edvisor Instructional Designer Learning design learning designer

Thoughts on: “Many hats, one heart”: A scoping review on the professional identity of learning designers (Altena, Ng, Hinze, Poulsen & Parrish, 2019)

While I did read this when it first came out at the ASCILITE 2019 conference, I revisit it now that I’ve done my own deep dive into the activities and knowledge areas that help to define different edvisor role types including Learning Designers (LDs).

I know and respect all of the authors of this paper and we are (mostly) part of the same community of edvisors in Australasia. We have parallel research interests but different perspectives and focuses. I say this because there are some things in this conference paper that I question or comment on but this is mostly just because of differences with my chosen approaches. As part of the growing field of scholarship on Third Space education workers, instructional/learning designers and associated practitioners, there is much value to find in this paper.

Most of this comes from my notes as I read through the paper and can be scattered.

Learning Designers are increasingly employed in universities to support institutional digital and pedagogical transformation agendas

Altena et al. 2019 P.1

This opening sentence speaks volumes to me because it touches on two points of contention in this space, particularly among LDs. Firstly, maybe it just flowed better on the page but I note that digital (technological) appears before pedagogical. How much of an LD’s job is technology oriented and how much is about pedagogy is a hot topic, with many LDs (in my experience) feeling that their pedagogical expertise often undervalued at the expense of providing technical support. Secondly, the question of who LDs primarily serve – the teachers or the institution – is often raised in commentary of people questioning the value of LDs and their peers (or, more the case, the need for to change teaching practices).

This paper is about a scan of the literature intended to identify key attributes (using Barnett’s knowing-doing-being framework) that offer a clearer definition of LDs than is currently available. It claims to find

the unique capabilities of learning designers as transformative change agents to student learning

Altena et al. 2019 P.1

This is probably the point at which our respective research projects and aims diverge, as I contend (for now, at least) that there are three key role types of people doing work with this focus in Australian Higher Education – academic developers, education technologists and learning designers – and there are many overlaps between these three. I do believe though that there are also distinctive characteristics of each that we can use to differentiate them, so I am interested to see what they find.

Interestingly, the search terms used included learning technologist and educational technologist but no variation of academic developer. Whether this is an acknowledgement that ADs exist and are sufficiently different or not is unclear. Given my personal belief that Ed Techs and LDs are notably different roles, I find it interesting that they were included in the search. At the same time, given the liminality of many role names in this space, it doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable (but I’d love to see more detail in the data about the two).

Literature published in peer reviewed journals or conferences between 2008 – 2019 centred around the work of LDs in Higher Ed was methodically reviewed and filtered and found 29 worthwhile articles. As a scan of the global literature (compared to my Australian focus) it is not surprising that North American publications were highly represented (80%) but this did lead me to wonder if the practices and experiences of North American Learning/Instructional Designers are reflective of the wider cohort. (Again though, I acknowledge that I am using a much narrower lens). Which leads to another question – why would it be different? (Though I suspect it just is)

The authors note that they were surprised that Learning Technologist didn’t appear in their sample of papers – given the North American lean of the sample, the term instructional technologist might have been more helpful. I’ve seen that appear a bit in their literature about this space.

The attributes/descriptors that they found relating to LDs showed a definite skew in the literature towards ‘doings’ (n=26) over ‘knowings’ (n=9) or ‘beings’ (n=5). This is utter speculation but I wonder whether much of this research was written by non-practitioners and may have had more of a focus on the outcomes of LD activity than the nature of LDs and their identities. If that were the case, we might reasonably expect to hear more about doings/activities. There could be other reasons, of course and in my own research, I explored relatively equal numbers of activities and knowledge areas. I didn’t look at ‘beings’ in much depth at all other than in trying to extract data about perceived ‘purpose’ from an open text question about what people do in their roles. Exploring values and ideology deeper in future data collection is definitely high on my agenda though.

Altena et al. looked at the most commonly discussed knowledge areas, activities and values/purposes from the papers in their review to help shed light on attributes that may help define LDs.

The top ‘knowings’ (knowledge areas) were:

Instructional design and models (n=13)
Technical knowledge (n=13)
Knowledge through professional learning (n=13)
Learning theories (n=11)
Educational research (n=9)

I assume technical knowledge to be related to the use of educational technologies but what “knowledge through professional learning” means is a little less clear. Is this other assorted skill sets that they needed training for or might it be knowledge relating to the provision of training? (Which would seem to me to be high on the list and otherwise absent). Similarly ‘educational research’ might refer to remaining current on emerging research or undertaking research. Here I see the Australian experience as possibly being somewhat different to the North American one, as (acknowledged by the authors), LDs here are rarely given the opportunity to engage in research.

They go on to categorise knowledge areas as ‘Threshold concepts’ (mostly the theory but also some technology knowledge), ‘Just in time knowledge (more reactive knowledge and maintaining currency) and also “Contribution to knew knowledge” relating mostly to research. In my own research I am starting to see different sub-categories of pedagogical knowledge that align with the first two – though the ‘threshold concepts’ I suspect are more strongly aligned with Academic developer identity.

The top ‘doings’ (activities) were:

Course and assessment design (n=18)
Providing expert advice (n=15)
Relationship building (n=15)
Project management (n=12)
Digital asset management (n=12)

These get categorised into Course and curriculum design, Project management, Professional development, Stakeholder engagement and Assess production/technical support. Again, these broadly align with activity categories that I’ve found but I would suggest that curriculum design is more strongly associated with ADs and technical support (including systems administration) with Ed Technologists. (Which isn’t to say LDs do none of that, just less).

Some future questions for me to ask in subsequent data collection that this prompts are something along the lines of – what do you do and what should you be doing? what would you like to be doing in your role?

The final attributes most commonly associated with LDs they found in the literature relate to ‘being’. I need to explore identity theory a bit more because this seems valuable but I think it also links a bit to Kemmis’ ‘relatings’ and the cultural/contextual parts of practice theory in general. These were:

Shared vision (n=5)
Establishing governance (n=5)
Having leadership (n=4)
Being ethical (n=2)

The governance and leadership parts speak to me here and may be gaps in what I have gathered data on to date in terms of key practices. (There is a whole separate piece on the activities, values and knowledge areas of junior vs senior edvisors and also those in central vs faculty teams that complicates this)

A couple of handy final quotes to wrap up that may be useful later:

…the values, attributes and ontological perspectives of learning designers are implied or rarely articulated within the papers

Altena et al. 2019 P.4

…if we are to move this profession forward, further research that seeks to establish higher education benchmarks for the entry to knowledge, skills and personal values, attributes and ontological perspectives required of learning designers working within the higher education sector is needed

Altena et al. 2019 P.5

This paper offers some useful insights into the vibe of research describing learning designers. It shows the complexity of these roles as they juggle everything from pedagogy to technology and managing people/projects to creating new knowledge. The more work we see like this, the clearer the picture may become.