagues’ jobs (at least prior to the introduction of furloughing), or long term organisational aims, have been dependent in either a small or significant way by the contribution of learning technologists. That has, undoubtedly, raised the profile of this specialist field of which I enjoy being part of and strive to represent. The irony I find is that whilst learning technologists have never been busier, exactly what we do and how we define ourselves, is still often not well understood. Perhaps also that applies to our self definitions too, recent ALT blog posts show the variety of terms, career paths and roles we adopt (Scott, Thomson and Melia, 2019). I’m using this post as an opportunity to reflect on what I do in my role and how the last three weeks has both brought this into focus and challenged my own practice. 

First and foremost I see myself as an enabler. It’s a term others have used to describe me, and one I’m happy to adopt. Enabling others, to the point of the support provided being redundant, is usually the long term aim of any learning technology or digital education skills strategy. The reality is different as both technology and pedagogy change over time. Herein lies the purpose of learning technologists as a specific profession. Our knowledge is not just technical, not just pedagogical, but a combination of the two and applied appropriately to specific, not generic, educational scenarios. Those scenarios are set within a context, determined by educational programmes, organisational structures and processes, ever-changing policy and legislation, and, crucially, the educators and learners involved. Learning technologists spend time understanding the context of education (in whatever form that may be) in order to support those working within it. Without that understanding, the choice of pedagogy, way of working with others and educational toolset are set without a frame of reference or purpose. 

Most of our work is not about choosing technology, but involves learning design. Distance and online learning occurs through designed activities that bring together educators, learners and content towards a learning outcome. Scaffolding and instructional writing is fundamental to this, to enable learners to work both independently and with others, and without the immediate support of an educator. Distance and online learning is not about writing text books. I have maintained that learning design and the use of learning technologies has to draw upon subject and discipline pedagogy; our profession is founded in working collaboratively. Frequently this is about translating the expertise educators have in a predominantly face-to-face way of working, into blended, online and distance education. That process may be in the form of direct support and training, or in the programme leadership role I adopt usually, through co-creation and informal development through working as a team. 

At the same time as supporting or leading the development of others, learning technologists act as change agents, bringing together organisational, programme and personal objectives. The current situation is, for many organisations, a prime example of a macro level change impacting many individuals’ professional practice, without consultation. There is no time to foster buy-in or debate the evidence of what works, the job just needs to get done. The saving grace is that, perhaps, all those involved accept the end goal for learners. Learning technologists, academic and professional developers are often intermediaries between such big decisions and the reality of implementation. Learning technologists therefore ask a lot of questions, typically based on prior experience and theory where some things have worked and others have not, and where possible attempt to continue to place people (learners and educators) at the centre of decision making. Joining lots of dots frequently occupies my head space. 

“In these ways, [academic] developers use their ‘bridging’ function to contribute to institutional priorities in ways that help the institution, academic units, and individuals meet their goals and that respect the professional integrity of all parties.”

Lynn Taylor (2005, p. 41)

Working across programmes, I see both common approaches and stumbling blocks, based upon my understanding and experience of online and distance education. That means listening as best I can to interpret needs and then following up with action. Sometimes joining dots means getting involved when not invited, and trying to convey quite nuanced reasoning is not without challenge. Recently, like other learning technologists, I’ve found the biggest personal impact has been the sheer volume and pace of the so-called ‘online pivot’. There are more dots to join, and the context itself is shifting daily. The time to listen and to contextualise feels squeezed, as does the time to pause, sense-check and reflect. 

This lack of time to surface emotional responses and to reflect, a key part of effective educational organisational change management (Starr, 2011), probably forms part of my anxiety (discussed previously) about the long term sustainability of shifting online for some academic institutions. When this all began, one of my first tweets was to confirm the pivot was not about online, but about distance learning instead:

In that respect, educators can still draw upon the practices they are familiar with, and whilst there is substantial rewriting of approaches, it doesn’t mean starting from scratch. With such a fast pace of change, I am reminded of an assertion made by Marsick, et al. (2013), as I ponder how to make the most of this hurried time for my own learning and the development of others. 

“When people act, and learn only incidentally, they may well NOT be learning. Learning requires some effort to understand and make tacit knowing explicit so that it can be better understood and thought about in relationship to past and future situations where circumstances, driving values, or cause–effect chains need to be clarified so that success can be attained and/or repeated.”

Marsick, et al. (2013, p. 223)

Over the last three weeks, I’ve been churning out guidance for my colleagues. That’s guidance in various forms, but not in any way a structured development programme. Pausing to reflect here, I realise that is adequate and proportionate at this time for this specific contextualised need. As Charles Knight replied on Twitter, the current situation demands pragmatism, to the point that perfect learning design is secondary to having models that are clearly defined and can be delivered by others at little notice. 

As a team we are all working to our strengths towards a shared and common goal. The long term professional learning will come, perhaps, not from structured development, but the authentic application of all the groundwork that we’ve been embedding within daily practice for a few years together now. 

As someone who is constantly thinking about education without an off-switch, my head has never been so full of ideas, never-to-be-written journal papers and a desire to create. It makes it an exciting time, but also, to get through it all, a time to draw confidence in an understanding of the interplay between pedagogy, technology and people. That’s again part of the value of knowing the complexity of implementation and the context in which I work. As that context changes, I can make decisions and recommendations within short time scales because I know the people I work with, we know our learners, and we all know what our collective objectives are. I draw confidence from knowing that my colleagues are, without doubt, the best people at their job. For those I work with beyond my organisation, I know I can trust them to deliver and provide valuable alternative perspectives. We are all working together as a team. 

As I reflect over the last three weeks, I feel as if I’ve played out an entire career in the space of a handful of working days. From the strategic heights of proposing a common process for remote delivery way back in the contingency planning stage, to comparing educational technologies to make it happen; from writing thousands of words of guidance and recording demonstrations of practice, to reflecting on the importance of slowing down, providing structure and adhering to my own guidance when delivering technical training; from copy-editing and restructuring learning material, to editing my own ‘pieces to camera’ and drafting online learner guidance; from planning new courses for new needs, to making sure our current programme is as open as possible to support as many learners as we can. Online learning programmes, particularly open access courses, rarely have pauses in the year, so the additional layer of the online pivot, even during Easter break, continues to be pushing the boundaries of how many ideas percolate my head at any one time. Prioritisation is essential.

Collectively, across many sectors, we are still only part way through the pivot to online and distance learning. We’ve condensed months of preparation into days, writing and developing pedagogy within weeks, but the delivery phase is not yet with us. Our pivoting leg is still mid-flight. When it lands, it will wobble a bit. That is fine, and with all education, should be expected. There will be a period of iteration, refinement and then normalisation, not just in terms of the educational experience, but also in how we as educators adjust. As I summarised in a Tweet, education is about people, and particularly through a period of lock down, enabling the connection between people is crucial. 

If there is one part of this pivot I am looking forward to in anticipation, it’s the valuable discussions I will have with colleagues after the first few times we’ve delivered our new courses. Identifying what’s working, where we can improve and what the learners experienced is fundamental to developing professional practice of myself as well as colleagues. 

In the meantime, as I adjust my own working practices, I ensure that I still make time for two of the most enjoyable parts of my job. First the recorded question and answer sessions with our online course authors. I am exceptionally lucky to be involved in conveying our learners’ questions to bring together experienced teachers and academic expertise to help address real issues. The second is taking time to actually read learner feedback from our online courses. When I read statements of how courses have helped motivate someone to stay in their job, build confidence and feel they can make a real difference to young people they work with, it puts everything into context. 

References

  1. Lynn Taylor, K. (2005) ‘Academic development as institutional leadership: An interplay of person, role, strategy, and institution’, International Journal for Academic Development, 10(1), 31-46.
  2. Marsick, V. J., Watkins, K. E. and Lovin, B. (2013) ‘Revisiting Informal and Incidental Learning as a Vehicle for Professional Learning Development’, in Wise, C., Bradshaw, P. and Cartwright, M. (eds.) (2013) Leading Professional Practice in Education, London, Sage Publications.
  3. Scott, D., Thomson, S. and Melia, C. (2019) ‘What makes a learning technologist?’, #ALTC Blog, Association for Learning Technology.
  4. Starr, K. (2011) ‘Principles and the Politics of Resistance to Change’, Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 39(6), 646-660.

One thought on “The role of a learning technologist during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic”

  1. Great job, Matt! Good to be reminded of what we educational designers do (quite a lot, actually).

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