We need to talk about Jisc

See Speak Hear

Jisc has been a huge part of my personal and professional development. Jisc offers us access to a wealth of expertise and has created networks of professionals that would otherwise be unlikely to exist. But in the last year or so, I have begun to worry about what Jisc is becoming.

Like all things in the public sector, Jisc are having to reduce their costs and align to other external priorities. Which is likely one of the main reasons for the change in the organisation that are visible to those who work closest with it, and rely on it.

Let me be very clear. This is not an attack on the individuals who work in Jisc who, in my experience, are extremely dedicated, hard working and knowledgeable. They continue to work to aid the sector but like all of us, they are subject to the priorities and values of their employer. When they change, they must change with it.

We are not blameless either. For years we greedily lapped up their funding and, more often than not, did very little of value with it. We took and took and took. We benefited from their experience, from their networks and their prominence.

I was one of these of people. I have benefited from their free pilots, their development programmes, from their free visits and most of all, from their expertise. I have taken everything I can and given nothing back.

The irony is, we’ve taken everything we can get but the minute Jisc asked us to pay for some stuff, we lost our sh*t. We became so used to taking from them. “But Jisc stuff has always been free” we exclaimed. “Where’s the funding? Surely, there’s some funding? Won’t somebody think of the funding?” we cried. I defended Jisc when they began charging for a VERY worthwhile development programme. I have no problem with that and Jisc should be able to charge a reasonable amount for this aspect of their work.

They have now moved in to being a service provider and charging for those services and this is where I become troubled.

Jisc has some…interesting…partnerships with vendors.

Jisc feels like a vendor.

If you want to know how I feel about vendors, read this.

Take for instance, the Digital Capability tool. I used it, read about that here, and found it useful. We raised some good conversation, we found out some useful information. We had a 25% response rate. Feedback was mixed. It hasn’t changed much since. Would I pay for it? No. (I’m not speaking on behalf of my institution here, after all, who’s going to listen to me!?) It’s a survey with ‘personalised’ results. Yes, you can customise it, bla bla bla but it doesn’t do anything I couldn’t do. I would rather spend the money on doing something about the things I already know need attention. I know there are areas for improvement, what could it tell me that I don’t already know? What does it tell staff? Our feedback was, not a lot. Jisc has fallen in to using the ‘problematise a thing and make a thing to fix it’ technique of the vendor. The project was built on sound research by people I respect. They continue to work hard. If this were the old Jisc and a vendor were peddling this solution, would they support it? I don’t think they would.

I valued that Jisc was on our side, they represented us and fought for our interests. Now, I feel their interests are in making profit whether or not that’s in our best interest.

I valued Jisc’s impartiality. Now, I feel their need for profit has put impartiality at the bottom of their list of priorities.

I valued Jisc’s criticality. They wouldn’t recommend something they didn’t believe in themselves. I don’t think that’s the case now. It’s all a forced positive message. Even the people involved with them temper their criticism when talking about projects they’ve been working on.

I valued Jisc’s knowledge. Where is the understanding of higher ed, where is the scholarly approach, where is the grounded thought leadership? Where have all the people who worked in education gone?

I valued Jisc events. I have been to many Jisc events over the years and there was always an element of self-promotion. Rightly so, since they were funding them for free. But now there’s more sales than value. It’s soundbytes, stats and the same faces.

I’m sorry to be so blunt but I miss the old Jisc. I worry about the talented people who work there and most of all, I worry that education is losing one of its most important allies.

*** This post reflects my views only.

Jack of all trades…

“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

Thanks Carrie Foster and Alecia Owen

 

Hence, jack of all trades

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…