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Identifying learning technologists
The key roles, activities and values of an emerging group
by Sirin Soyoz


Introduction

Education has seen significant changes over the last 10-15 years, many of which have been technology-driven: the rise of online collaboration tools, the expanding role of e-learning, sophisticated learning-management systems, and new communication tools. There has been a greater need for learning technologists to step in and help communities benefit from technology. The role of learning technologists is essential to integrate new technologies and education.  

This article provides an overview of the role of learning technologists as a professional group. Professionals who are active in learning technology research and development within their organizations were interviewed to develop the current discussions and different approaches of learning technologist presented within.

Who are learning technologists?

Learning technologists are an emerging community of technologists actively involved in managing, researching, supporting or enabling learning with the use of learning technology, which is described as “the broad range of communication, information and related technologies that can be used to support learning, teaching, and assessment” (ALT, 2007). They perform multiple roles and are responsible for many activities such as establishing e-networks, providing support for learning through technology, management, research, providing technical assistance, online tutoring and developing e-learning materials.

The University of Plymouth (2010) has its own definition of learning technologists: “Learning technologists [at the University of Plymouth] are knowledgeable and experienced practitioners of technology-enhanced learning. [Learning technologists] work closely with lecturers, project teams, professional staff and students in the research, development, evaluation and dissemination of innovative and effective learning technologies that are pedagogically driven.”

It was the Dearing Report that first described the idea of "new professionals" working in the British higher education sector with their "hybrid, marginal and central roles to the institution” (NCIHE, 1997).

As a response, and to meet policy demands and recommendations, a new learning staff emerged who were primarily responsible for computing services and information and communication technologies (ICT) in the 1990s. Revisiting the report—currently being revised—the new professionals have been described as a rapidly growing group whose practices include a range of activities, including research, development and management.

The roles and activities of learning technologists

In 2001 the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) conducted a study to provide an in-depth audit of learning technology staff in British universities. Prior to this study, there was a lack of visibility and understanding of learning technologists’ roles and needs. The study also provided a rich picture of multiple practices, activities and values of the learning technology staff that could be applied at other institutions. 

The study concluded:

  • Approximately 7,500 learning technology specialist staff were working in the U.K. universities.
  • Around 8,000 academic staff were actively working to embed learning technologies into learning and teaching activities.
  • The role analysis identified 11 distinct roles, which were categorized in three groups:
    1. New specialists included the roles of educational developer, educational researcher, technical researcher, developer, materials developer, project manager, and general- learning technologist. They were described as the “true'” learning professionals, multi-skilled individuals who are involved in the entire process of learning technology development.
    2. Academic and established professionals included academic innovators and academic managers with an interest in learning technologies. They are working at a more strategic level.
    3. Learning support professionals included technical support professionals and IT professionals. Unlike new specialists, they do not regard learning technologies as their professional identity.

Further detail on the the roles and activities of learning technologists emerging from the research are provided in figure 1.

The roles and activities of learning technologists

Learning technologists are most often employed as teachers in schools and staff in corporate learning departments.
The work of learning technologists can be embedded in different roles in an organization, such as management, development, research, marketing, decision-making, providing technical support, administration, and training levels.
The nature of the profession is distant from a technical support service but more strategically, developmental, social and managerial.
Learning technologists have broad knowledge of current technologies and learning processes.
Willingness to learn and share with other colleagues and stakeholders are important characteristics of the role.
Learning technologists create opportunities and influence policy by following educational trends.
The work is dynamic and varied; therefore professional development is crucial to keep up with the new technologies and trends.
Staff support and continuing development are essentials for organizational success in the field.
Core professional values are excellence in education, student learning, building networks, focusing on change, innovation, commitment to disseminate good practice, and understanding the relationship between technology and learning

Figure 1: The roles and activities of learning technologists

Interviews with learning technologists at the British Council

In 2009 interviews were conducted at the British Council to validate the emergence of new learning technology staff in the field. Individuals who defined their involvement as administrating, managing, developing, researching, or supporting projects with a primary focus on educational technology were asked about their different roles and activities. The respondents—who are located at English teaching centres, teacher training, and learning resources units at the British Council—stressed that considerable time and commitment was spent focusing on developments in learning technologies. They also regard learning technologies as a tool that helps the organization reach more people in places and an integrated activity with teaching, training, languages and project management. A sampling of the interviews is presented below.  

Robert Lewis, a website consultant from TeachingEnglish.org.uk, explained he has combined roles and activities in educational technology because learning technologies can include television and radio. “My work managing TeachingEnglish covers a lot of roles: project manager, materials writer and commissioner, some development, technical support for users. I've also been involved recently in a TV project for learners of English. On a higher level, determining how best to support our users linked to our corporate strategy and within set budgets, which can determine what infrastructure you need, how much you can customise it, develop it, support users.”

Ben Jones, an English teaching specialist at the British Council Taiwan, has an additional role as the ICT coordinator. “Whilst the majority of time as ICT coordinator in Taiwan is spent reading emails and trying to fix problems,” said Jones. “I have recently been involved in developing an Interactive Whiteboard Board (IWB) teacher training course. Our task was to deliver IWB training to teachers who are getting a board for the first time. We also have other problems of computer profiles being full so not allowing teachers to log off, shortcuts not working, that kind of thing.”  

Duncan Mothersill currently fills two roles for the British Council in Romania, one as academic manager in Bucharest and the other as a coordinator for TeachingEnglish.org.uk. Thus, his role is shaped by the specific expertise in learning technologies and decision making to influence developments. “As academic manager, I am responsible for overseeing all academic activity including the integration of learning technologies into the curriculum. In terms of the TeachingEnglish website, my role is something like that of a virtual librarian putting digital books on digital shelves, changing the digital display rack, and directing people to online information, resources, and support. As academic manager, I have taken explicit interest in fostering the use of learning technologies in the teaching center in Bucharest, that is, workshops on using wikis to promote autonomy and the pedagogical impact of interactive whiteboards in the classroom.”

Martin Oliver (2002) wrote about the importance of learning technologists in driving institutional change. Discussing how combined roles added to the core work, he emphasised “the learning technologist must invest considerable time in building goodwill and strong collaborations across the institution, and relies on their specific expertise and rhetoric skills to influence developments and decision making.”

Graeme Hodgson, a director of English language at the British Council Brazil, listed his roles and activities as strategist; decision-maker; negotiator of partnerships with suppliers (content-providers, authors, editors, e-tutors) and customers (teachers and learners of English); project manager; team leader; English Language Teaching (ELT) specialist; and contributor of content to the online community with reports, announcements, responses to posts, and so forth. Thus, the nature of his post is distant from technical service, but more value-led with “alternative pedagogical expertise in learning technologies.”

Julian Wing, the global products manager at the British Council headquarters in London, pointed out that he is mostly involved in planning and looking for potential partnerships in relation to both development and digital delivery. Wing said of his roles, “I would regard digital delivery as a focus in my work, but not necessarily learning technologies. Much of my work involves the development and support of established networks. A small part of my work involves developing materials for online learning.”

In a 2001 report for JISC, Beetham, Jones, and Gornall (2001) suggested good practice and innovation in learning technologies have some things in common: good collaborative networks, targeted support for teaching staff to integrate learning technologies into their courses, department service teams with their own local planning to meet strategic aims, specialist learning technology department teams, and a requirement on departments to demonstrate pedagogical research of teaching.

As a department development manager for the British Council , Raymond Kerr described himself as “a bit of everything” in his current post: educator, teacher trainer, teacher, mentor, e-moderator, instructional designer, content creator, materials developer for all of the above, project manager, source of resources, technical support (limited), support and shoulder to cry on, assessor and evaluator.

One important point observed throughout the interviews was the emphasis on the use of learning technologies in online teaching, teacher training, and learning. Suzanne Mordue, a teacher trainer in Turkey, listed her roles and activities as educational developer (blogs and wikis), materials developer, general learning technologist, learning facilitator, administrative in online teacher training courses, basic IT support, and online tutor. She explained, “Without learning technologies I could not do a big percentage of my work; it is the defining focus of my specialism within the teacher training field.”

Professional values

How can we define the notion of professionalism and professional values in this emerging profession of e-learning? Perkin (1996) describes the modern world as the world of the professional expert and the transition as the rise of professional society, which is dominated by professionals and their specialised knowledge and experience on the job:

“The third great transition is, then, the seductive revolution of the professionals. Whether we call it post-industrial; a useful but negative term which describes it by what it is not of the revolution of information technology, automation, ‘learn production’, or as I prefer, the rise of a professional society, it is like its predecessors, a revolution in human organization.” (p. 6)

Organizations have different definitions for the notion of professionalism in accordance with their own values. For instance, in the e-learning profession, the Association for Learning Technology lists the following as their core professional values:  

  1. A commitment to exploring and understanding the interplay between technology and learning
  2. A commitment to keep up to date with new technologies
  3. An empathy with and willingness to learn from colleagues from different backgrounds and specialism
  4. A commitment to communicate and disseminate effective practice.

And in the 2001 Career Development of Learning Technology Staff: Scoping Study (2001), the values of learning technology staff were described as: 

  1. A strong focus on quality student learning
  2. A positive orientation to change
  3. Belief in teamwork
  4. Commitment to building networks across boundaries.

Those who work for the British Council are committed to strive for international understanding. Their five values are:

  1. Valuing people (treating people with courtesy and respect, customer services excellence)
  2. Integrity (being honest and consistent)
  3. Mutuality (putting effective relationships at the heart)
  4. Creativity (being resourceful and innovative in approach)
  5. Professionalism (listening to other’s values and accepting responsibility to deliver work to a high standard).

Regardless of the change in meaning, core professional values are adopted for e-learning practices with additional values such as the issue of accessibility, an educational approach so that e-learning activities are not led by technology but pedagogy, and incorporating research in e-learning practices.

Professionalization in the field has to do with personal development needs and professional boundaries. "Learning technology staff need to undertake professional development to remain competent in a rapidly changing area of expertise," according to Beetham, Jones, and Gornall (2001).

The focus group interviewed at the British Council have also suggested that continuing development in this profession is a major concern. Robert Lewis put forth the idea that support and guidance for staff are important to success: “In this profession, it's very important to monitor trends in the real world, away from education, as well as what your analogues or competitors do. Learning technologies don't replace humans. Support and guidance for staff is the essential final ingredient.” Neil Ballantyne also disclosed the need for professional development, “I studied geography at university and sometimes I wish I had stuck to rocks – where progress is slow and things don’t change much. You can never stay still for long working with learning technologies, there’s always something new on the web, learners are always finding new ways to use technology to help their learning. Helping teachers understand the digital literacies that students need in this information age is challenging and rewarding.” 

Conclusion

The multiple roles of learning technologists are directly related to strategic priorities of the institutions. Because of the rapid changes in new technologies, continuing professional development is crucial for learning technologists to keep their skills up-to-date, this new profession is crucial for educational communities to remain up to date with new technologies.

Sirin Soyoz
Sirin.Soyoz@britishcouncil.org.tr

Acknowledgements

The author thanks the interview participants for their ideas and invaluable contributions. 

References

Association for Learning Technology (2007). Available from: http://www.alt.ac.uk/cmalt.html (last accessed 26 October 2010).

Association for Learning Technology (2004) “ALT response to Towards a Framework of Professional Teaching Standards — a Universities U.K., SCOP, HEFCE and HE Academy consultation” (online), Association for Learning Technology. Available from: http://www.alt.ac.uk/docs/Professional_Standards_Consultation_Response_20040716.pdf (last accessed 26 October 2010).

Beetham, H., Jones, S. and Gornall, L. (2001) “Career development of learning technology staff: scoping study final report” (online), JISC. Available from: http://www.jisc.ac.uk./uploaded_documents/cdss_final_report_v8.doc (last accessed 26 October 2010).

Dearing, R. (1997) The Dearing Report — National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education. London. Available from http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/ncihe (last accessed 26 October 2010).


Goodyear, P., Salmon, G., Spector, J. M., Steeples, C. and Tickner, S. (2001) “Competences for online teaching: a special report,” Educational Technology Research and Development , vol. 49, no. 1, pp. 65–72, The Association for Educational Communications and Technology.

JISC (2004) “Effective practice with elearning: a good practice guide in designing for learning” (online), JISC/HEFCE. Available from: http://www.jisc.ac.uk./uploaded_documents/ACF5D0.pdf (last accessed 26 October 2010).

Learning and Skills Network (2007) A Professional Development Framework for E-learning , Learning and Skills Network. Available from: http://www.learningtechnologies.ac.uk/files/0627161Framework.pdf (last accessed 26 October 2010).

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