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.

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…

We got 99 problems…

dinosaur

and the TEF is one. Disclaimer: this post has nothing to do with the TEF.

Sorry if you came here looking for a scholarly article on the TEF. I’m afraid you will not find that here (or anything scholarly for that matter). Instead I will reflect on my Higher Education journey. I’ve recently moved institution and it seems like a good time to take a moment and think.

(The featured image for this post has little to do with the content but I liked it. I’m sure there’s some joke about dinosaurs and technology use at HEIs but I can’t be bothered to think of one. But a T-Rex chasing you would definitely put your problems in to perspective. But remember what Meat Loaf tells us, objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are. (Caution, this video contains some hard-core mullet game.)

As a student

I was terrible. I put no effort in to my a-levels and my results certainly reflected that. I originally applied to do ancient history but decided “I’d never get a job doing that” and took a year out to decide what to do with my life. It was the expectation that I went to University although careers advice at sixth form was poor at best. So I decided, in my infinite wisdom, that media was the right path for me. I like TV shows and film so why not do something I enjoyed. I naively thought it was really easy to become Steven Spielberg. I applied to a few places with my terrible results and eventually got in somewhere.

I did not become the model student. Despite being amongst the first cohort to have tuition fee loans. I am still paying that back now and will do so for what feels like the rest of my life. I imagine the Student Loan Company will be knocking on the coffin lid. Anyhoo, I turned up to most of my lectures but if I couldn’t be bothered I certainly wouldn’t force myself. I ‘phoned it in’ for most of the first year. I think it’s easy to underestimate how difficult it can be to make the transition from a-level to ‘academic writing’. I was really disappointed with my first essay mark. I’d always been good at essays. I really don’t remember there being much help with that but that might be my memory or more likely I just didn’t look for or take any of it up.

Second year I did put in more effort but again I wouldn’t say I pushed myself. I eventually came up with a bit of a formula for writing essays that seems to have helped me through to present day. I would admit that I approached every essay, project and took every test with the question “what’s the bare minimum I have to do to get a decent mark”. I did nothing in my spare time. I didn’t gain any of what we would now describe as employability skills. I didn’t practice, I didn’t make a showreel and I didn’t get involved in any voluntary projects. I did the bare minimum. I do kick myself for not trying harder on a couple of projects which would have pushed me up to a first but I got a high 2:1 without putting much effort in so I guess I got a good return on investment. By the end of my third year I was very ‘done’ with education. I did not want to do a Masters or step foot in education again. I was going to be a successful director don’t you know (despite not deserving or earning that success).

Working in Higher Education

So how ironic it feels now to be sat in a University and having worked in them ever since. Despite my sincere belief that the world owed me my dream job I was summarily disappointed. Surely the path to greatness is paved with negligible effort, a non-existent showreel and no experience? Apparently not. It would seem that a degree isn’t enough to be the next Steven Spielberg. Apparently you might also need talent. So devoid of talent, armed with only a piece of paper claiming some level of competency and with no clue what I was doing, I put forward my CV. You will not be surprised to hear that I had no success. So a change in approach was required.

I turned to graduate internships in the desperate hope that someone like the BBC would be stupid enough to employ me. When you’re going up against hundreds of other graduates, who are more talented and went to a better University than you it’s unlikely you’ll succeed. But I had the good fortune to get a job at Harper Adams University. A stop-gap I thought before Hollywood calls. Hollywood did not call.

It was this job that got me hooked. I enjoyed talking to academics about teaching. I enjoyed talking to them about technology and how they might use it. I even liked training. I was able to combine my love of making stuff with a wage. Like Honey Nut Corn flakes Higher Education was ever so moreish. I was hooked.

So here I sit writing this post in my fourth HEI and despite MANY challenges over the years I still love it.

So how did I get here?

At Harper Adams I was part of a team of graduates who were tasked with introducing new tools and assisting staff to make effective use of them. I also learned more than I’d ever need to know about sheep. I’ve worked at the University of Portsmouth as an Online Course Developer and Assistant IT Trainer. At the University of Lincoln as a Digital Education Developer. I am now an Academic Technologist at the University of Warwick.

I think I am here more through luck than judgement. I realised after my internship at Harper Adams ended that I would be more likely to get a similar role at another University. I was lucky that the University of Portsmouth Business School was looking for someone and on the day of the interview a load of people dropped out. So with little competition I got the role there. After a while a job in IT services came up and I thought, “Hey, I like training so I’ll give it a go” and I did. It gave me so many skills that I am so grateful for now. Confidence to stand up in front of people, techniques to persuade the most negative trainees and the opportunities to work on other projects. After a couple of years I felt it was time to move on. I also knew I’d never be able to afford a home in Portsmouth (ironic given where I now live) and needed to find somewhere more affordable.

After a search of areas we settled on Lincoln. As luck would have it the University had already tried to recruit three Digital Education Developers. The lucky part was they had only recruited two. So they advertised the third vacancy again and they were silly enough to give me the job. I had a wonderful time at Lincoln, and while every place I have worked has shaped me in some way, Lincoln has by far had the biggest effect on me. I joined a new unit tasked with improving all aspects of teaching and learning, including the digital aspects. The digital element was a part of teaching and learning not adjunct or as a ‘thing’. I worked with the most dedicated, hard-working and intelligent people. They were also great fun and pleasures to work with. Each one of them has shaped me in some way, challenged me and supported me. I would not be who I am today without them. They made me question my assumptions, made me read and broadened my knowledge. Sadly after a review of the department and other changes, that I will not detail here, I felt Lincoln was not the place for me anymore.

I selected a number of Universities that I wanted to work at and Warwick was one of them. Again as luck would have it an internal promotion resulted in the perfect vacancy for me. So here I am, in my 7th week at the University of Warwick. I am very comfortable here. I work with great people. The biscuit banter is top notch…

Is the grass always greener?

Nope, but as someone said to me, the grass is always greener if you have no grass in the first place. Moving jobs is scary. You have no idea who you are going to be working with, interviews are no indication as everyone’s on their best behaviour, but in my experience people in this ‘business’ are usually lovely people. You have no idea what you’ll be walking in to but everywhere has its challenges. I don’t think you’re ever going to walk in to a University that has it all figured out. If anything  I would find that quite boring.

99 problems…

So, after that long read, I finally get to my point. Every University I have worked at, this is my fourth, has the same problems. Every person I speak to at conferences etc. has the same problems. Fundamentally our problems are all the same. When I came to Warwick everyone would tell me something then say “oh I don’t mean to put you off” and I would laugh and tell them it didn’t. It didn’t. In HE “you don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps” should be on the job descriptions. You have to embrace the lunacy or you’ll lose your mind. If I had a Pound for every time I’ve asked why something is done that way I’d be a millionaire. Rarely does the explanation make sense but hey, you have to live with it.

Few of us have enough funding to do anything interesting. Few of us have the senior support required to really make fundamental change. Few of us have enthused and engaged staff. Few of us have technologies that work perfectly for everyone. Few of us have it all figured out. Few of us have got it all sorted.

Culture is a hard thing to change. It is an incremental thing. Small victories. It’s gentle, it’s thoughtful and it’s supportive. Some are braver than others but I’d rather make change the right way and it take longer than do something knee-jerk and ill-conceived to get the job done quicker. Here is the challenge we all face. How do we bring about change quickly, to satisfy management, but do it the right way? We’re all working this one out at our different institutions. Our approaches will differ but we can all learn from one another.

I’ll let you in on a little secret, every university is weird. Every university has its problems. Every university is still working on it. Some are traditional, some are running before they can walk but their problems are the same. Some have managed to cover the poop in a little glitter but deep down they’re still wallowing in the poop with the rest of us.