Thursday, 24 February 2011

What a learning technologist needs to be good at

I've talked previously about the principle of offering practical advice. This is referring to the level of abstraction you employ when talking about the design of the learning experience. My gut feeling is that because researchers are often employed in Learning Technology positions the tendency is to more be too abstract. This is a completely anecdotal assertion (this blog gives me this kind of freedom of expression).

Aside from this, what are the qualities I need to possess to have the maximum positive impact? By positive I mean giving people a good understanding of key issues with regard to LTs allowing them to make informed decisions on their appropriate use. I will list some qualities:

Good communication/good teaching:
I'm realising more and more that's being a good communicator and teacher is priority number 1 for this job. I need to be able to communicate my message in a variety of fora and a variety of contexts. I need to be able to communicate well and where possible teach well so that I make maximium advantage of each opportunity. I've been a lot recently on what it means to give practical advice on LTs particular with regard to designing a whole course. I think an important principle is making order out of simple but disparate concepts and ideas. It's very common for discussion to flit around lots of different issues, so if you can give order, structure and context for all of this then that's is really useful. Often what you come up with sounds obvious. Don't worry about this, it's still useful. For example, colleagues at the Institute of Education have found it useful when I say think about:

- Start time/finish
- Aligning topic with time periods

And then for each topic, think about:
- What bespoke content you want
- What readings you want
- What learning activities you want

There's much, much more to think about but this is a good basis. Sounds like common sense but key points are easily overlooked and mashed together causing confusion.


Finding opportunities to spread the word
It is often about manufacturing situations where you have a captive audience, placing myself in environment where people will listen. Ideally, people come to something you have organised where they want your help and support. In an ideal world this is one-to-one tuition or group training sessions. However, these can be difficult to manufacture so other situations have to be sought. Working groups for sharing practice are a good idea. You can always slip in advice at strategic points.

Adapting your message to the audience
This is about not banging the drum too hard with the wrong audience, in the wrong context. Because technology can be an emotive issue with some, the context needs to be right before you think about delivering your message. Also, if educators come to learn about, say, a particular tool or technology you can also give some learning design advice within this to give it context.

Initiating and taking control of your own learning
This is probably the hardest part. Clearly it's a principle which could apply to any profession. For LTs, at a simple level, it's about staying on top of new software and environments and ensuring that you understand how to work tools before the edcuator gets to it. This is hard enough but then you add to it, trying to keep abreast of the latest thinking in research terms with regard to LTs. A third strand which I try and do is reading and reflecting on the latest thinking on LTs outside the academia. I am talking about the the blogosphere and the micro-blogosphere. This is hard and involves making time to read and share what you can. It's valuable because it makes you think outside your narrow world. With any job there are times when learning gets swamped by being too damn busy but it's worth the effort when you get a chance. Taking control of your own learning and ensuring that you keep abreast on all three fronts is hard and sometimes overwhelming. But I'm always glad when I do. In fact, this is one of things that keep me interested in my job. Being able to easily find information and opinion and turn this into knowledge by reflecting on it in light of my context.

It's interesting rating yourself against these criteria. I come out ok, but that's probably because I picked the criteria. Mind you, there lots of room for improvement.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Levels of abstraction - Practical vs pedagogy

I've done a lot of work these past few months on helping academic colleagues who are thinking about converting their courses from face-to-face to be delivered through blended learning or purely online. This is unsurprising as this is a core component of my job! However, things have been pretty active recently as HE looks for additional modes of delivery to bring in more students and, by consequence, more money. Whatever the motivation, I'm happy.

As a result, there's been lots of learning that needs consolidating. Firstly, I had an interesting discussion the other day about the levels of abstraction. This is in terms of how abstract you discuss things with educators when helping them design an online course. I've always tends to try and grounds things in reality and talk in terms of practical components/examples/templates rather than pedagogical models. This is probably partly because its in my nature to do this but also because my experience is that this is what they want - or at least this is what I think they want. There are a number of reasons for this which I won't go into here. But getting the balance right on the scale of abstraction is a judgement call that a constant issue for any learning technologist. It's certainly important to be able to talk pedagogy if the need arise but it is the best starting point? I don't have the answers. My instincts and practice keep such dialogue in my back pocket. You might be thinking why not do both, why not do everything. Well, you need to be careful. Educators often approach you looking for clarity, looking for answers. Clarity is so, so important and I guess this is the heart of the matter. You have to choose what to say first and how to say it to give maximium benefit to the educator. This will be different for each person but common is the need to practical guidance on how a course could look online and what key decisions need to be made first. My next post will reflect upon the practical advice I've been championing in this post.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Looking outside the VLE is not a crime


Note to self - must blog more.

It's good to reflect back on my thinking last year and how things have moved on. I've been reflecting on my Web 2.0 model. I still think it's a useful guide for making sense of what's out there and, although it could probably be refined, I don't think its worth the effort as the changes would be minor. I've said in the past that integration of internet based tools and Virtual Learning Environments will get better over time. The rate of this improvement is frustratingly slow. Our institution, the Institute of Education, uses blackboard. When it comes to integration with internet-based tool, it's not good. Moodle is much better and our potential switch to this VLE would be very welcome from this point of view.

The issue of going outside the VLE doesn’t fit well with formal education. The instinct of an educational institution is to cover its back with anything it uses. As a result, the rules comes first. For the few that want to use something “out there”, they are forced to justify this position against whatever criteria deemed appropriate. The result is that most will not bother. Why risk doing something wrong especially since there is no often nothing to counter balance these rules and regulations and no intensive to think outside the box. I’m talking about resources that portray web 2.0 tools in a good light and champion their potential for teaching and learning. Such resources would be difficult to keep up to date but its a worthwhile endevour. It falls under the category of “seeking to improve how we teach and learn”. Surely this is worth doing.

This issue is related to whether you are proactive, going out there and trying to display what’s positive about learning technologies; or whether you are reactive, giving advice and support when people want it. The norm is the latter whereas I think we should be doing more of the former. I can see the argument for adopting both positions and perhaps I am drawn to the stance that feels like marketing sometimes because it is a minority position. It should be pointed that often lack of resources dictates how proactive you can be with regards to learning technologies.

On the internet based tools front, future VLEs will certainly have to cater for more integration. I can see them acting as a hub for pulling together everything the educator and the learners want to use. However, this probably won’t happen any time soon.