reflection research technologist TEL edvisors

Research update #55: 10 months later

The cool thing about not blogging for a little while is that I get to do one of those cool narrative jumps that you get in your better TV shows* where a bunch of stuff happens between now and then but we just focus on the now.

I’m close to putting my ethics application in, I think I’ve got a fairly decent set of survey and interview questions and I have a reasonable idea of what data I want to capture in the first phase of investigation. The plan is still to work with around a dozen local Key Informants (KIs) in universities around Australia, edvisors who will help me sense check the questions and also help source information about numbers of edvisors in their institution, where they are located and how this is arranged (i.e. faculty vs centralised units, do learning technologists work side by side with learning designers etc).

I’m kind of concerned both about the ethics process – mostly because I haven’t been through it before, not because what I think I’m doing is unethical. This comes back to a lifelong wariness of authority I suspect. Recruiting KIs is a bigger worry, I think I do my best work when I don’t have to rely on other people and I don’t think I’m particularly good at asking other people to do things – specially things that will involve a bit of effort. I mean, I do it and I’ve done it but I don’t think I do that bit very well, the getting people excited and bringing them along for the ride bit. I raised the idea of paying the KIs some kind of honorarium when I spoke to Peter (supervisor) the other day but he was against it. (Ethics mostly I think).

One great thing that has happened in the last year has been the way that the TELedvisors network (and I) seem to have become a touch point for people doing research in this area. I should say, for professional staff and PhD students doing research in this area. I think I’ve been contacted personally by maybe 7 or 8 people wanting a chat and/or to use TELedvisors to help recruit participants to various studies. These all centre around Learning Designers, interestingly enough. I guess Academic Developers, coming moreso from the ranks of academics still tend to steer clear of professional staff and nobody really gives a damn about learning technologists, except me. (That’s not true, there’s a fair body of research about technologists out there but it’s a far small slice of the pie).

I’ve also reached out to a few people doing research in this space, and some taking it off in interesting new directions. I don’t feel at all insecure about saying that I feel like many of these people are smarter than I am, so it’s nice to be able to extend myself through the complexities of their ideas. Sarah Thorneycroft, someone I’ve been fortunate to know in the sector for a few years now has started her PhD on learning design, but for organisations. I think what I admire most about practitioner driven research is that it has a tight focus on meaningful outcomes rather than feeling like some kind of loose thought exercise.

One idea that I’ve been wrestling with has been about the difference between Learning Technologists (LTs) and Educational Technologists (ETs). Part of this was sparked by my gut reaction to ALT’s definition of LTs. ALT is the UK based Association for Learning Technology. In the TEL sector, they are a pretty big deal and their annual conference is one of the events of the year, from what I understand. They run CMALT, an accreditation scheme for learning technologists and also have learning technologist of the year awards. The 2017 winner of this award posted a reflection blog saying that she works as and probably sees herself more as an academic developer. In the post she does discuss “proper” learning technologists, people with this as a blog title but neither her or ALT saw not being a learning technologist as a barrier to being the best one of 2017. Which brings us back to ALT’s definition.

We define Learning Technology as the broad range of communication, information and related technologies that can be used to support learning, teaching and assessment. Our community is made up of people who are actively involved in understanding, managing, researching, supporting or enabling learning with the use of Learning Technology.

We believe that you don’t need to be called ‘Learning Technologist’ to be one.  

Vasant, S. (2014, March 31). What is a Learning Technologist? Retrieved September 11, 2019, from website:

As a professional staff member in a Higher Education institution and someone who has worked as an actual Learning/Education Technologist for a number of years, I struggle with this for a few reasons. The biggest relates to the academic/professional divide. My immediate, visceral reaction is that academic hobbyists are barging into a domain and claiming ownership like some European coloniser here to save the poor, ignorant local natives from themselves. Clearly that is a gross overreaction. It comes from an array of experiences (shared with my peers) of being disrespected and marginalised by (some, not all) academics as a professional staff member. Research is the key word at issue, as in most institutions, professional staff are excluded from this activity.

There is a second divide, lesser spoken of than the first, the pedagogical/technological divide. While I don’t have literature to back this up, I’d suggest that there is a hierarchy of knowledge in HE that goes 1) domain/discipline, 2) pedagogical and at a distant 3) technological. Given the purpose of HE, I don’t necessary disagree with this, although it does depend on what weighting we give research over teaching as a university purpose as to the gap between 1&2 and I also question the need for the size of the gap between 2&3. Both of these factors mean that, as a “proper” learning technologist, I can sometimes be sensitive to a sense of othering not just from academics but even from some edvisors in more pedagogically oriented roles and so this sense that ‘anyone can be a technologist’ probably grates more than it should.

But, I need to recognise that my feelings aren’t the only show in town and none of this has been consciously factored in to the ALT definition. Looking at it from another angle, it is about fostering an inclusive community of inquiry and practice, which is obviously a good thing. If there is one thing my research has made clear over the last 3.5 years, it’s that language in this space is hazy and fluid and just because I believe (for some good reasons) that the term learning technologist should represent a dedicated profession, it doesn’t mean that others have to. Stamping my feet about it is certainly not going to get me anywhere, anyway.

All of which led me back to the perennial question of what does a learning technologist do. Most of the ALT definition actually does capture it, though I think we need to go deeper. Managing, supporting and enabling learning are a big part of my work, with some understanding and some researching. (I consider myself fortunate to now be working somewhere that actively supports professional staff participation in research – oh yeah, one of the things that happened in the 10 months was that I got a new job). Managing, arguably is where the main dividing line between academic and professional and pedagogical and technological can be found. (Probably supporting too but let’s stick to managing for now).

Thinking about managing educational technology led me to the realisation that we should have educational technologists (ET) and learning technologists. Both need to have a strong understanding understanding of both technology and pedagogy – a fact that many people seem to miss. The difference between ET/LTs and IT staff is that our focus is ultimately always on the best application of technology to enhance learning. Without the learning, there is no need for the tech. If it doesn’t enhance the learning, there is no need for the tech. This isn’t to say that IT staff don’t have ideas about how tech can enhance learning but this is not their primary function. (I raise this – and will come back to it in a future post – because one of the biggest misconceptions about LT/ETs is that we are primarily IT staff).

So what’s the difference between a learning technologist and an educational technologist then? Great question, thanks for asking. I would suggest that an LT is principally focused on the connections between learning, teaching and technology. They tend to work more closely with teachers and will more commonly be found in faculty/college based units than in central ones. An ET, on the other hand, does this as well but has a lot more to do with how the education technology works in and serves the needs of the wider institutional education ecosystem. They are more commonly found in central teams and will work more closely with the institutional IT teams to manage and implement systems and platforms.

These central teams are often the business owners of the tech, and In addition to the impact tech has on learning and teaching, they need to be across the practicalities of how it is supported, what happens when it breaks, how it integrates with other institutional systems (e.g. student management), how its use aligns with university policies (e.g. academic integrity), legal requirements (privacy, security, intellectual property), how the implementation works with the available staff resources to actually get the work done (amidst competing priorities) and financial considerations. These are some of the less interesting aspects intellectually of using technology in education but nonetheless, they are essential for facilitating the big picture operation of the institution beyond learning and teaching.

Now, as I’ve mentioned once or forty times before, the semantic landscape when it comes to describing edvisors is more of a jungle than a garden, but in terms of making sense of the different responsibilities of types of technologists, using educational vs learning seems helpful. Whether this might also be applied to learning designers or academic developers is something for further consideration.

It feels good to get that all out of my head.

In terms of what’s next, I have a long list of things that I’m trying to cut back to something manageable and less overwhelming. A big thing overall would seem to be to do more writing, so returning to this blog feels like a positive step in that direction. The advice I read about doing a PhD is not to wait until you’ve collected your data to start writing it – because there are going to be many many drafts before it is ready. Setting up Scrivener to support this seems to be a good next thing to do. I’ve been flipping between whether I want to set up individual Scrivener projects for each chapter or just put everything in the one. A single one feels like it might be unmanageably large but maybe there would be problems if I want to quickly access content/ideas/etc between chapters if I do it the other way. Compartmentalising by chapter feels like it might better support a sense of progress and achievement. I’ll probably do that.

Time to crack on then.

*Apropos of nothing much, one of the best shows I have watched recently, to the point where I felt the need to ration it out, has been a series called Patriot. This low key spy comedy is like nothing I have seen on TV before. It has the sensibilities of a great indie film, deep rich characters, imaginative production, a profound love of language and just superb story telling. It takes it own time and I could never tell where it was going, which makes the comic moments leap out. Stephen Conrad, the writer/director has gone on to make Perpetual Grace Inc. which is equally amazing. These are true auteur shows. (Below is a nice example of the fun they have with language – I’d share a series trailer but there are too many joke spoilers, just watch it)