In the order in which they were written.
Q. What is the aspect of working in Digital Education / Development that would surprise those from another industry?
That it is ‘a game of runs’. This is a phrase used to describe basketball. It means in a game there will be times when the opposition put together a run of baskets. At some point their run will end. Then you will either score 1 basket or put together your run of baskets. Players understand and deal with this.
Whether you win or not is very much down to: how you react to being scored against multiple times in a row; & how many times you can thread your good moments together to make runs that change the game. To do this you need to use your starters and your bench well. Ensure you can put points on the board from multiple parts of your team. Winning is about how you harness your total energies to make a point scored turn into a run of points. That you get enough or large enough runs for a win.
For those in big institutions you may relate to this. You will feel the runs against you. You will feel times where everything is clicking into place. Where you feel like you are getting somewhere. It’s about making sure you have enough in your collective column. To do this, make sure you don’t pin all your hopes on you being the top scorer. Accept the runs against you.
Q. What is the biggest barrier to change in your field?
When I think about a change that achieved something. I think about UoNorthampton. They were trying to move away from lectures & there was a seriousness about it. As an observer you could see an ambition, a hook (new building) & methodology. This plan spanned years. From the outside you could see HOW they were planning to achieve this goal. It had a cool acronym. Basically, they had a theory of change and not just the abstract ‘how’ but the ‘how’ in this specific place and with these specific challenges.
Too often places forget this bit. We concentrate on arguments about the destination & focus on outliers. Things that don’t fit neatly into the stated ambition. We never get to the point where we outline how the transition happens with an explicit process, or staging of events. We expect people to operationalise & arrive at the end point.
Yes, ‘the how’ is hard to articulate. As a sector, much of our organisational structures are based on amelioration & fudge. Too many compromises have been made to allow us transparency without upsetting people. Yet sometimes we get too wrapped up in how cool the end point would be to achieve & leave out ‘the how’. This reticence to state a theory of change openly is our biggest barrier.
Q. What is a ‘good’ leader?
I am torn on whether I know the answer to this. I would have previously said ‘authenticity’ was key. However, I have come to the conclusion that authenticity is problematic. A privilege reserved for those who have security of tenure and more available to people that look and sound like me.
It also only works if your authenticity reveals a good person. If you are more of the real you at work then it should be a positive. Not replacing professionalism with less desirable character traits.
To me a good leader is first and foremost a good person. They have to be inclusive and lead from the front. Husband their resources and nurture the emotions around them. Beyond that it is very contextual. Different styles and traits are relevant for different situations.
Q. What is the worst pandemic related trend in your sector?
There are a lot of contenders here. Honourable mentions go to: overworking lecturers; putting the prefix #team on groupings of people; proctoring; the gatekeeping of ‘legit’ online learning; & debates about cameras being on or off.
My particular pet peeve is the rise of what I refer to as ‘disaster educationalists’. I don’t mean the literally hundreds of private sector companies who have sent me their undoubtedly brilliant products. Products which will cure all online learning ills no doubt. They are ‘opportunists’, what I dislike is ‘opportunity-ists’.
COVID 19 will bring about many changes. It is the greatest teleological accelerator of my lifetime. It also a once a century omega level threat and tragedy. During this time there have been a handful of people in society (all outside current employer)who rushed to embrace the pandemics ability to bring about change.
I found the tone around it quite distasteful at times. It is not very humane to see the March 20 – March 21 period as anything than a call to care for one another. Make changes for sure but in the spirit of caring and collective endeavour. Not the gleeful space you needed for a prior agenda or chin-stroking opportunity grabbing. #onlinelearning
Q. How does being a ‘millennial’ change how you approach your current role?
I do feel a cohort experience of entering a jobs market does shape you. For me graduating into a financial crisis has certainly given my formative years many scarring experiences. Now I am in a position with some responsibility those experiences frame my practice.
At its most constructive this can be seen in our #recruitment processes. This week we interviewed for a new role. The interviews were on Tuesday. I made sure that the task I gave was inclusive in its form with not too much scope to sink a lot of time into so people wouldn’t over prepare. I want to make the interview meaningful and helpful but not insurmountable and anxiety inducing.
From my own experience the period between interview and the communication of the panels decision can be bad for peoples mental health. I still remember being made to wait months for interview outcomes.
So when I lead these processes I ensure candidates are not made to wait over a weekend. For the process this week I will have given feedforward over coffee to most unsuccessful candidates within the same week with one being done next week. I thoroughly believe it is beholden to all of us ‘to be the person we needed’ at that stage in the applicants journey.
Q. What was the best thing you ever learnt at a conference?
I am very much looking forward to the next face to face ALT-C conference. I attended the last one in Edinburgh and there was a gaggle of us from UWE there. Also some former colleagues which was really good if a little bittersweet.
On the last day there was a short talk and activity on webinars. Principally using the idea of an escape room as an activity for students in webinar break out rooms. After the acute part of the pandemic transition we found some capacity* from the campus based activities having suddenly disappeared. This gave us opportunities to write up some of our own explorations.
* The impact of Flash disappearing went on to take away this capacity but we got some writing up done.
Balancing the ladder
When I manage team dynamics and shape I am very mindful of enabling new entrants to learning technology careers. I always think… would I be able to start a career as a Learning Technologist today and at UWE? Sometimes I think I wouldn’t be able to get an ‘in’ but that because the candidate pool is so talented.
This idea of the ladder in hit home when we revised our structure to remove the use of D grade junior/assistant roles. These roles were an integral part of the pipeline for adding new learning technologists from outside of HE. They were incredibly successful at this. Unfortunately it benefitted the organisations that cherry picked our incredibly well rounded staff. Quite quickly they were in more senior roles at different universities.
To increase our retention the recruitment pipeline now starts at a higher level but I am still desperate to attract people of all talents to careers in digital education. Recently I wrote an article to help applicants from outside the industry get an interview. We need to keep expanding our recruitment pool to people of talent from all walks of life.
If you know people interested in entering a career in TEL then please pass on this article.
In between the conversations of hybrid working, the talk of the future of blended learning, the worries about hybrid teaching & other modern phenomena there is something from the ‘before time’ that haunts me.
I have to admit; I am terrified. Yet for once I am not scared of the pandemic, but of what comes next. I am afraid of the return of ‘the old’ normal.
What is it I dread? The feeling of being stuck. The feeling of inertia. The feeling of listlessness. The feeling of futility. The lack of shared endeavour. Returning to a state where change needed to be unavoidable before being actioned. The acceptance that there are only pyrrhic victories at best.
What is it I dread? Waking up in 2019. Not literally but in working culture and the expectations around innovation. With the only comfort of England being champions of Europe. Let’s hope we return with our eyes fixed forward on 2030 and not back at 2019.
A learning technologist is a job that has many different functions. Two of its main functions are to embrace change and manage risk. To read the road ahead & see where we need to improve. To manage the risks of something going wrong. Embrace and sell that destination but ensure we arrive with as few bumps in the road as possible.
As a cadre of professional you manage a lot of risk on others behalf and you deal with a great deal of uncertainty. After all, no one 100% knows the future. Yet we currently live and work in a perfectly precedented crisis. We know the next few weeks ahead and what they look like. We know where we should be and we know who is stopping us (again) from getting there.
To mitigate it and move to a future state. On this occasion the factors outside of your control mean you cannot actually do that. The country is geared towards not managing the risks of something. Something big. With the stated ambition of returning to a past state. Something knowable but hardly desirable.
A learning technologist instinctively wants to manage risk. This is not unique to this profession but this my perspective. It is quite frankly excruciating to experience again. Remain vigilant & stay safe everyone!
A personal bug bear of mine are the chilling effects that come with working in large organisations. A chilling effect in legal and media terms is the supression of free speech or forms of dissent. I’m talking about this concept as it relates to productivity rather then free speech.
So in a large organisation you will have every single possible outcome or project worked on by some one at some time. ‘X was working on that in 2017’ or ‘Y committee was discussing this’. Some times the knowledge that someone higher up the food chain has discussed something similar means that no other person can discuss that subject. Even if it personally affects them.
It is more bureaucratic than directly oppressive. ‘I don’t want you to waste your time on Z as there is a current project that might mean that is wasted’. More often than not it means nothing gets done with the assumption that someone else will sort it soon. Well here is the rub. They won’t.
If you are affected by something you need to blast through this iron cage, you need to ensure it is dealt with appropriately. If you are the most appropriate way to solve an issue keep rattling the cage. Otherwise it will disappear & you are left with the problem back at the start.
The importance of being kind
Being kind. It is important in work as well as life. All too often we see people struggling and we feel the need to give some feedback. Surely people need to know when they have fallen short and where they can improve?
Working in Higher Education for any length of time often leaves you looking after things that aren’t technically your job. HE is a network of favours and unpaid emotional labours accrued in addition to the day job. All part of being one University with shared goals and ambitions.
However, as so much of our workforce has gone to University we are resplendent with critical thinking. We can critically analyse this, we can proffer an analysis of that or we can deconstruct the other. Very useful in ‘some’ instances but sometimes it gets in the way. Often rather than critique the kind the to do is offer help.
If you see someone in a difficult position, struggling with a responsibility that should be shared then offer to share that load and not just an opinion. This is the kind way of being. This is the collegiate way of being. This is also something you might need reciprocated one day.
I have personal news. I am leaving UWE in mid-October. I will be joining the NHS to do Digital Learning stuff there for 12 months, then who knows.
After nearly 10 years there I leave with memories both good & bad but nothing but respect for UWE teaching staff. They change lives.
I would love to return in the future. As I love the place. So won’t be making a big deal about leaving. No ‘do’ or anything. If anyone wants a catch up before I disappear then book half an hour with me and we can reminisce.