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Education technology is political – we need professionals to make it work

On the eve of the Association for Learning Technology annual conference in Edinburgh, Melissa Highton and Maren Deepwell examine how the professionalisation of education technology is necessary to support increasingly politicised decisions.
This article is more than 4 years old

Melissa Highton is Director of Learning, Teaching and Web Services and Assistant Principal Online Learning at the University of Edinburgh.

Maren Deepwell is the former Chief Executive of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT)

As the way in which we use technology puts our values as individual professionals and institutions to the test, this is a crucial time for the sector to discuss the use of technology in education.

We may not all agree on the finer points of pedagogy, we may not all use the same terminology or even agree on common job titles. But what we do share in this time of division is a commitment to an open discourse about technology in education, its potential, its pitfalls and how we can empower professionals to lead its future.

Doing data right

This year saw the launch of the Department for Education’s new national edtech strategy entitled “Realising the potential of technology in education”. Whilst much of the media commentary has been about schools adopting new edtech tools, the strategy focuses on learning technology across all sectors and we welcome this cross-sector perspective.

Sharing knowledge across institutions is key to making effective and intelligent use of learning technology ensuring that we do not reinvent solutions to problems others have already solved, but learn from each other and thus help staff and students keep pace in the rapidly changing technological landscape.

Learning technologists are a fast growing group of professional staff working in education whose advice, values and choices shape the environments in which we work. Investment in educational technology is increasing and there are many platforms and suppliers keen to work closely with institutions to deliver solutions. It is vital that we are able to understand the context, culture and challenges when we make choices which impact the services we provide to our diverse community of learners and students.

Dialogue is key to success The most significant challenges that confront higher education institutions in their deployment of learning analytics (LA) are not technical, but social. A new research project (the SHEILA project) aims to inform a new policy framework for the use of LA in higher education and as such represents a key development for institutions in the UK and internationally. Echoing the concerns around student well-being and also the need for appropriate technical and critical skills development for staff at all levels including senior staff, the study explores discrepancies in expectations of and concerns about the use of data among different stakeholders, including institutional leaders, teaching staff, and students.

The strategy also has a focus on improving accessibility and inclusion which relates strongly to the EU Web Accessibility Directive which government brought into law last year. ALT works closely with the Further Higher Education Digital Accessibility Working Group (FHEDAWG) which engages with the Cabinet Office, the Office for Students and Department for Education to develop how the new recommendations are being adopted by institutions. This impacts widely on all institutions and places a spotlight on continued professional development and recognition for the expertise that learning technology professionals have to offer.

Technology and politics

Particularly at a time when our focus in the UK is on our relationship with the international community we should continue to engage with global perspectives and one such perspective is shared by researchers from South African universities, exploring the use and academic views of online education at a time of serious disruption.

If dialogue is key to success than crisis only heightens the need for communication and knowledge exchange, and this particular study discusses the period between 2015 and 2017, “when most of the twenty-six universities in South Africa were physically shut down by student protests, and academics were encouraged by management to use online education to complete the academic year.” Whilst this is just one example, this research also points to the use of learning technology in other contexts including the Syrian conflict, or natural disasters such as the New Zealand earthquakes Much closer to home it reminds us of the strikes at UK universities last year when the use of technologies like lecture recordings to continue to deliver learning when staff are on strike was brought into question.

The key point is that the use of technology in higher education is inherently political. Learning technology as a professional undertaking requires staff at all levels to negotiate conflict. Examples from crisis situations highlight how the use of technology brings into focus not only practical issues but reflects the values of an institution and its relationship to its students and staff.

Professionalising learning technology

With such a range of challenges to navigate it is challenging for institutions and professional bodies to map out what effective professional development looks like when it comes to learning technology. ALT has led on the development of two new pathways to professional recognition aligned with the internationally recognised and widely-adopted CMALT framework. This new development in particular responds to new insights from ALT’s Annual Survey which highlights the increasing number of senior learning technology roles including leadership roles and accordingly the rising demand for robust professional recognition for professionals in these roles.

ALT’s accreditation centres around four core principles of professional practice: a commitment to communicate and disseminate best practice and also an empathy and willingness to learn from colleagues from different backgrounds and specialisms.

It requires a commitment to keep up to date with new technologies and at the heart of it all is a commitment to exploring and understanding the interplay between technology and learning. ALT understands that there is a wide breadth of learning technology roles, so the current baseline of portfolios includes many different job roles, and the new pathways to accreditation include differentiators such as years of experience, what the focus of a role may be, how big an impact a role may have and so on. Although this new professional development opportunity will only formally be launched in September, there is already research into how it could benefit the sector more widely in particular in collaboration with UCISA and Advance HE, as this new research on Mapping Professional Accreditation Pathways in HE suggests.

Looking at a wider range of opportunities for using technology for professional development in the context of what the DfE’s strategy describes as an urgent need to invest in staff skills and development another study from the National STEM Learning Centre presents new evidence that “ there are clear positive outcomes for participants by allowing individuals to identify their development needs and draw upon a range of design interventions to meet those needs” exploring the potential of personalised approaches to institutional CPD provision.

These examples help us understand the scale of the challenge which we are facing at a national level when it comes to supporting and developing a diverse workforce in higher education, a workforce which includes an increasing number of roles with a learning technology component. Whilst we warmly welcome a national focus on the provision of generic digital literacy skills development for all staff, we are seeing an increasing number of specialist roles which require more advanced skills, and more specific, politically nuanced, expertise in learning technology – all of which are increasingly important to the strategic success of institutions.

In order to turn the vision set out in the DfE’s edtech strategy into a success for all learners, we need to really get to grips with the reality of skills development and professional recognition in a rapidly evolving Learning Technology landscape. ALT leads on this effort and collaborates widely with other sector bodies to contribute this particular perspective and expertise, based on our communities knowledge from decades of research and practice, to the national discourse and the new and expanded CMALT accreditation framework forms an important milestone in this undertaking.

Realising potential

The UK has been a leader in learning technology for decades and we can look proudly at many innovations that have originated here. As the DfE’s strategy emphasises, it continues to be a vibrant growth sector today and an important marketplace for institutions to effectively engage with to deliver the best possible experience for all learners.

Yet if we look for a moment beyond operational priorities or technological potential and reflect on the reasons why many come and work in higher education, what drives our passion and deserves our commitment. It is because we wish to be part of a bigger human endeavour to learn more about the world and our place in it. We can see that by using learning technology we are engaged in negotiating precisely that – our relationship to education as a right for all, as professional practice and to learning as a lifelong undertaking.

So this year’s ALT Annual Conference is convened in Edinburgh against a stark national landscape of uncertainty. The conference brings together experts and researchers and policy makers to discuss the current state of learning technology in the UK. The conference runs 3-5 September and you can participate in many of the sessions mentioned above online or via the #altc hashtag.

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