Advanced Area: Leadership in learning technologies


What kind of leader am I?

From the archetypal leadership styles I would say I am somewhere between a laissez-faire and participative leader. I like to trust my staff to stay productive whether it is on a specific project I have given them or just generally being a self directed positive agent for change. Partly this is out of necessity.

Working in a big sclerotic organisation means an authoritative leader is often made to look silly. Often they are holding a line or working to a priority that has withered on the vine or been completely changed but not communicated. A situational leader would thrive in this environment if it weren’t too opaque to work out what you are adapting to. So you would be more self-directed than situational.

As for transactional I believe this to be infantilising. Crude behaviouralism might work but the largest reward I can give the people under my leadership is a good structure to work in, investment in their ambition and the respect to be left to manage things how they see fit.

I do believe more in authentic leadership. The Leadership Institute states that an authentic leader: leads with purpose; leads with values and principles and values; leads with their heart; leads by cultivating long-term relationships; & leads by example. This is a far more practical approach to leading in a fast evolving sector like digital education and makes for far more credible professionals in the slightly odd kind of institutions Universities tend to be. Its about guile, wits and being true to your values but also valuing other people as people.

I am not uncritical to the idea of authentic leadership. As I have written about the dangers of it and that it presumes a good person. So authentic leadership will rely on your own moral compass and what you think good management is. My values lead to lead by various rules of thumb:

  1. Be who you needed when you were at that stage of your career.
  2. Don’t be a dick. Being goodly and kind is its own reward.
  3. Double check someone’s calendar before sending a snotty email.
  4. You role is to protect the staff from unnecessary stress and not to burden them with additional stress. Be the shit shield.
  5. Be inclusive. This means calling out bad behaviour and also ensuring conversations and concerns can be had openly without being shut down.

Which parts of my work are leadership? Well there is formal and informal leadership. Formally, I head up a function in my faculty leading a team of 5 or 6 learning technologists and digital media technicians. I have headed various working groups and committees including University wide committees. I am a line manager and at UWE that comes with quite a lot of responsibilities. The function is called being a ‘people manager’ and a lot policies are enforced by and dependent on this role. I go on to discuss this further in manifestations 1 and 5.

Informally, I do a lot of smoothing of trouble waters over coffee, organise community responses to over mighty parts of the organisation and lots of unpaid emotional labour. Things that go unnoticed like sitting on job interview panels or sharing recruitment / induction activities. Circulating knowledge about what is going on and canvassing opinion on change.

I believe in ensuring our institution has a strong and high performing digital education arm. To achieve this I believe needs diversity of thought, voice and representation. I will go on to discuss this in manifestation 2 and 4. This diversity needs protecting. I have a leadership role in protecting the communities diversity and ensuring the social capital the flows to all equally. So some of the informal leadership is using my position to call out other figures with status when disruptions bleeds into discrimination or unhealthy behaviours, Which I will discuss in Manifestation 3.

How does being and authentic leader manifest in my work?

Manifestation 1: Setting Standards and Processes

Part of the formal work I am engaged with relates to maintaining a direction of travel towards our current strategy. During the pandemic that was literally setting the standards for our academics to work towards for things such as video content and course design. In this literal vein it tends to mean being in charge of templating and the like. For the academic year 2021/22 we created a new template for modules, some templating for programmes and part of my leadership role is introducing this to the Faculty. This is a leadership rather than practitioner skill as you need to take people with you AND challenge any push back or queries on those standards. I took on the roles of drafting, consulting and running workshops on the standards I set to ensure I could lead from the front and be the face of any parts of the changes / standards that were unpopular.

Manifestation 2: Co-ordinating top down and bottom up activity

As outlined above and below a leaders needs to be representative of its staff and also ensure that the structure / context of the organisation encourages social capital to flow amongst stakeholders. This can be organising spaces such as communities of practice to develop free from ‘managers’ being too determinative. It can also be nudging relationships to form so that bottom up innovation or co-working can form easily.

An example of this is my borderline obsession with the buddying system that makes up part of the ‘onboarding’ process into the university. I put as much effort into plotting who would match well with my staff and vice versa as a parent in a Jane Austen novel. Plotting what is useful to the whole and the individual and ensuring people get a well rounded appreciation of the panoply of learning technologies at UWE.

Balancing planned and unplanned community building is important. Another important facet of leadership is listening. Realising for all the well intentioned match making and community building that sometimes other people have ideas, other people start things and do them differently to you. You know what? That’s pretty cool too. Learning when to throttle back and let social capital flow and initiatives to generate organically is a skill. It requires emotional intelligence and the absence of the need to be centre stage. Listening to others and learning when they need signal boosting or just someone to vent to is a skill.

It is the same with how our structures respond to innovation. Centrally mandated vs organic use that needs scaling up. It’s the next big conversation our institution needs to have. Again, structurally we aren’t in the right place to respond other than in the abstract and its something I have tried to tackle multiple times. You need to encourage people to try new things but also ensure you husband resources and are strategic with the capacity you have. This requires constant leadership and constant course correction. To do this you need the absence of an agenda, you need relationships and ultimately this comes from being authentically you with people.

Manifestation 3: Taking the difficult positions on behalf on my community

Part of being a leader is caring and pursuing things on behalf of a wider community than your own small piece of the pie. Even when stakeholders are struggling to care about issues or recognize the structures that are holding them back. Other times it means calling out unacceptable behaviours from others when they are need to be addressed in public fora.

For the first point of standing up for the community I have long been trying to drive a move towards standardised job titles and pay grades in digital education. It has been a long passion project of mine where I sometimes stand alone in acting against individuals self interest to support the wider communities interests. By the same token I have also organised the digital education community to push back against dominance by any one group within it. So this has lead to some difficult conversations with colleagues I respect greatly(and some I don’t) but that’s just how it is.

For the second point I can point to experiences in the pandemic. The return to lecturing was a particular passion for a few educators at UWE. However, they were often treating real and valid concerns over viral transmission as people being frit. This lack of understanding for those who are more vulnerable or have different needs to those who consider themselves to be the norm had already reared its head when we discussed accessibility. People could be unthinkingly rude in public conversations because they were unaware of their ableism. I am not the thought police but I knew a lot of our wider community took a different approach to the risks associated with viruses post vaccine roll out. So I ensured we learnt from the conversations had during our raising of awareness around accessibility during the July-August period that I called out ableism and framed every conversation around themes from the social model of disability. A few people thanked me for doing this so diligently.

Manifestation 4: Taking responsibility for diversifying the workforce

The Digital Education Service at UWE is not the worst for diversity. We have always been very well gender balanced. Yet within the areas of class, disability and race we are not representative enough. As a self appointed and now University recognised leader I take responsibility where I can to address this. Being authentic in my leadership means I have to reflect in my work my value system and choose an employer that reflects that value system. This means trying to be inclusive (a UWE value) and progressive,

One of the issues when recruiting is in ‘the pipeline’. You can only recruit who applies and who applies is very hard to control. We had Assistant Learning Technologist roles in our family of roles. These roles were meant to encourage new entrants to digital education careers. One of the saddest decisions I ever had to make was the removal of these jobs. Everyone in post ended up in Learning Technologist roles within our team. So we didn’t lose anyone but we did lose something else. The bottom of the ladder.

I try not to be misty eyed about these roles. For ‘starter jobs’ we recruited people with Masters degrees recruited. We had applicants with PHDs in the speciality. Part of that is due to awareness of learning technology roles comes through exposure to higher education. So societal inequalities are replicated. However, I always try and ask myself… if I was starting now would I be able to get a foot in?

What can I do to ensure we have a diverse workforce? Well I have attended and make sure my fellow interview panel attend unconscious bias training. In normal times we allow for online interviews if requested. We ensure the panel and shortlisting process is as diverse as is practicable. We ensure the tasks given during the interview are not skewed towards certain types of people and truly represent what is needed for our roles.

In addition to this I make sure my job descriptions and job adverts are written in plain English. Ensure that the job specification and job advert are run through a gendered language checker (even though I don’t believe it makes a difference). This is still not enough. In addition to this I have written a blog for those outside of the industry to stand a better chance in the shortlisting process. This is outlined more widely in my LinkedIn ouvre.

Manifestation 5: Developing Others

As a previous CMALT holder I took my role as an assessor seriously. I was involved in marking portfolios and took the role of lead assessor on many occasions. I often joke I feel very vampiric whilst doing this as I feel like a I am feeding of more junior members of the profession as this is basically my main CPD route. Some of my best ideas/advice have been co-opted from other peoples portfolios and passed of as my own!

As a current manager I have a major role in developing a team, from the storming to the norming to the performing. In addition to this, I take VERY seriously my responsibilities in developing individuals. I try to be the type of manager I would have needed when I was at the point of my career my subordinates are. This started from day 1 of our now defunct starter level roles:

Assistant Learning Technologists

As part of an Assistant Learning Technologist’s probation period I ask them to do things that focus their sights on the next job. They are as follows:

Sit with the Blackboard Support team. Shadowing the main support team gives new starters a good understanding of this part of the operation. It builds important relationships for the future. Most importantly it gives them perspective on how lucky they are to a job as a learning technologist. The difference in the level of creativity and freedom they have in their roles in comparison to Tier 1 support desks. This I feel gives them a push to think of a career in learning technology long term.

Shadow me at top level meetings. I ask new starters to shadow me at the more important meetings. They will attend at least one Faculty Learning, Teaching and Assessment Committee and attend at least one Learning Technologies Management Group. Part of this gets their face out there and helps them join our community. Part of this helps de-rarefy these spaces and lessen any feelings that they don’t belong where their voice can be heard. Lastly, I really enjoy having a new started feel empowered pitching into a debate and knowing more in their short time at UWE than some of the more senior staff.

Complete a self assessment on the CMALT portfolio. One of the very first things I do is get individuals to sketch out a plan of how they would meet the CMALT criteria from employment prior to joining UWE. I introduce this by email . It helps me orientate their capacity around their main job role towards areas of weakness on the portfolio.

In addition to their main roles of PebblePad support and equipment loans for our Assistant Learning Technologists we leave space for ‘development’ activities. These are meant as stretch targets for developing either their own thinking, skills or increasing team capacity for some activities. These as mentioned are set to help them evidence weak parts of their portfolio but also to develop others in the team. For example, we have a bi-lateral Christmas development day with another Faculties TEL team. For this event from the Assistant Learning Technologist strata alone we are getting talks about:

  • Streaming 360 video content across EduRoam using the Vuze camera
  • Assessor initiated assessments in PebbePad on tablet devices for workplace based assessments
  • A market overview of the eLearning authoring tools available in 2019

This is in turn develops our more senior team members with new ideas and marketable knowledge. It is important to guard against getting too blinkered on one subject or piece of software, to maintain a general awareness of the sector. I believe the alternative is to be left behind or become irrelevant. After the start I had to my career with multiple fixed term contracts I am obsessed with maintaining the employability of all my staff.

Continuation and Destination of Leavers

For those in the middle tier I take a less hands on approach to development. I will support individuals to follow less generalist paths to more niche areas of interest. This in the form of conference attendance, equipment purchasing or carving time out to complete learning and development opportunities. Luckily for me doing this has meant we have an expert in accessibility in the office (at just the right time!) and some really impressive skill sets to call upon.

Unfortunately this has an annoying by product. People go get promotions elsewhere. This is a big focus for me in the next period, making sustainable structures. Our team structure has entry level jobs at below market rates for a Learning Technologist in this area so a lot of this time investment is wasted from an institutional perspective. I don’t mind as in the long run I produce great and happy staff and it gives me evidence to regrade those roles. Below is a diagram of team dynamics over the last two years:

Team dynamic progression diagram
Green indicates people who have been in post for more than 6 months.
Grey solid box indicates no postholder in place.
Images taken from public facing websites.

All the people who have left the team have gone on to bigger salaries either internally or externally. Our continuation data is pretty poor. We have had 4 people leave the team and have secured 2 people promotion to new roles within the team. Of the 3 people who left two went to the University of Bristol and we kept on 2 within UWE but within the library and Academic Practice Directorate. I have gone through a total of 6 recruitment processes in the last 18 months and I was very glad that our internal staff managed to outperform very hot competition from external staff for these roles. It means we are doing something right.

In addition to this since leaving the team 2 individuals have gone on to complete their CMALT portfolio and become certified members after we paid to start them on that journey.


PDR Feedback from the now retired Caroline Graham (FET), 2021:

Tom’s knowledge of the digital education field is broad and comprehensive; he keeps up to date with current developments, and is knowledgeable of emerging trends.

Tom is well connected across the University, and has productive working relationships with a wide range of people. This has been particularly evident with his work as temporary co-chair for the Digital Education Special Interest Group.

This responsibility has dragged on more than the anticipated three months, but Tom remains very committed; and has taken the lead on writing papers and closing off some outstanding actions.

Tom is an effective leader, he is strategically minded and politically aware. He understands the teaching community’s needs and works proactively to address outstanding issues to improve the experience of the academic community, and ultimately the student experience.

He is a very supportive colleague, has a good sense of humour, and so it is a pleasure to work with him.

360 degree feedback (password Gooner69?) excerpts :

“Tom takes on board the views of others and listens well. He creates plenty of opportunities for his staff to develop and listens to their views to help shape the improvement of his team.”

“Tom is a very skilled manager. He has built an excellent team and he leads them to deliver excellent performance.”

“Tom is very good at utilising his team’s skills and is able to align work to suit expertise. Tom gave me lots of opportunities to use my existing skills and develop new ones while helping me to see how they can be used in context. Tom also promoted opportunities such as conferences and progression paths to help me in my career. He is keen for everyone to do well and succeed in the field.”

Team Alumni

Natascha Imlay

Russel Brookes

Krystina Selley

Naomi Beckett