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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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, 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’.
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)
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.
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.
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.
Technology is not neutral. It's emotive. It's affective. It touches people's lives #ussc17
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:
Until it goes wrong then its "ICT, your damn system isn't working" #ussc17
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.
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.
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 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.
I am not your enemy. I’m the mug who has been thrown into the lion’s den covered in rump steak, to demonstrate the VLE. I don’t know what I’m walking in to. I do not make decisions. I do not create policy. Frankly, there are times I don’t care if you use the VLE. I’m just here to show you. I am not the enemy.
I should be clear that strong anger and hostility is rare.
VLEs are a bit disappointing
To be fair VLEs are a bit of a disappointment. Actually, let me qualify that. Technology is a bit of a disappointment. As David White says “if you go to technology to be the solution…everyone will be disappointed”.
I think we all hope that technology will just work with very little/no interference from human beings. At least sometimes that’s how I think academics hope it works. I may be being unfair here but there are times I see the “oh I have to do something with this to make it worthwhile” look in their eyes. Sadly the VLE does not know what you want to teach. It cannot absorb your teaching materials through osmosis and organize them correctly for you. It cannot create a quiz for you. It can’t facilitate a forum for you. It can’t decide the best way to present your learning materials and activities to best aid student learning. Unfortunately, like all technology, it requires some human intervention. More importantly, it requires human intervention to make it meaningful. Technology on its own is meaningless.
Technology gives the impression that anything is possible. That’s true to an extent. Technology has opened up endless possibilities. In a way that is a blessing and a curse. Reality does not always live up to expectation. I hear “surely it can do this”, “surely they can do that” but the reality is there is a LOT of work behind even the simplest idea. You don’t see that, perhaps we ought to show you more?
VLEs are designed to do a job. You might be able to plug stuff into it. You might be able to adapt it but on the whole, it does what it does. Can they be better? Oh of course. But they serve a purpose and do that adequately. I hold out for something better but I can guarantee no matter what comes I’ll still be asked: “can it do this”.
Can it do…
Whenever I demo the VLE it get’s compared to other systems. Can it do x? Can it do y? Can students see z in here? I find myself saying no a lot in these situations. Usually because rather than looking at the VLE for what it is and what it can offer, it’s compared to existing systems, some wholly incomparable. I sometimes wish I had that device on Men in Black so I could remove their memories of whatever system they were using previously so they could look at the VLE with fresh unprejudiced eyes. I don’t have that.
I should add that I always want to hear these questions, as they feed into ongoing developments.
We’re doing everything we can…
Sometimes I feel like people assume the reason it can’t do something is that we can’t be bothered to make it do that. We can. We want to. But what they don’t see is the huge amount of thought and work that goes into every decision around the VLE. Even seemingly simple things like turning on plugins. Although sometimes the functionality just isn’t possible or doesn’t exist. We have to consider each request on its merits. It’s not like switching on a light switch. I wish it were quicker. I wish it were simpler but NOTHING about technology is simple (despite what the marketing people would have us believe).
I promise you it’s added to the list. We’re trying to get through the list but it only gets longer. That’s the problem with technology the work never stops. Everyone wants something, because “surely it can be done”.
Don’t shoot the messenger
Unfortunately, we often become the focus of anger for decisions that we have nothing to do with, made by people we have nothing to do with over which we have absolutely no power. Do I think you should use the VLE? Yes because it can do great things when used well and consistency is something students want and deserve. Do I care if you use it? Ultimately no, that’s your choice but you’re missing out on something. Or more accurately your students are.
I didn’t say you had to use the VLE. Someone else did. Sorry. I’m just here to show you. Am I really the person you should be angry with? Do you really think I can do anything about what’s happening to you? Do you think making me feel uncomfortable will help? Do you think talking down to me will help? Do you think it will help to make me feel small?
No. It won’t help.
Why are people still hostile?
The world of ed tech seems to believe that everyone wants to use technology. That it’s obvious that people should and those who don’t are Luddites and dullards. Often anyone who dares questions the use of technology in education is met with much belligerent, disapproving responses. They are an enemy of the state who must be indoctrinated.
The reality is there is still resistance. People do not believe in the use of technology without question. Unlike the majority in the Ed Tech world, they look at it with a critical mind. There is legitimate criticism of the VLE (not that anyone can agree on the perfect alternative). They are bloated and feature heavy. They never quite work how people want them to. There’s always something missing. Put enough academics in a room and they will find a reason to dislike it. I believe there is legitimate criticism of the use of technology in education. In fact, I think we are obliged to consider every aspect of technology positive or negative.
I suppose we need to change our sales pitch from “you can do a quiz” to “you can scaffold student learning by creating a formative test each week and displaying feedback and content based on their results. The data can also be used as an indicator to show which concepts are proving difficult to understand and may need to be covered again the following week”. There’s a longer blog post in the “can do, should do vain”.
So what do we do?
We grit our teeth and we bear it. If there was universal acceptance they wouldn’t need people like us. Try to always be their champion. Listen, really listen. Respond when they ask you a question. Remind them that you’re here to support them, not get in their way. Smile. Respond kindly. Be patient. You don’t know what might be driving their behaviour, it could be wholly unconnected with you or what you’re there to talk to them about.
Always, always remember:
Technology is not neutral. It's emotive. It's affective. It touches people's lives #ussc17
“What do you do?” *Deep breath*, “I’m an academic technologist”. *Blank stare*, “So, what do you do?”. *Deep breath* [attempts to explain]. I have had this conversation regularly with family, friends and people who work outside of the ‘biz’. If I had a pound… That, I find, is increasingly difficult to define.
“I help teaching staff use technology in their teaching”
This was my go to answer. Recently I find this answer woefully simplistic.
At its core the above description is a fair representation of my job. Essentially that’s what I’m here to do. I am here to help staff to use technology in teaching. In the rose-tinted world of what I’d like my job to be that’s what I’d be doing day-to-day. In reality my day-to-day job is much more indirect than the above implies.
Jack of all trades (and master of none)
^ that’s how I feel a lot of the time. What I find reassuring is that I am not the only person who feels like a fraud. In 2001 Helen Beetham conducted a study of learning technologists and others in similar roles/responsibilities and identified the 10 activities below (the original report seems to no longer be available). I will now explain what the 10 activities mean to me.
Actively seek to keep abreast of developments in learning technologies
So we have to keep ‘abreast’ of developments in the technologies we already have, such as new features, upgrades and enhancements, as well as emerging technologies. Essentially we have to be able to ‘see what’s coming’ and from that decide what’s going to be worth looking in to. Considering the exponential growth of technology that is no easy feat.
Facilitate access to learning technology expertise and services
So we have to make sure the technologies are actually working and, if the mighty Odin looks upon you favourably, they work well. It includes organising downtime for upgrades etc. which largely involves paperwork and discussions about when the best date would be. This is always followed by the realisation that we’ll have to inconvenience someone and we need to find the people who would be least inconvenienced. We need people to know we’re here so we search for every possible way to shove our faces in to other people’s faces and screech “we’re here to help”. We also have to ‘advertise’ the services we offer and the technologies we offer. Again, much head scratching and many conversations are had about how exactly to do that. We make a website and redo it fifty times because no-one seems to be looking at it so it must be the website’s fault.
Some learning technologists are software and web developers some are network and server engineers. Some are all of the above. So not only do they do all this stuff but they also MAKE and MAINTAIN it!? There’s another post in here somewhere about how techy you need to be but we have no time for that here.
Liaise and collaborate with other units in the university having related interests & objectives
So this includes the Library, Student Careers and Skills, Learning Development, HR, Registrars Office, Health and Safety, Quality, Estates, Accommodation, International Office, Student Support, Wellbeing, Security, Finance etc… There are a whole load more that I could add. Now to be clear, we don’t always work with these people because they are active users of our tech. Sometimes we work with them because what we do overlaps considerably. We might want to consult them, get their opinion or help and vice versa. What they are doing affects us and vice versa. Although, working with professional services to create learning materials is an increasing area of work for us.
Act as consultant, mentor or change agent for other staff
I would like to do ^ this more. Working directly with individuals to achieve their teaching goals, acting as coach/mentor, is a time-consuming but effective way to bring about change. A lot of the time I act more as a consultant. Someone wants to do something and you’re there to say how best to achieve it. Then I equip them with the skills they need and step away. I want people to be self-sufficient, I don’t think technology is worth using if they need to have their hands held, but I do enjoy the direct contact. I just don’t have time to do that enough.
Advise and assist with introduction of new technology into learning & teaching programmes
This is easiest when people have something they want to do. What’s more difficult is getting people to do something they have no interest in. This is where we earn our money. Finding that ‘hook’. We are usually involved in one or all of the procurement, project board, change management, project management processes etc. We gather the evidence for needs analysis, we write the budget requests and project documentation. It’s not as simple as seeing something fun and clicking install. Great Odin’s raven, it’s not that easy.
Increase colleagues’ awareness of best practice in learning technologies
^ see above. Training, advertising, consultancy etc. We also need to know best practice ourselves. This is achieved by keeping up with developments in the sector. Projects, initiatives, case studies, blogs, conferences, literature etc and we have to do this whilst doing everything else. Oh and that’s not just in relation to technology, that’s pedagogy too. You shouldn’t look at technology in isolation. I feel you must have a strong grounding in pedagogy. Technology and pedagogy are not separate they are inextricably linked.
Enable exchange of ideas and experience in technology-based learning and teaching
This is the ‘little black book’ of learning technologists (usually kept in our head). Our list of people/authors/blogs/articles/case studies, our arsenal of evidence and experience, we call on that list when someone says “I’d like to…”. So we trawl our mental black book for something relevant. We tell them about the people/authors/blogs/articles/case studies they should look at or talk to. We put people in touch, sometimes we’ll act as chaperone. If we know someone who’s done something noteworthy we ask them to write a case study/article/blog or present on their work so we can point people at that. We are the enablers.
We run forums, training, workshops, coffee and cake meet ups, lunch and learns etc. in the hope that we might get to know more people. The more people we know the more connections we can make.
Those of us who work within a network of other academic technologists in other departments know how important it is to build a working relationship with them. This is another avenue for adding to the little black book, for gaining feedback and ideas.
Facilitate & support access to computer-based learning resources
We manage the systems, provide the training and consult on the best tools for the job and how to make them.
Consult with support staff on appropriate use of learning technologies
I would remove support staff from this sentence and exchange it for staff and students. Sometimes this feels less like consultation than a witch hunt. We consult with staff, and students (thought not as much as we should) on how to improve current technologies and what they would like to see in the future. If you ask 100 people what they want you’ll get 100 different answers, it also assumes those 100 people know what there is and what is possible. So we also have to evaluate what is possible, what is worth pursuing and what will have widespread benefits. Sometimes it comes across as dismissive but it’s not meant to be. We simply can’t do everything. We take flack. We listen patiently. We try not to take it personally.
Identify needs & opportunities for development/deployment of learning technologies
^ see above. We identify opportunities. We spot where technology will enhance. We see the holes in provision. We plan ahead. We research. We keep our ears to the ground.
Learning technologists are:
Strategists, project managers, helpdesk operatives, 1st, 2nd, 3rd line support, incident managers, problem managers, operation managers, service designers, service managers, change managers, testers, developers, UI designers, web designers, trainers, teachers, writers of guides, makers of screen casts, mediators, enablers, facilitator, mentors, coaches, change agents, friends, enemies, psychics, futurists, clairvoyants, encyclopedias, librarians, experts, academics, support staff, students, writers, authors, researchers, readers, analysts, critics…
I have been told I also need to add – magician, star, life saver, fixer and Jedi master
We wear a lot of different hats and I would say not one hat fits better than the others. I know the bits I enjoy most but I can’t abandon the rest. ^ these are the things we have to do to keep the lights on. It’s not as simple as it first appears.
I help staff to use technology in their teaching, sort of…