You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps

There is a knack to applying for jobs in Higher Education. I’ve been involved in several vacancies this year from short listing and interviewing, so I thought it might be helpful to write down some of the pitfalls applicants fall in to.

This is also a cathartic exercise. There is something incredibly frustrating about a candidate who should be interviewed missing out because of a poor application.

Whilst there will be advice that can be applied to any role in any sector, I am solely talking about professional or support service roles in Learning Technology/ICT.

Seek and ye shall find…

The best place to look is jobs.ac.uk as it provides the broadest and most comprehensive list of vacancies across HE, FE and beyond. It is split in to disciplines/field as well as department/job areas so you can really hone in on your expert areas. If you have a specific institution in mind, sign up to that institutions job alerts (most have them).

Not all Universities are created equal…

Do your research. More to follow…

Money is the root of all evil…

University salaries are based on pay/grade scales. For example, a role could be advertised at Grade 5. It may be advertised like this “Grade 5 starting from £25,000 rising to £32,000. What this generally means is the grade starts at £25k and will go up a scale point each year until you reach the top of the grade at £32k. The grade numbering/lettering and boundaries differ from one University to the other so a grade 5 in one university won’t necessarily be the same as a grade 5 in another.

A mistake applicants often make, is thinking that salaries are negotiable. On the whole, for professional/support services, there is little to no room to maneuver. Most Universities will have a policy of starting you at the starting scale point of the grade. Unless you are an incredibly impressive candidate, you’re unlikely to be able to push them any higher. If you do, it’s likely to be a scale point or two at most.

There are reward and recognition schemes but you’re unlikely to receive any bonuses or performance pay. You don’t get to renegotiate your salary every year. If you think you deserve a pay increase or a regrade to the next grade, you are going to have to have some very strong evidence to demonstrate why. It’s never a guarantee.

If you’re paid £50k a year and the job is advertised at £30k, assume you will be paid ~£30k. Don’t waste people’s time applying for a job at a salary level you aren’t able or willing to accept.

The devil is in the detail…

READ THE WHOLE ADVERT. READ THE PERSON SPECIFICATION. READ THE ROLE DESCRIPTION. PAY ATTENTION TO ESSENTIAL AND DESIRABLE CRITERIA.

I’ve seen a lot of applications, and even interviews, where the applicant clearly has no idea what they applied for or has totally misunderstood the role.

The person specification will detail what kind of person they are seeking. What are the skills, qualifications, attributes and experience they are seeking which could be split in to essential and desirable criteria. In short, if you don’t meet all of the essential criteria you’re unlikely to be shortlisted for interview. Desirable criteria are things they’d like the role holder to have but are not essential to the role, so they might give you an advantage over another candidate but they shouldn’t stop you from applying.

Most adverts have a suggested contact who you can get in touch with to discuss the role so if you’re not 100% sure, get in contact.

Forms, forms everywhere…

If you decide to apply, prepare yourself for a long ass form. Most universities will use an online system but not all. There’s a lot to fill in so make sure you leave yourself time. The most important part of any application is the personal statement.

Up close and personal…

If I could, I would scream this in to the face of every applicant. THE PERSONAL STATEMENT IS REALLY IMPORTANT.

The personal statement is your opportunity to demonstrate how your experience and skills are relevant to the role. The key here is relevance to the role. It doesn’t matter if you can swim 100 meters without arm bands if the job you’re applying for is in software development.

Top tips:

  • Everything you say should demonstrate how you meet the essential and desirable criteria.
  • If it’s not relevant, don’t put it in.
  • Structure your statement based on the essential and desirable criteria.
  • Back up everything you say with an example from your work.

Let’s look at an example. An essential criteria is “Experience of software development”. Which is the stronger of the two statements:

I have extensive experience in software development.

I have extensive experience in software development. I recently developed a piece of software which…

The latter is the strongest statement because you are directly referencing the criteria whilst backing it up with an example.

In a non-competitive recruitment you may get away with the former statement. However, if you are up against a lot of candidates, the second statement will pus you higher up the invitation list.

I can’t stress this enough. Make sure the statement covers all of the essential and desirable criteria. For a higher chance of securing an interview, make sure you back everything up with examples. Your invitation to interview relies on your personal statement.

Pudding is in the proof…

Please, if you take away nothing else, pay attention to this. Proofread your application.

We all copy and paste applications but you must read it afterward. Make sure what you’ve used is still relevant to THIS application. You may need to reword it to make sure it fits. We can tell when someone has just thrown something in from elsewhere especially when the formatting makes that obvious.

Spelling and grammatical errors are to some extent, forgivable. But don’t think they’ll go unnoticed. If you’re communication is that poor, it’s hard to overlook. I’ve read applications where someone has used text message abbreviations. I mean WTF? I mean TBH we’re unlikely to consider you a credible candidate. ROFL.  

Please also get the name of the institution or sector right. you’d be surprised how many applicants are keen for a career in the NHS. If you’ve not bothered to check

Not checking your application, says a lot about you.

Failure to prepare is preparing to fail…

If you’ve been selected for interview, now is the time to research the job, the institution, the local area, the people on the panel. If it’s a technical role try to find out what technology is in use. Preparation like this, really impresses a panel.

There’s no excuse for not knowing information that’s publicly available. I find it very irritating when a candidate has done no research. 

Interview with the vampire…

Interviews are designed to suck as much information from you as possible. The idea, however flawed, is to ask questions to ascertain whether your knowledge, experience and skills demonstrate that you are suitable for the role.

The interview panel will ask you a series of predetermined questions. Part of your interview may include a presentation or test which will be detailed in your invitation. You may be able to prep before the interview or time is often allocated on the day. You may have no prior warning about what you’re going to be asked to do so this is where your research will pay dividends.

Top tips for presentations:

  • Make sure you understand what you’re being asked to do
  • Stick to the time limit
  • Refine it to your key points
  • In slide design, less is more
  • Practice, practice, practice.

Presentations are designed to assess not only what you’re saying but also how you’re saying it. Your body language, tone of voice and language you use will all be taken in to account. Clarity is key. You may only have a short time to get across the information so make sure you prioritise the most important points. You don’t want to be filling the last 30 seconds with as much as you can. If you’re including slides or any other presentation media, make sure they are concise and clear. None wants a 1000 word essay on a slide. I like to use presentations solely as a reminder for me about what I need to say next, highlighting my key point only.

If you can practice, practice. Your communication skills, under pressure, are being scrutinised so practice will help you to calm down. Practice will help you articulate what you want to say.

Tests are more difficult to predict or prepare for. They might be scenario based “what would you do if”, data based “what does this data tell you” or technical “how would you fix X” ” if a user has X issue, what would you do?”. 

Something else you can do, that helps you to feel prepared, is write down the kinds of questions you might be asked and how you would answer it. Some of this work can be done as part of the your evidence in the personal statement. Write down projects you’ve worked on, work your proud of, work you’ve found challenging. Think about teams you’ve been in, what worked well, what were the challenges. Always think about what you’d do differently, especially where there was a challenge. By all means write it down and bring it to the interview, have a read through before you go in, but don’t plonk it on the table and spend the entire interview staring at it.

You will have the opportunity to ask questions at the end so consider carefully what you’d like to know. This is your opportunity to find out more about the role so use it. Although there’s no requirement to ask questions, it’s always a bit of a mystery why people don’t. If nothing else asking questions shows you’re interested and that you’ve taken the time to think about what you’d like to know.

It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it

There is a balance between saying too much and too little. Candidates who ramble on without getting to the point, don’t get very far; nor do candidates who give short curt answers.

Nothing is more expensive than a missed opportunity…

Whether you get a job depends on lots of things. You can’t do anything about the competition your up against all you can control is your application and interview. Those are all down to you.

If your application is poor, that’s on you.

If you don’t mention something that might have got you the job, that’s on you. (The panel isn’t psychic)

If you say too much, or too little, that’s on you.

If you didn’t prepare, that’s on you.

It’s about what you know, not who you know…

This is a note for internal candidates. Just because the panel knows you, just because you work in the same place, doesn’t mean you can get away with any of the above. Although I’m sure there’s a fair amount of dodgy dealings that do go on, you will be treated like any other candidate. So approach the interview as though no one knows you and you don’t work in the same place. don’t fall in to the trap of failing to explain something. Answers without evidence are going to do you no favours! If you’re internal, you have fewer excuses so don’t expect to walk in to jobs.

Missed Opportunities

The Thin Negative Line

If you went to this years ALT conference, you may have noticed the “EdTech will not save you” badges worn by delegates. Unsurprisingly, given the audience of ALT, they were met with some criticism (ironic). This post relates to the thin line we tread between critique and negativity.

‘tech wont save us’ brings unwarranted negative connotation. Be critical, not extreme. 

I won’t say who said this but I bet you can guess what industry they work in.

Where’s the line?

I’ve written about this rather tedious attitude in The Criticism of Criticism blog post. This reductive idea that criticism, if you don’t agree with it, is negativity and should, therefore, be dismissed. Technology it seems, is beyond reproach. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. I think describing the badges as extreme is ridiculous because it’s actually true. EdTech will not save us.

So what’s the point?

This is purely my interpretation, you would have to ask Lawrie Phipps and Donna Lanclos to explain the ideas behind the badges for accuracy, but it relates to the positioning of edtech. Edtech has for many years, been positioned (by us and vendors alike) as a solution to teaching and learning ‘problems’. As a quick and easy means of  improvement. Teaching and learning is not a problem to be solved and THAT IS THE POINT OF THE BADGE.

Vendors are their own worst enemies

Vendors of EdTech products like to posit their wares as solutions to problems you didn’t even know you had. They like to appropriate pedagogical language and, to some extent, have been surreptitiously driving the development of digital pedagogy. For some reason, we’re not worried about that. Similar to handing over our data to a faceless company for the affordances of their technology we continue to feed this industry despite the damage we may do ourselves and our discipline.  They like to speak to senior management, the people with the £, and espouse how their tool will revolutionise the institution. They peddle their snake oil with outlandish promises that their technology will save us. It won’t, and THAT IS THE POINT OF THE BADGE.

Digital placebos

Very much linked to the above, some senior management see technology as a solution to problems (even without the influence of vendors) that are long, hard and messy to improve. Instead of investing the organisational development, instead of fighting those long and hard battles and rather than tackle a culture, technology can be seen as a quick fix. Problems with assessment? Slap a bit of tech on it. Problems with student retention? Slap a bit of tech on it. All this does is mask a problem. All it is is a placebo. It makes people feel better whilst nothing is actually happening to the route cause. Of course this is a generalisation and technology can bring genuine improvements, but that’s not always where or how it’s used. We walk around ALT C patting ourselves on the back and reveling in our ‘achievements’. Only a few ask the really important questions about whether what we are doing is good or right or ethical. A placebo may make us feel better but it’s not solving anything, and THAT IS THE POINT OF THE BADGE.

Calls to action

Sometimes you have to be blunt. Sometimes, a point is better made simply. Sometimes, caveats and context get in the way of the point. If the badge said “EdTech is useful and a positive benefit in many situations but we should make sure we are critical of it and the motivations behind it” it wouldn’t have had the same impact. Also, it would be a massive badge. Provocative statements make you think, and THAT IS THE POINT OF THE BADGE

There are negatives 

There are lots of negatives around technology. if yo can’t acknowledge them, then you’re fooling yourself. Negativity is warranted, and THAT IS THE POINT OF THE BADGE.

I will wear mine with pride.

*Image credit Lawrie Phipps, 2018

“Good central location”

Map

This is my fourth role in a central department and every single one has been an experience. I don’t consider myself an expert and I’m still trying to ‘do it right’. So I thought I’d write down some tips for developing a successful working relationship.

A bit of context

I am the manager of the Extended Classroom Support team which is in the Academic Technology department which is a dept. in IT Services. My team supports the use of teaching and learning (T&L) technologies in our Extended Classroom suite, Moodle, Mahara etc. for all staff and students within the University. We do 1st and 2nd line support, training, guidance and consultancy. We work closely with our colleagues in the technical team who are responsible for the technical support, maintenance and updates for our technologies and others. I am as central as you can get.

Within departments we have Academic Technologists who are employed by the dept. to support their use of T&L technologies and are completely independent to us. We call them Super Users as they have heightened responsibilities and access to the technologies we provide. Although we group them as Super Users they are all very different in the level of responsibility they have, their goals and objectives, knowledge and experience. Some call this organisation ‘hub and spoke’ and to some extent I suppose it is.  We try to strike a tricky balance of not stepping on their toes but being there when they want us. 

For me, this is the largest ‘hub and spoke’ set up that I have been a part of. At my previous institution there was only one other dept. who had their own Academic Technologist equivalents. We also used a different VLE in which developments are limited/non-existent. At Warwick we use Moodle, which gives the impression of flexibility and easy customisation. What it doesn’t say in the marketing materials is there are huge sacrifices to be made if you want flexibility and customisation. This results in a lot of requests that we can’t/shouldn’t/won’t fulfill. At my previous institution, the VLE was what it was and you worked with it. The VLE is still relatively new here too, only 6 years old, so every dept. is at different levels of use/depth. This means we have a broad spectrum of users to support.

Participate in the community

The Warwick campus is spread out and it’s not the kind of place where you just bump in to one another. Since I began this role I’ve wanted to develop our community of Super Users so that they have a space to share knowledge and experience with one another. We organise events and have an online community space in Moodle with forums for discussions and knowledge sharing. A community only works if people participate in it.

Work in partnership

Many see central depts. existing solely to serve. That is a very reductive mindset. Yes, we provide a set of services but we can do much more than that. If you can see us as more than the people you go to when you have a job you can’t or don’t want to do, then we can start to actually work together. If you see our relationship solely as transactions then we’re not working together we’re working for you. Little of value will be achieved through this.

Understanding

We need to understand one another. We do a lot to try to understand depts. so underestimating how we work, our constraints and our challenges will help to build a relationship. 

Transparency

One complaint I hear is “we don’t know what’s going on”. Rest assured, if we had something to tell you, we’d tell you. However, I have been endeavoring to make our thought processes, procedures and plans more transparent. If we share something with you, please read it. If you know something is coming, tell us. 

Everyone has priorities, they may not match yours

This is the most difficult challenge of a central department, balancing the priorities of multiple stakeholders. Each stakeholder I work with thinks theirs is the most important. When you’re looking after 30+ depts. you have at least 30+ priorities to balance, add to that your own priorities and the priorities of the institution, and you end up with more priorities than you can ever take in to account. A clearly considered rationale behind requests will help us prioritise effectively. However, that doesn’t mean yours will always be top of the queue!

Patience

We can’t do everything we’re asked. There are only so many hours in the day. We’re trying to do the work we know we need to do, the work you want us to do and the work we didn’t know was coming. You may be frustrated with our pace but we’re doing the best we can.

Shouting the loudest

Linked to the above and partnership, if you’re not happy with the pace, shouting louder won’t help. There are reasons, whether you think them legitimate or not, behind everything. Shouting louder, rallying and calling us out in public won’t make anything happen any quicker and it doesn’t engender collegiality.

Work WITH us

If we can’t meet your needs then help us advocate for more provision, time or resource. Support is more effective than complaints. We need voices to back up our arguments. Help us do something about it.

Power plays

I’ve seen this a lot. Person A isn’t getting what they want so finds person B who is higher up in the dept. Person A asks person B to email person C, who’s higher up the dept. they’ve been dealing with, to add pressure/hope for a better answer. Often, this escalates until high enough people, who often have no idea what they’re asking for, apply enough pressure. It’s not helpful and actually ends up being incredibly disruptive. It’s a ploy used to shame and pressure people in to doing things. It’s not collegiate, it doesn’t encourage trust and it certainly doesn’t make you popular.

Control

Like you, we work and rely on other teams to do what we do. They suffer the same pressures as we do. I can’t tell them what to do and when. All I can do is present an argument. They have their own priorities and work to do. We work in partnership and have (I hope) developed a balance between give and take. 

Feedback is welcome

Let me caveat that, constructive feedback is welcome. If you don’t tell us, we can’t improve.

Have a little faith

Honestly, we are doing our best. We’re not twiddling our thumbs. We’re working to improve things, we just can’t do it all at once.

Share the love…

Happy Galentines day!

So, I’m a bit late to the party but better late than never. This post is a dedication to my Galentines, the women I admire and who inspire me.

Amber Thomas

Patient. Caring. Persistent. Smart AF. Advisor. Confidente. Advocate. Has shown faith in my abilities that I aim to deserve.

Rosie Hare

As awesome in person as online. The living embodiment of Leslie Knope. Advisor. Gossip buddy. Crushing libraries one day at a time.

Donna Lanclos

Knows her own mind. Not afraid to say what she thinks. Strong. Kicking ass and taking names internationally.

Ann-Marie Scott

Filthy and irreverent. Kindred ranter. Smashing all things TEL north of the border.

Sally Bogg

Hard working. Tenacious. Inspirational AF! Killing it (it being IT) all damn day.

Karin Crawford

Hard working. Patient. Intelligent. Supportive. Formative AF!

Kelly Sisson

Works harder than she should. Cares too much. The teacher I aspire to be. Dedicated AF!

Aileen Morris

Nutter. Loving to a fault. Unwavering beliefs. A teaching and learning encyclopedia. Just awesome.

Sue Watling

Clever. Calm. Gentle. Thoughtful. Endlessly curious. A beautiful soul.

I’ve probably forgotten a lot of people. Please forgive me, it was not deliberate.

The HE Bullshit Dictionary

Here’s a list of things that, when I hear or read them, make me say rude words. Enjoy.

We only use 10% of our brain

Citing this as evidence would suggest you are using significantly less than 10% of your brain. There’s no evidence. Any company that claims their tech will help to unlock the rest of the brain has been rolling in cow excrement.

Blue sky – Marcus Elliott

When the apocalypse comes, the skies will be red, but it won’t matter because you’ll be dead. First.

They’re just ideas mate.

Change Agent – Marcus Elliott

Saying you’re an Agent of SHIELD doesn’t make you a superhero. Saying you’re a change agent just makes it sound like you work in the booth at an amusement arcade (incidentally, one of life’s real superheroes)

It doesn’t empower anyone.

Customer – Marcus Elliott

If you think that HE should have ‘customers’ then maybe you need to head to the private sector where money rules. Do not pass go. Do not take £200 (just as a kicker).

Education is not a transaction. It’s a privilege.

Delivering Learning – Phil Barker

I hope they have Amazon Prime, I like the convenience.

Digital – Lawrie Phipps

Making something digital does not make it big or clever.

Digital Natives and Immigrants

Oh, come on.

Disrupt

It’s either just an organic change or improvement, or you’re being a pain in the arse. You choose. Marcus Elliott

Buzzword city.

e- words – Viv Rolfe 

Think elearning, eassessment, eeducation et al. Mate, it’s just learning, assessment and education. Sticking a computer into the process doesn’t make it better or special.

Engagement

What is that? Define it for me. How shall I measure it? Oh, you don’t know, then don’t tell me X increases engagement. Let’s slap it all over our strategy and marketing materials though.

Employability

Yer ’cause whether you’re desirable for a job can be boiled down to simplistic measures.

Framework

Well done, you wrote some stuff down.

Future Ready – David Honeybone

When is the future? How should I ready myself? I’ve always been of the belief that everything will stay exactly the same forever so I hadn’t prepared. WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!??

Futurist – Lorna Campbell

Generation X, Y, Z (and every other letter of the alphabet yet to be ruined)

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. Homogenising groups of people to sell products is not helpful. NEWSFLASH not everyone is the same.

Innovation

Just what? See Engagement.

Learning Styles

REALLY? I can’t even be bothered to explain myself. Just no.

Management diagrams – Viv Rolfe

Might I add a section on management diagrams? Anything with hexagons?

Yes, Marcus, it is.

Millenials (and all other ‘ials’)

See Generation X, Y, Z. One of the most irritating and insulting phrases of recent years.

Although, I’ve been toying with the idea that anyone born during WW2 should be called “Blitzkriegians”, categorised by an aversion to Hitler, quick reactions to air raid sirens and knowing all the words to Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again”. Ridiculous right? A bit insulting yer? SO STOP IT.

Models – Marcus Elliott

Aka

REMOVED Paradigm – Lawrie Phipps

Paradigm has been saved!

Obviously, there are genuine times when the word paradigm is rightly used.

Paradigm Shift

Nor have I but apparently one will be happening real soon.

Serious Experiment – Anne-Marie Scott

Like experimenting, but with all the joy and light in the world sucked right out of it. Serious experiments can only be carried out wearing grey protective clothing.

Serious Play – Marcus Elliott

Does that mean some play is ‘not serious’? I’ve shed blood over lego. And, why the hell does learning and education need to be serious? Maybe that’s why people don’t engage.

Its just play, mate. Juxtaposition doesn’t make it clever.

Skill, Skillset et al. – Marcus Elliott & Viv Rolfe

When Liam Neeson said he had a ‘particular set of skills’ in the film Taken, he was so damn cool. When you say skillset, you sound like a prat. Skills are not like Pokemon, you don’t collect them then sell the complete Skillset on ebay

More ultimately meaningless words. That I feel should always be spelt “skillz” because “I haz mad skillz”.

Step-change – Joel Mills

But how do we say the change was significant? WON’T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN?

The student experience – Anne-Marie Scott

No arguments that students should have an enjoyable and worthwhile time at uni, but can you define for me in less than 1 page what “the student experience” is?

I think Anne-Marie needs to be a bit more of a thought leader.

Thought leader – Marcus Elliott

Trotted out when management want Innovation (the rehashing of an old concept with a fancy new name) and decide to outsource to an evangelical ‘expert’.

Thought leaders sound like they should be running cults. And they always die during the FBI sieges.

Asking for better thoughts doesn’t really work.

You are Right or left brained

Nope. You’re not using either side.

To conclude.

Do not be insulted if you have ever used the phrases listed. We’ve all done it. But I would suggest you take some time to reflect on your life.

Add your dictionary entries to the list in the comments!

 

Academics are for life…

not just for Christmas. That should have been the title of the presentation I gave to the IT Services department at Leeds Beckett University last December. Instead, I called it “It’s all Academic”. Serious title regret.  I was asked to talk to the department about how to work better with Academics.

First of all, I want to say a big thank you to Sally Bogg for the invitation and to the organising committee, Mark Wood, Rob Moore, Tracy Russell, Matt Page, Ian Pette, Kieron Piercy and Tanja Lichtensteiger, for organising by far the most entertaining internal conference I have been to. The programme was informative, with excellent speakers, and incredibly fun. It was clear the team put in a huge amount of work and they completely pulled it off.

Take a look at the #ITSEvolving2017 hashtag to see the conversations delegates were having. My slides are available here and the results from the in-session polling are here. Fill your boots.

The reason I called the presentation ‘It’s all academic’ is that to me, it is. Universities exist because students want a degree. Students get degrees by learning and demonstrating that learning through assessment. To learn they must be taught and someone has to assess whether they are worthy of a degree. That is where academics come in. If there were no academics there would be no students and without students, there would be no University. We would, therefore, all be out of the job.

You will never please everyone

Fact. If you work in any kind of service or support role accept it. Move on. You’ll feel better.

An unrealistic, but effective, list

If I were a consultant who made their money speaking at conferences, peddling my 5 step programme to effective working relationships, I would have arrived at ITS Evolving with a definitive list of dos and don’ts to earn my scratch.

I’m not a consultant. I don’t get paid to speak. I don’t consider myself an expert on anything. I share my thoughts based on my experience only. But for fun, I made one up.

Unrealistic list

If you do all (the very tongue in cheek) things on the above list you will be well-liked by everyone, not just academics. But over here in the real world, we know that list is unrealistic. See my previous posts I am the harbinger of doom and The silent majority vs the deafening minority. There are legitimate things that get in the way:

In the real world

Academics are for life, not just for Christmas

There were some *ahem* interesting responses to my question “what do you find most difficult about working with academics”. We’ll leave “window lickers”, “old” and “lizards” to one side for a moment as the first is a disgraceful way to describe anyone, the second a lazy stereotype and the third makes no sense at all.

Word-cloud ITS Evolving 2017

To boil them down, academics are stubborn, arrogant, resistant to change, haughty, unrealistic and demanding. I will allow you to decide whether this is an accurate description based on your own experience.

I will share something with my IT colleagues, sometimes their behaviour is justified. You’re trying to do your job and guess what? They’re trying to do theirs! Given you often conflict with that, it’s hardly surprising that you are at loggerheads occasionally. That is no excuse for the rudeness of course.

If you don’t like academics, go work somewhere else. As I say at the start of the post, if there were no academics there would be no University. Learn to work with, not against them. Accept their existence or jog on.

Academics are sceptical by profession

It’s their job mate. They spend their days analysing and drawing conclusions. It’s hardly a surprise that these people will expect some evidence behind your decisions. They have a superhuman ability to smell bullshit so you better know what you’re talking about.

Their scepticism around technology is not unfounded. We are constantly reading about data and privacy issues in technology. Educational technologies are not immune to these issues. Technology can be seen as an exploitative tool of management. Check out Audrey Watters and any of Neil Selwyn‘s books for some excellent analyses on the issue.

Academics are under enormous pressure

They have ever increased (rarely decreasing) responsibilities. They are constantly being measured (module evaluations, NSS, REF, TEF et al) and monitored. They have job insecurity, a lot are hourly paid some are on probation for 5 years. Give them a break people. They have a lot to worry about.

Academics are not IT professionals

What do you want from them? Want them to maintain your SSL Cipher Suites and protocol versions over lunchtime? Yes, a basic level of capability is absolutely necessary but be reasonable people. Your job, the thing you’re paid to do, involves having expert knowledge of IT. Academics are here to teach. That’s why Universities exist.

Guess what? Not everyone likes technology as much as you! Technology is not neutral, it’s incredibly emotive. What IT depts. do has an effect on the daily lives of every person at University. Switching from one email client to another may be an insignificant change to you but to others, it’s a huge change.

 

Academics are people

There is no special formula you can apply. Academics are not a homogenous group. They are all different. They have good and bad days. Some of them are not very nice. But you know what? I’ve met plenty of very unpleasant IT professionals in my time.

All they want is to know what the hell is going on and to talk to a human being. Is that too much to ask?

Academics have different priorities

To me, this is the main reason IT and academics don’t get along. It may not be a priority but often IT depts. spend resource and time on support departments like HR, Registry and Finance, whilst teaching is pushed to the back of the queue.

They want you to support them with the most important part of their work. Working with students. Teaching. Helping students to learn. They want systems that enable, facilitate and improve that process. They don’t care about a new finance system.

The realistic list

The Realistic List

I don’t think there is anything revolutionary or unachievable on this list. I don’t think there’s anything particularly difficult either, yet, we continue to have this same conversation. I don’t pretend to be an expert. I know I don’t get it right all the time but if we all try, that’s a start.

All the IT team at Leeds Beckett can do is try and they have taken the first step by acknowledging a problem and being open to change.

P.S. I’m still looking for an IT Department that will take up my idea for IT <> Academic shadowing. As Tenessee Williams put it

“I think that hate is a feeling that can only exist where there is no understanding.”

P.P.S. I used ResponseWare for my in-session polling and it was a painful experience. Opening and closing the poll was hit and miss. The essay question in to word cloud didn’t display and on the whole, it was stressful. But it was appreciated by the audience, so I wouldn’t avoid using polling again. I’d just prefer to use something like PollEverywhere.

I am the harbinger of doom

The one thing I hate about my job is disappointing the people I ‘serve’. I guarantee some choice words are said about me. I am often the bad guy, a necessary part of managing a service, but no one likes being the bad guy.

Last week I published a post, or a piece of therapy, about the different pressures and tensions that dictate how I work. A focus being who we should listen to The silent majority vs the deafening minority. Then I read a post from Anne-Marie Scott titled Passivity.

I’ve been reading articles (old and new) and watching videos (old and new) this week which are replaying familiar EdTech tropes and I’m sick of it. Anne-Marie Scott 2017

The tropes she goes on to describe can be paraphrased as the [insert system here] is rubbish, IT departments are evil, vendors/suppliers are evil, no one understands us, we’re being forced, x is a closed system (so evil) and no one does what I want. Her post is mainly in reference to senior people within the education sector. She goes on to describe how we can influence institutional choices and culture.

What does her blog have to do with me? Well, I am part of those tropes.

I am not your enemy

I wrote a blog along these lines some time ago. I am not your enemy was a response to a particularly unpleasant training session my colleague and I attended. People were unhappy at being forced to use something, we weren’t the people forcing them but we were the focus of their irritation. It was a desperate plea for people to think beyond their own perspective.

Rest assured, I am not here to make your life more difficult, despite what you might believe but that doesn’t mean I will roll over and do everything you want. I am not part of some big conspiracy against you. I’m just doing my job the best I can. Same as you.

What do I mean by the harbinger of doom?

I am the person that says “yer that’s great, we would if we could, but…”, “we can’t right now” or “no”.

I don’t understand. I am ignoring you. I am the laggard. I am unimaginative. I am uncreative. I am the dictator. I am the oppressor. I am part of the broken system. I am the bringer of no, nope and Nah. I am the quasher of dreams. I am the destroyer of enthusiasm. I am the omen of the apocalypse. I am Zuul.

Who am I really?

I have good intentions. I’m a realist. I don’t promise more than I can deliver. I don’t take uncalculated risks. I work to make things sustainable. I want to help. I am listening. I understand. I do care.

But I do have to say no.

No is necessary

I can’t say yes to everything. IT’S NOT PHYSICALLY POSSIBLE. Read the previous post. Remember, a no usually means there was a yes to something/someone else. Also, sometimes I have to say no to save you from yourselves. Sometimes I have to say no and it’s not even my decision. Sometimes I have to say no because it’s not a sound technical solution.

If you want services and systems that are unsustainable then let me know. I’ll give you yes’s and you can explain why none of it works.

I’m not saying you have to like nos. I’m not saying you have to accept them. I’m just asking you to understand that I have to say no sometimes. Please reciprocate the empathy and respect I have for you.

Haters gonna hate

No matter what I do, I will never win. I have come to accept that. No one contacts people like me to say that everything is going well and I’m doing a good job.

So to the haters, I make this promise.

I will help you despite how you treat me. I will treat you equally. I will be transparent. I will work to get you what you want. I will listen to your feedback and act on it. I will empathise and try to understand you. I will be disappointed in myself every time I say no. I will be your champion.

Of haters, I ask that you understand there’s a lot more to every no than you think. I am not the pantomime villain, I’m the good fairy who can’t always grant your wishes.

Field of Dreams and other EdTech fallacies

This was the presentation I did, alongside fellow learning techs Rosie Hare and Marcus Elliott, at the Association of Learning Technologists (ALT) conference 2017. The full title was Kevin Costner is a liar: Field of Dreams and other EdTech fallacies. The session culminated in a discussion around the question: Is limited innovation, impact and staff engagement our fault?

The abstractslides, video, Padlet and Storify are all available online. Fill your boots.

What the hell was it about?

Obviously, you can go and read the abstract if you want, but in short, we wanted to ask a difficult question. We wanted to irritate people by making provocative statements and then make them talk about it. We could have been academically rigorous and presented a balanced argument but who’d want to watch that? Also, we’d have done all the work for the audience.

I’ve been to a lot of conferences recently, ALT is a particularly fine example, where people show all the clever shiny things they’ve done and we all pat each other on the backs for a job well done. Then follows the inevitable question, “how did you get academics to engage”, or even worse the inevitable comment, “my academics won’t do that/aren’t interested”. This presentation was an attempt to challenge some of that thinking. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are often inclined to blame/complain about our academic colleagues.

If we were doing it right, would we still be asking these questions? Something to consider.

That title though?

The title is a good hook to get people to come to the session. We could have called it “Exploring the attitudes and assumptions of learning technologists and their effect on engagement, innovation, and impact”. I got bored writing that. So we decided to base it on something fun and the theme really made the session. It also was an excellent basis on which to begin our fallacies.

Check out Marcus’s excellent intro:

Fallacy 1: If you build it, HE will come.

The brilliant but often misquoted line from the movie Field of Dreams is “If you build it, he will come”.  We decided to misappropriate that line and say “if you build it, Higher Education (HE) will come” (snarf). This is the idea that if you plug something in, people will immediately want to use it. But wait, no one really thinks that do they? In an ideal world no, but the reality is, there are some out there who do. IT departments are a good example. They seem to think they can replace the email system without providing any help.

In my experience people have lots of motivations for using or not using technology.  There are very few academics who will use something just because it’s there and fewer still who have the knowledge and confidence to use something new effectively.

We can plug stuff in, but there’s a lot more work to be done to get people to use it.

Fallacy 2: Technology will solve everything.

I think, those of you reading this, will already know that this is not the case. However, there are still those who think it can. I’m referring to the Government, senior management, and even some learning technologists. It is seen as a panacea to fix all ills. “If it’s broke, throw some tech at it”. To quote David White and Donna Lanclos:

“We go to technology to be the solution and everyone is disappointed” Lanclos, D. and White, D. 2016.

Fallacy 3: We don’t need evidence.

This relates to a couple of my earlier blog posts The Criticism of Criticism and In defence of technology . The idea that we don’t need to provide evidence to staff about the benefits of educational technologies. James Clay suggested:

“the problem is not the lack of evidence, but one of resistance to change, fear, culture, rhetoric and motivation.” James Clay 2017.

This is endemic of the blame culture that I really can’t stand. People’s reasons for not using technology are far too complex to be summed up in a sentence. I have no doubt there is some truth to what James said but I felt it removed any responsibility from us to ‘up our game’ to get them on board. To prove the worth of what we ask them to do.

I thought the line was defensive. It reduced skepticism to mere hysterics. Not the expression of genuine concern.

It implies THEY don’t get it.

Fallacy 4: They don’t get it.

I love this quote from Audrey Watters:

“many, I’d argue, misconstrue what the Luddites in the early nineteenth century were actually so angry about when they took to smashing looms.” Audrey Watters 2014.

We behave as though our academics are missing something. That they just don’t see what we know to be true, technology is awesome and they should use it. How often do we really bother to find out why they feel as they do? How often do we take the time to understand their motivations?

Matt Cornock put it best:

Should I decree a particular approach without discussion or justification, this would unduly elevate my position beyond that of the discipline being taught. Matt Cornock 2017

I don’t know what’s best for their subject. I don’t know what’s best for them. To assume is arrogant and lazy.

Fallacy 5: They’re not interested.

Maybe they’re not? Maybe we haven’t done a great job getting them interested. They only see us when we’ve plugged something in. Or when they have to seek us out. Or when we want to flog the latest thing. Or when we are enforcing the latest institutional mandate.

Are we surprised they’re not rushing to work with us?

Is limited innovation, impact and staff engagement our fault?

Unsurprisingly, the feeling was that it’s a far more complex issue than a yes/no. Obviously, we were deliberately black and white to get some discussion going. The Padlet gives a good idea of the debate and what people thought.

It is a joint responsibility. But we can always do better. Try harder. Talk to them. Listen to them. Be human.

Links

Clay, J. 2017. Show me the evidence… 13 February. e-Learning Stuff.
http://elearningstuff.net/2017/02/13/show-me-the-evidence/

Cornock, M. 2017. Don’t be an authority on meta-meta learning. https://mattcornock.co.uk/technology-enhanced-learning/dont-be-an-authority-on-meta-meta-learning/ 

Lanclos, D. and White, D. 2016. Keynote: Donna Lanclos and David White – Being Human is Your Problem #altc. https://youtu.be/OUw0RKDiWHE 

Watters, A. 2014. The Monsters of Education Technology. https://s3.amazonaws.com/audreywatters/the-monsters-of-education-technology.pdf

A woman in tech

I am a woman in tech. Despite having boobs, I am just about able to use a computer and, despite my gender, am able to spend my days at the office free of neuroses and hysterics. Although, the temptation to do a Mrs Rochester is always bubbling below the surface. I felt compelled to write this having read the 10-page memo sent by Google Engineer James Damore titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber“, the author argues that the reason women are underrepresented in technology roles is not due to discrimination or bias, but because of inherent psychological differences between men and women.

I have just finished reading the full memo which is available here. Be warned I am going to use the same black and white classification of gender as Mr Damore although I am fully aware that gender is not black and white. What struck me most about the memo was the irony. It starts with:

I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes.

And goes on to list a series of sexist stereotypes. Sigh. His main points being what he describes as personality differences including the various reasons a woman’s personality is better suited to artistic, people facing roles due to our open, feeling, emotional personalities. Our increased neuroticism (I think someone has been reading too many 19th century novels) and an agreeableness and less assertive personality which makes us incapable/less inclined to negotiate for higher salaries etc. Oh and apparently we’re not as interested in success than men for whom:

“Status is the primary metric that men are judged on[4], pushing many men into these higher paying, less satisfying jobs for the status that they entail.”

So, to paraphrase, women are neurotic but agreeable, good with people and “aesthetics” but too afraid to negotiate and unwilling to put aside their ‘lives’ for success.

Not all women are agreeable, I’ve met my fair share of arseholes (both genders). I know very assertive and driven women who are seeking success but driven women are not always welcomed. I’ve met plenty of ‘neurotic’ men and I think evidence demonstrates that mental health is an issue for all genders that has not been given the attention it deserves. Perhaps, women are less likely to negotiate or push for salary rises etc. Perhaps we only ask for what we think we deserve? Perhaps, we don’t put aside our work life balance for success because we can’t. He seems to ignore the most obvious difference between men and women. WOMEN HAVE THE BABIES.

Until Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenneger get back to their research, men can’t have babies. So women, inevitably, have to take some time off to produce offspring. Some take more than others but all women should have time to recover if they want it. Equally, despite the more ‘enlightened’ times we live in, on the whole women take a high proportion of the child care responsibilities. Perhaps then, men are able to pursue success and put aside their ‘lives’ because it’s much easier to do so.

Men have always had opportunities, and women are only just catching up. We only got the vote in 1928. Every single attempt at equality has been met with the same nonsense espoused in his memo. EVERYONE should be equal.

Oh and apparently the reason people are worried about gender pay gaps, sexism etc is that we’re evolutionarily inclined to protect women.

I’m going to leave it here, there are a lot of smarter people who have analysed the arguments of this memo.

He has ‘some’ good points

Give me a minute, I’m just swallowing the sick after writing that.

To be fair as he states, there should be support for all genders in the workplace not solely for women. Stress, anxiety and mental health issues are not exclusive to women (despite his earlier implication that women are more inclined) and men need career development help as much as women. Equally attempts to encourage diversity through specific programmes, hiring practices and organisation objectives that exclude others is not diverse and can lead to positive discrimination however subtle. As he describes it:

As with many things in life, gender differences are often a case of “grass being greener on the other side”; unfortunately, taxpayer and Google money is spent to water only one side of the lawn.

He also raises a good point about expression and freedom of belief. Should we silence those who don’t agree or have a different opinion? I get the feeling that his problem is that he leans to the right and feels unable to express himself in the ‘leftist’ world of Google. I don’t have a problem with an organisation having a set of values that they expect their employees to share. He advocates:

I’m also not saying that we should restrict people to certain gender roles; I’m advocating for quite the opposite: treat people as individuals, not as just another member of their group (tribalism).

Fair point. Shame he didn’t just stick to these good points instead of straying into pseudo-science territory. So he also contradicts his own argument by saying we should treat people as individuals having spent the preceding pages generalising about the personalities of every woman in the universe.

My detrimental female personality

I am a woman in tech. I am not very good at programming/coding. I don’t think that’s because I’m a woman. I’ve never been good at remembering rules, I was rubbish at maths and science and, as you can see from this blog, my grammar needs some work. My brain doesn’t want to hold these rules. I’m serious, it won’t stick, I’ve tried. I even had to visit a psychiatrist as a child because I couldn’t do maths and science but I could do everything else. I still have that report somewhere, conclusion “she can’t do maths and science”, money well spent.

I know what I’m good at, I know what I can and can’t do and yes, I reckon this has stopped me from applying for jobs. I am realistic, I’m not prone to exaggeration and I won’t lie about it. I will not risk disappointing people. If I’m hired I want it to be for what I can do and my potential, not based on lies.

I am realistic to the point of cynicism. I love inappropriate humour. I will only socialise if I want to. I’m my own worst critic.

These are MY personality traits. NOT those of all ‘women’.

My experiences

Until recently, I never gave a second thought about being a woman. I never worried about whether that would hold me back, whether I would be looked upon differently or treated differently. I have always worked in teams where the majority are men and on the whole, have never had any issues. I never had to think about being a woman until someone ‘treated me like one’.

I don’t think having a vagina or boobs makes any difference to any of my abilities. Although, occasionally my boobs do get in the way of my reaching things on my desk. Quick, alert the press! I imagine the Daily Mail would lead with “Woman can’t do job due to boobs”. The comments would be great, “she should cut those tits off instead of sponging off the state”.

Discrimination is subtle. This was my experience, it wasn’t overt or obvious and was only confirmed when another female colleague, without prompting or prior discussion, told me she had the same experience. Discrimination might be too strong a word for what I experienced but it’s the only one that fits.

What I experienced was a series of comments and behaviours that singled me out from my male colleagues. If I was with a male colleague the individual would look and speak mainly to my male colleague (this is the experience I shared with another female colleague). I was called out for things that my male colleagues also did but I was the only one who was spoken to about it. There were implications about my professionalism and work ethic that related to things my male colleagues also did. There were comments about my becoming pregnant, made in front of male colleagues, that were wholly inappropriate and made me extremely uncomfortable.  Sorry for being so vague but I can’t detail particulars. Suffice to say it got to the point where I was noting down incidents in case I needed them for evidence. I lost my confidence. I felt worthless. I was ‘in the way’. Don’t worry, everything is OK now.

I also worry about having children and what effect that would have on my career. Would the time out mean I’m starting from zero? Would someone usurp me a la The Replacement? Will childcare get in the way of my doing my job? All ridiculous worries I know but I worry about them because I’m the woman. I know my employer will support me, that the mechanisms exist to make it possible but I can’t help analysing every possible outcome.

I don’t do the real in depth techy stuff. Chiefly, because it bores the hell out of me. I’m not inclined to do it, my skills lie elsewhere but if I wanted to apply myself I could learn it. I like working with people, not because I’m a woman, but because I find meaning in those interactions. Plus, I don’t think the tech part is the important bit. I do sometimes get the “oh my, you’re a woman” look, one I imagine female mechanics get, but it doesn’t last.

I don’t think repeating pseudo-scientific nonsense is helpful. Nor regurgitating stereotypes. Arguments about recognising individuals and ensuring everyone has an equal opportunity and is treated equally are important and he was right to raise them. His approach was more than a little off.

But sexism does exist and I have no doubt it stops women from getting where they want to in their career.

Why do fewer women work in tech than men? It is still a bit of a ‘boys club’. There’s also the IT Crowd effect. But it’s too complex to analyse in a blog and I am not smart enough to tackle it.

I am a woman in tech. I am in tech.

(I am always reminded of this when I talk about being a woman)

ICT vs The World #ussc17

I was invited to present at the UCISA Support Service Group #ussc17 conference in Bristol. I went to the conference last year with some IT colleagues and we presented a 20×20 called ICT vs Academics and I wrote a blog post whilst there called ICT vs Educational Technologists. This year I was invited to expand on the presentation and blog. This post summarises my main points from my presentation.

Slides here. Video here.

A deliberate d*ck

I warned delegates at the beginning of the presentation that I was going to be deliberately provocative, or as I put it, a deliberate d*ck. Why?  Because being deliberately provocative makes people think. They may not like it, they may not like me, but you can guarantee they’re going to sit there arguing with me in their heads. In doing so, they’re considering what I’m saying rather than passively accepting it.

Also, if we were doing it right we wouldn’t be having a conference dedicated to it, would we?

We are prone to finding reasons why we can’t do something. Money, buy in, time etc. the list is endless. I asked the delegates to put those things aside. The people who use your services don’t know about your internal politics and why should they? Think about what you would do in an ideal world. If there were no barriers? That’s what we should be aiming for.

Who was my intended audience?

I didn’t have any one audience type in mind. The quality of service is as much the responsibility of those at the top as it is those at the bottom. It’s all interlinked. I was speaking to anyone who works in an IT role. The people who use your services don’t care about your hierarchy and nor do I.

Let me begin with a question.

I didn’t have time to pose this question during the presentation so, to those of you who work in IT, in an education institution, what do you say when people ask you what you do?

A. I work in IT.
B. I do IT in education.

Have a think dear reader, we’ll return to it later.

Who they, what do and why?

If you get that reference I should give a prize or something.

I always start off by explaining who I am. Suffice to say I am not the usual attendee; beautifully put:

I do work in the IT department but I am in a little separate department which is not only geographically separated but also feels philosophically separate too at times. So I am a member of IT services, a colleague within IT services, a user of IT services and more often than not I become the target of academic’s IT frustrations. ‘Cos I obvs work in IT innit.

I’m not an expert (in anything really). I don’t fully understand what IT services do but I would say I know enough. I’m just someone who has made a few observations over the years. I’m also a great believer that everyone deserves a champion, someone who fights for them, and I see myself as a champion of academic needs. It frustrates me to see the relationship break down because it shouldn’t and there are easy remedies to improve it.

Things

I sit in the middle of both worlds. Academic and IT. It is a blessing and a curse. I am neither one or the other. But I am able to see things from both sides.

Acknowledging the ‘challenges’

It’s unfair to start a presentation of this kind without acknowledging the challenges IT peops deal with every day. I work on a helpdesk so these are just a few of the things I regularly get:

  • The people who send in a ticket at the last minute for something absolutely essential. Often happening in the next 30 minutes that they’ve known about for weeks.
  • The people who have emailed 3 minutes ago then email again to chase it.
  • The people who say they have emailed you repeatedly for something but when checked there is no record of contact from them (often when asked who they contacted, they completely ignore the question)
  • The people who worked as an x in the 90s. Who explain how to fix the issue, what you should do and why what the department has done is completely wrong.
  • The people who use all the latest tech at home, then think they should automatically be able to use that at work.
  • The people who email with an issue that is vital and must be fixed immediately but doesn’t reply to further information when asked.
  • The people who have their own money, buy something without consulting you, then expect you to make it work.
  • The people who provide no information e.g. I have an issue with Word.
  • The people who will not accept that their issue is a result of their lack of knowledge.
  • The people who could just Google the answer (since that’s exactly what you will end up doing anyway).
  • The people who are just downright rude…

In my slides, I used the word customer. *Hand slap* for not following my own advice.

IT is the broad side of the barn

You are an easy target, no a HUGE target. Chiefly because what you do affects people’s everyday lives. IT underpins every single process at a University. I can’t think of a single example that doesn’t involve IT. People get into work and spend the day using the services you offer them. Expect them to be laid back about it? Think they’re gonna be chilled when it breaks? Think again.

The buck stops with you. Fair or not.

Plus you’re never going to win. Noone knows what they want. Nobody wants the same thing and you’re always going to upset/disappoint someone. Accept it. Let it go.

Technology won’t save us

Two brilliant quotes about technology from smarter people than I. Technology won’t save education. There is no single solution. But there is a perception that technology is the panacea to solve all ills. This is what IT departments are faced with and why the pressure on them continues to rise.

“When you decide [there is] a problem, then you naturally start looking for a solution…and then you go to the technology to be a solution and everyone is disappointed.” David White and Donna Lanclos – Being Human is Your Problem ALTc2016

Kill the witch

If you don’t understand it, it’s magic.
If you practice magic you’re a witch.
Kill the witch.
James Holden – July 2015

IT is a dark art. Few people really know what you do and even fewer understand it. I don’t suppose we need to. If we all understood and knew how to do what you do, then we wouldn’t need you. I sometimes get the feeling that IT people like to nurture that mystique. IT is hidden away in offices as far away from people as possible and ITSM tools are introduced to avoid dealing with anyone directly (sorry, to effectively manage…zzz). All people want to know is who to contact and what’s happening. They hate ticket ping pong.  IT processes are complex and convoluted usually obscured by mountains of paperwork and meetings. We get it, they don’t. The people who use your services are not ITIL experts.

Mine, mine, mine

IT departments often feel they own the ‘thing’ they support. It feels like products and services are selected based solely on IT preference and what’s easiest for you.

“systems are setup to meet ICT needs rather than academic needs.” – anonymous academic 2016

If someone says they need something, who are you to decide whether they do or not? Who are you to decide whether it’s worthwhile or not? You have become the gate keepers.

A noteworthy response on Twitter:

It’s ours when it breaks. Yes, it is, because YOU ARE THE PEOPLE PAID TO MAKE IT WORK AND KEEP IT WORKING. If we could all maintain our own IT infrastructure (a terrible idea) then we wouldn’t bother with an IT department. You are the experts in all the technical aspects of technology, how it integrates, how to install it, how it needs to be maintained, however, in my experience, IT departments know very little about how some technology is used or why and worse, they spend very little time finding out.

Computer says no

Not a lot to say here that you don’t already know. The people who use your services don’t understand the complexity behind what you do. They don’t know about service level agreements, security, integration, data management, change management etc. and you don’t do a very good job of explaining it.

When you say no you never explain why it’s a no.

Where innovation goes to die

Universities are under enormous pressure to offer students an ‘excellent’ experience and outcomes. Thanks to module evaluations, TEF and NSS staff are under increasing pressure to ‘perform’. Sadly, technology is seen as the magic bullet to solve every aspect of Higher Education and innovation is the way to do it. Innovation appears in every strategy. Innovative pedagogies, innovative research, innovative use of technology in education etc. Technology is your department. Expectations are rising and you’re the first in the firing line. “I wanted to innovate but IT said no”.

I’m not listening

A key part of communication is listening. You show people you care by listening and acknowledging them. You can’t do your job properly unless you get to know people. How can you say you understand people if you don’t talk to them? Do you know what people do? Do you understand the pressures on them? How can you prioritise something without understanding it first?

Empathy is key. If you employ people on your service desk who can’t empathise then you’re asking for trouble.

The best thing we can do is listen and not make assumptions about what is right or best. Neil Milliken

Francesca Spencer, a project manager at Leeds Beckett University, did a fantastic parallel session called ‘Technophobe testing – an experience of providing a service to those who fear, dislike, or avoid technology’. It was a fantastic demonstration of project management going wrong. The team created a brand new learning space with all the bells and whistles but the users of the room hated it. Why, because they didn’t speak to users to understand how people actually use a teaching space! They learnt their lesson. The presentation is available here.

What’s teaching got to do, got to do with it?

EVERYTHING. Otherwise, what the hell are we all doing here? I don’t think a University will survive when the students stop turning up and why do they come to University? To be taught, to learn and, if they put in the effort required, receive a degree. I have heard an IT employees say “we have nothing to do with teaching”. Do people use your services as part of teaching, as part of the administration of teaching and management of students? YES. Then you have everything to do with teaching. Any thoughts otherwise are ill-informed and ignorant.

You remember I asked you what you say when you’re asked what you do? THIS IS WHY. I have often had the feeling that IT people see themselves as IT professionals. On the whole, this is fair, you do IT one place it’s relatively similar everywhere but I see a distinction. The problem with IT people is they don;t see themselves as IT people in education. There is a subtle difference. If you see yourself as the latter you will understand your context and context makes a difference. IT in a business is different to IT in a University. The technology may be the same but the people, the drivers, the pressures are not.

People what a bunch of b*stards

People are messy, complicated, rude, impatient, and tiresome but people are the reason we’re here. They are not homogenous. They are real people with feelings and needs. They are not users or customers. They are people. Get to know them, you’ll be surprised what you’ll find out:

“corporately there is little feel for the academics’ problems…so no ICT member builds an empathy with the academic regarding the particular issue.” – anonymous academic 2016

“I don’t generally feel well supported, but the personal contact is good. It’s not that I want to bad mouth individuals but am happy to blame a faceless organisation, but systematically, it fails to support me.” – anonymous academic 2016

Our weapons against evil

Come out of the basement. Stop hiding from people. Be seen. Own the good, the bad and the ugly. People will respect you more.
Prioritise people skills. Employ people with people skills. ICT skills can be learnt. Learning how to deal with people is much harder. Ensure a people skills ‘test’ is part of your recruitment process.
Support your Service Desk. Service Desk is often the first to get the blame. Support them. Provide them with the information they need, if they don’t know, they don’t know. Thank them. Be grateful they bear the brunt of your disgruntled customers.
Reward and recognise people. Find a way to recognise and reward those who go out of their way to provide good service. This will help develop the people first culture. It will become the norm.
Don’t sell tech as a solution. I am guilty of this. So are tech companies. Don’t join in. Technology is not a solution, it can only be part of the solution. Don’t oversell what it can do. Everyone will be disappointed.
Support innovation. Find a way. Have a team who deal solely with ‘new’ requests and ideas. Get the resources. Your University is full of evidence to back up what you need. Start using it. Create a process for pilots, for trying stuff out and then how those pilots are assessed and become production. A clear process will be beneficial to everyone.
Advocate not oppose. Linked to above. Help people achieve, be their champion. You’ll find they will become your champion too. Facilitate and help. Don’t just say no.
Create a feedback loop. Could be as simple as ‘you said, we did’. Show you are listening and acting on it. People will wait patiently as long as they know something is being done.
Drop the jargon. Stop using phrases like customers. They’re people. Use their names. Don’t use your ITIL jargon either. Speak to people in a language they will understand.
Assume nothing. There are lots of false assumptions out there. People don’t need training – they do. Students can all use technology – they can’t. Don’t fall for them. Don’t be guilty of promoting them. When you assume you fail.
Learn about people. You can’t do a good job if you don’t understand the people you are here to help.
Be transparent. Be honest. Show your workings. Explain things to people in a language they understand, expose your processes and limit the documentation barrier.

Good ‘customer’ service is not the same as saying yes.

This thought occurred to me as I wrote this post. Often, we conflate good service with saying yes to everything. No’s are a necessary evil of our job. You can’t avoid saying no although, if you can find a way to say yes, you should. Good customer service, no let’s not use that phrase, let’s say treating people well is free. You can still treat people well when saying no or when a resolution is taking time. Be transparent about your decision-making process when saying no. Be clear from the outset what your process will be, what hoops you need to jump through, what you need from them, try to give a timescale and most importantly keep them updated especially when timescales move. When dealing with someone having an issue the same principal applies. They just want to know. They want to be considered. They want to be important to you.

So how’d it go down?

Well other than my having forgotten that I had used a custom font and having hideous slides it went OK. I forgot to say everything I wanted to but it was not a complete dumpster fire and I can live with that.

For the audience, I imagine it went down like a cup of hot sick or it was taken in the spirit it was intended. I’m not a highly paid consultant, I’m just a person sharing some thoughts. Take them or leave them. If a handful went away thinking about the way they treat people then we’re all winners.