Perhaps I’m not one?

There have been discussions on blogs and ALT members mailing list recently about what makes a learning technologist. For the record, my job title is Service Owner: Academic Technology, which means I’m a manager of an elearning team in IT Services that runs the platforms/tools as well as supports people using them in effective ways.

I’m feeling a bit outside the frame of the discussion about learning technologies, because:

  • I work in IT services, because that’s the way we’re organised here, and I often hear learning technologists refer to IT Services as “them”
  • I’m not an academic or a teacher and I’m certainly not a “pedagogue”

If that’s what characterises learning technologists then perhaps I’m not one?

What I *am* interested in is:

  • the place of digital technology in the student experience
  • solutions development and architectures that support the workflows of academics and students
  • the way that organisational cultures and individuals’ practices change
  • what the web means to the creation and sharing of knowledge

I’d like to think that in my 15 years+ in the field I’ve developed some expertise in some of that. I don’t have a templated answer to any situation, I have an accumulated pot of knowledge and approaches that I apply (with varying success!!).

I see the occasional moan on the ALT members list about the senior managers who write their strategies and spend their money and don’t understand how the world is changing. That’s not my experience at all. I hear plenty of interest and passion from our senior team. We’ve just had endorsement of the Technology Enhanced Learning Strategy that we’ve developed, through the TEL Steering group that I chair, and there was plenty of recognition of the importance of TEL.

I think what some people are experiencing is a shift in the point of engagement and the type of support offered by a central learning technologist team, or a departmental elearning lead. Here’s what I mean, with some examples of the types of activity in each zone (this is absolutely not comprehensive):


With a very broad brush, I’d characterise it broadly as follows. From the mid 90s to the mid 00s, there was an emphasis on the bottom left hand corner and it favoured the skillset and mindset of the crafters. There were some great crafters who worked at Becta 15 years ago who were a good fit to the needs then, and have since left educational technology to do other crafting things. The approaches of working with individual academics also became richer, filling up the left hand column. People with great interpersonal skills and curiosity came to the fore. In parallel over the last 15 years or so we’ve had the maturing integration of platforms so that there are some learning technologists dedicated to the IT side of things but they are still driven by the values of teaching and learning. And there are managers like me who, hopefully, know enough about the tools and the practices to try to ensure that university level provision is good.

Incidentally, parts of my team also support research, and I anticipate a growth in types of research technologists. Maybe it is following a similar pattern.

I don’t think it’s just that the content development is being absorbed by academics, I think there’s more to it. In fact I suggest that in addition to the classic learning technologist, and the TEL-skilled academic, there are already several other flavours of learning technologist in my own university:

  • the staff developers and educational developers who are comfortable with learning technologies
  • the learning technologist systems analyst/architect
  • the student experience manager, also comfortable with technology: it’s not their job but it is part of their skillset and mindset
  • the orchestrator who might be a group/departmental administrator or a programme lead, they are at ease with technologies and know how to use them when
  • the content developer (they might be in the library, student skills, webteam) – they have learning technologist skills but wouldn’t call themselves that
  • the researcher/technologist who has half a foot in implementation and half in research – they pay more attention to evidence and theory than their IT colleagues, even when they’re doing similar things – skillset might be similar but the mindset is different

I’m sure there are more. Do I want to draw a clear line between them and the classic learning technologist? No, why sweat it? It’s great that so many people are engaged with the effective use of technology in education.

And another thing: I’m not an academic and I don’t teach. I consider myself to be a para-academic. (Like a paralegal, or a paramedic 😉 ). I have a particular skillset which has a place in universities. I’ve lost count of the number of sessions I’ve been in at elearning conferences over the year where the presenter asks “how many people in the room actually teach?”. Cue a few hands raised and the majority looking down at their feet, embarrassed, as if the 5/10/15 years experience in education counts for nowt. Universities are multi-professional places and learning technologists, in all their flavours, have a rightful place at the table. People like me shouldn’t have to pretend to be something we’re not.

Hopefully this post gives a voice to other learning technologists who feel like they don’t fit the standard description.


Why VLEs aren’t evil

D’Arcy Norman has written “On the false binary of LMS and open” and like Sheila MacNeill, and Peter Reed, I am glad someone else has put this perspective into words.

I too am a big advocate of openness, of open source, of open practice. I think the world wide web is changing the nature of knowledge, I think scholarship needs to evolve. I love the narratives of Catherine Cronin and Audrey Watters. And I am also very proud of what my colleagues are doing with our Moodle. I’m excited about the challenge of creating a consistent, quality, trusted environment that meet student’s “transactional” needs, that provides for the “hygiene” factors. If nothing “transformational” or pedagogically innovative took place it would still not be wasted time.

I know from my own student experience that there are all sorts of anxieties and hassles that can distract from the hard work of learning. As Rob O’Toole would put it: “extraneous cognitive load”. Cutting down on confusion is important. And also I know that there are questions that students help each other with: “when is it due in? how do I know which lab session to go to? did anyone else understand that critique?”. I was lucky, I was a very sociable student, and confident enough to ask the lecturer anything. Many were not, and those that didn’t go out for the post-lecture coffee chat (for reasons of money, or childcare, or culture, or shyness), were surely disadvantaged. We owe it to all our students to provide them with good information about their modules and provide forums for additional information to be exchanged. As David Davies said to me, it’s an inclusion issue.

Outside the university I use online systems to do important necessary things: banking, paying my kids’ school dinners, sorting out my car’s task disc. They just help me do what I need to do and they don’t have to make me feel “wow”.

VLEs can be used as a platform for fantastic blended and online learning, but even if they are not used to that extent, they are still important. VLEs exist for a reason. I’ve had this conversation very recently and had started to wonder if I was out of sync with other educational technology people, so it is reassuring to see this anti-anti-VLE perspective surfacing.

As D’Arcy Norman puts it: “We have a responsibility to provide a high quality environment to every single instructor and student, and the LMS is still the best way to do that”.

Crowdsourcing and citizen science

Despite the lack of posts on this blog, I have actually been very VERY VERY busy doing lots of interesting stuff.

I’ve just posted over on our team digital humanities blog about some sessions I’m planning on crowdsourcing and citizen science. I give a heads-up for Transcribe Bentham and the brilliantly-named Treezilla project. Lots of more examples to explore at the sessions, and perhaps some blog posts to follow.

the potential of ebooks

Fantastic report out now exploring the potential of ebooks in academic institutions:

potential of ebooks

What makes this report unique, I think, is that is pulls together the challenges in libraries, e-learning and self publishing. Each of those domains is debating a slightly different set of concerns, and what this report does is synthesise them across three themes: creation, curation and consumption.

This is one of the projects I set up when I was at JISC. I worked with Ken Chad and his expert team to scope this guidance. They undertook literature reviews, case studies, interviews and focus groups. From the start I steered that there should be engaging visual outputs rather than detailed text: what was required was to develop a view across the whole space. They took that challenge and ran with it. We chose the rainbow to represent the promise of ebooks, and then the team distilled the key challenges and decisions beneath them. The infographics look great and the site works well on a mobile too. Excellent!


I plan to arrange an ebooks discussion with Warwick colleagues so that we can consider how we best respond to the opportunities that ebooks offer.

Mahara UK Conference 2013: guest post by Jim Judges

The academic technology team at Warwick is just starting to explore what we might do with Mahara, and looking to  experienced users like Teresa McKinnon and Jo Trowsdale for ideas. Academic technologist team member Jim Judges went along to the Mahara UK conference in July to look at how people are making use of the software. He provided me with this write-up then signed off for the long hot summer. He’s back at work this week so to welcome him back, I’m posting his report as a guest post here.

Mahara UK Conference – Birmingham 4th & 5th July 2013

(see conference website for background),

Report by Jim Judges

The venue for the conference was the Custard Factory and my only disappointment was the fact that we never got to sample any of the glorious yellow stuff. This old factory has been turned into a rather trendy hub for small businesses, many with an eye on fashion, music and media and its alternative vibe seemed like a good choice to match the open source Mahara eportfolio tool and its lively and active community of users.

Except for some existing pockets of experience and advanced practice (see below) Warwick is at a very early stage with its use of Mahara and I would class myself as a relative “newbie”. Therefore I had much to learn and much to benefit from listening to and learning from others experience.

Overall I was encouraged by the wide use of Mahara; from its use as a portfolio tool for providing evidence against specific criteria to its use as a tool to encourage deep reflection that demonstrates a learner’s journey. In a number of instances it is being used to develop group working, communication and other transferable skills with a focus on progression and employability. In addition I saw exciting examples of tutor and instructor use of Mahara as a presentation tool to create dynamic webpages and to share information online with staff and students.

However, I have one important concern, in common with many other technologies (ebay, iTunes, Facebook & Moodle!) for a keen, confident frequent user these tools become straightforward to use and can quickly help to achieve any objectives. For the less confident, new user, these tools are not as intuitive and easy to use as they could or should be. This is good news for those of us employed to explain “how to”, but it may be bad news as far as the speed and breadth of adoption is concerned. Knowing and remembering this will be important for now. For the time being training, support and documentation in all its forms will be key to providing help as and when it is needed.

Here is a quick summary of some of the highlights from the workshops I attended:

Simon Grant (CETIS) gave an enthusiastic Key Note address which included an overview of a project for standardising Competence & Skills expressions called “InLOC” (Integrating Learning Outcomes and Competences). This could help potential employers sort through hundreds of CVs and help potential employees target jobs that better match their skills but with limited buy-in from any key organisations so far, this project would seem to be someway off any likely impact. Personally I think that this level of detail can be dealt with online at the applications process, candidates could be requested to answer specific questions and provide evidence that they have the skills that match any job specification and I think that this could be done with or without InLOC.

Marina Orsini-Jones (Coventry University) gave a very lively and passionate workshop presentation on the MexCo project at Coventry University. This programme gets the students to make good use of Mahara, encouraging them to work collaboratively and creatively. The project involved communication between the UK and Mexico and helped learners from distant cities and different cultures to find out about each other’s lives. Many of the Mahara based outcomes were impressive and demonstrated mastery of the technology and development of important transferable skills, in addition to developing an improved understanding of the lives of other students on a different continent. Some issues highlighted included problems with Mahara not being intuitive, insufficient flexibility with design options, image sizes and the size of default text.
Nitin Parmar & Louise Oilver (University of Bath) gave a useful overview of how Mahara is used, in conjunction with Moodle and other tools to incorporate Digital Literacies into an employability skills development programme within the science faculty. In semester 1 students were required to produce a CV and then in semester 2 they produce a video presentation using Panopto.
They identified their next steps as being further integration of Mahara with existing systems and possible improvement of “mahoodle” functionality. They highlighted future student access and archiving as a concern for the near-future. They are also considering Open badges and using Mahara across all 3 years of undergraduates, not just first years.

Samantha Moss (Southampton Solent University) delivered a session about designing effective assignments that use Mahara. The eLearning team have a well-defined “Solent approach” to using technology to assist assessment to avoid the technology-tail wagging the pedagogical dog, with one of the first key steps being a joint identification of outcomes and then a decision about appropriate tools. Mahara is currently being used on over 20 courses with 600+ students from varied subject backgrounds. Examples included students using Mahara for detailed reflections and independent learning tasks, some 2nd year students were building a CV and extensive Portfolio, and interestingly the PGCE for teaching in HE included a Mahara based assignment about employability in teaching.

Their submission method requires students to export pages from Mahara and upload this Zipped file as the submission in a moodle assignment. They also ask the student to include the secret URL in the first page description, so the tutor has a quick and easy link to view the live site in Mahara. This seems like a useful if complex method, although it is effective and is guaranteed to “freeze” the Mahara pages.


A buzz of excitement went around the room when the team from Lancaster University Network Services (LUNS) announced that they were working on an update for the Moodle Mahara plugin that could be available in a matter of weeks.

Keynote “State of the Mahara Nation” Don Christie (Catalyst NZ) gave a useful presentation outlining the history of Mahara and the future for Mahara developments. There are some interesting new features to look forward to, including search, Open Badges integration, possible backpack functionality, flexible page layouts and general user interface improvements. Finally it was suggested that maybe, just maybe, grading could become a possibility in Mahara in the future – you heard it here first! I say – new features are great but the focus should be on improving usability.

Mahara: creative spaces – Teresa MacKinnon (University of Warwick)
There is no doubt that Teresa, her colleagues and the students that they work with have been using Mahara in exciting and innovative ways to develop student reflection and presentation skills. The focus has been on a narrative approach to encourage reflection and on explicit identification of key pivotal moments in the learner’s journey. The submission (accounting for 20% of the final mark) is submitted through the Moodle Mahara assignment tool and then assessed by the appropriate language team. The first year involved Japanese, Chinese and French language learners and tutors; this is expanding to include German and Spanish learners too.
In the second year exciting intercultural links were established using the BlackBoard Collaborate tool for communication. There were many benefits:
•    Forces the student to think about their audience and the purpose of the document.
•    Students have creative freedom to create their own story.
•    Helps to develop CV writing skills.
Although as ever there were some challenges, these often led to positive experiences. It was found that students often supported each other, the experience helps to develop a good study habit, overall feedback was generally positive. The case study can be read online:

Presentation here:
I was left wondering if this approach could be applied beyond the realm of language learning, perhaps all learners could benefit from collaborating with other learners studying similar or complimentary subjects at other institutions around the globe. Having discussed this with Teresa she has kindly shared a uni-collaboration portal that is an output from the EU funded INTENT project: . This could be something to follow up with a pilot to develop similar transferable skills in other learners beyond language teaching. Maybe a Warwick – Monash student sharing pilot would be a good place to start?

Jo Trowsdale (University of Warwick) quickly introduced the audience to her exciting project that uses Mahara to support trainee teachers on a school’s based “Teach First” programme. A suggested template of pages in a collection is used to assist learners with organising and presenting their evidence. Mahara helped to assist a dialogic process, one reluctant IT user became converted and produced some high quality pages with detailed evidence, often arranged in an engaging way to highlight the process as well as the end result.

Anna Holloway (Newman University College) presented a useful warts and all presentation that complimented Jo’s session well. It was a session highlighting “Lessons Learnt from using Mahara for the PGCE Programme”. It demonstrated the clear need for technologist support, including staff and student induction, ongoing workshops and screencasts. One interesting development here was the use of student mentors, who were able to act as local Mahara experts supporting their peers. This session was an important reminder that even with excellent support learners may still struggle.
Kristina Hoeppner (Catalyst NZ) presented via Skype. Her colourful presentation almost made up for the poor audio quality: The message was an important one and encouraged all users, not just the technically-minded ones to get involved in the development and improvement of the Mahara tool. There is something here, and being an active reporter of bugs, communicator on forums and active participant in the community will be important as a starting point.

Gordon McLeod (University of Glasgow) delivered a powerful “Group Resources” presentation and inspiring session, demonstrating more than anyone how far an institution can go with Mahara. For me this was the highlight of the two days. He demonstrated how Mahara had been used in a previous role with the Royal Conservatoire to share videos of piano performances that could then receive tutor and peer feedback, this was recorded in a JISC RSC Scotland case study:

He shared a useful phrase that he uses when explaining Mahara to new users, he says “it’s the same as Facebook but private until you decide to share”. He went on to describe the use of Mahara in Veterinary science including an inspiring “Big Vet Wee Vet” programme of support for pre-matriculation and orientation. They used experienced second year students and others to provide support. They used Mahara collections and groups and then used a landing portfolio page as a starting point for information, they also used direct links from Moodle to pages in Mahara.

Further examples included using Mahara like a wiki, with students in groups with editing rights over a collection of pages. Using portfolio templates with red writing that could be deleted and replaced with student’s own statements, evidence and links. They were also using Mahara pages to support Mahara users with video guides, neatly arranged on a public page. He spoke of using Youtube and posting unlisted videos. Youtube does video serving rather well, until the university adopts a solution that works just as well can we do the same?

Meredith Henson presented a session on Open Badges – It’s hard to talk about Mahara or Moodle without talking about Badges and this conference was no exception. Meredith confirmed that she wasn’t an expert but nonetheless managed to deliver a fair overview of the current state of play and was able to confirm that in addition to the availability of display and issue of badges in Moodle (2.5+) that Totara have received funding to develop badges in Mahara (1.8/1.9?).

Badges seem to have created a lot of excitement, and they may well offer some useful incentives and recognition, especially for non-accredited programmes (e.g. CPD and Employability skills?). I earned a few badges as a cub, and growing up in the late 70s early 80s I was no stranger to wearing the odd badge, however as far as this initiative is concerned, the jury is still out. I will be doing some further investigation and fact-finding over the coming year, however to benefit from this fairly new concept we may need to wait until the technology is fully baked.

Annette Webb (York St John University) “The Blind Men & The Elephant” Just like the elephant in the parable the eportfolio will be viewed differently by different users, which will very much depend on their approach to this “beast”. Their institution introduced Mahara in 2010, buy-in was slow, now they have approximately 800 users with 70% of core subjects making some use of Mahara. Annette’s main focus was to discuss the perception of the tutor and how they adapt their teaching practice to keep up with digital technologies. She referred to the Julie Hughes idea of unsettling a tutor’s identity by using new tools, and that some tutors feel as if they know enough and have all the tools they need already. However, some tutors are keen and early adopters and are often keen to use new methods and to innovate. She reminded us of the idea of teachers and students working as co-researchers to keep up with change. Her research is in progress, but her findings will be well worth following up.

Mahara UK Conference 2013: Judges Final Scores
Content & Relevance: 9/10
Venue: 7/10
Location: 9/10
Food & Refreshments: 6.5/10 (no custard! L)
Overall: 8.5/10

Well worth attending providing lots of inspiration and ideas to follow up.

Taking a breath from all that talking

I blogged a month ago that I had a lot of forthcoming presentations to plan. I’m through them now, so time to take a breath and take stock.

In mid June I talked about bring your own identity.

Then I did a mash up of two presentations on openness and change for an informal session with the educational technology group. Slides below:

My plenary at institutional web managers workshop is reported here, and Nick Sheppard says nice things about it here.

Underlying these talks I think I’m developing a clearer picture of where we need to head. But I’ll work on articulating that another day!

Warwick’s got talent (students as producers)

Today was Warwick’s Teaching and Learning Showcase. The overall theme this year was Engaging Students, and topics included: Creativity, Beyond the classroom and Using resources in new ways. It would seem strange not to mention that only a few minutes away many students were displaying their engagement and creativity beyond the classroom, in the fifth day of their occupation. I won’t get into the politics of that, but to mention as context that the importance of student involvement in decisions, and the role of the institution as a public university are both part of my thinking about academic technologies. The showcase brought together lots of innovative work across the university, and showed just how fast technology is becoming mainstream for some.

We have lots of examples of student-led technology at Warwick. A while back a Warwick PG student, Josh Harding gave a fantastic talk at a libraries conference about his use of ipads. But the approach goes deeper than encouraging use, there’s a history of supporting student as producer and even a student as producer grant scheme. This ethos is embedded in some courses: two colleagues in my team are involved with the Making History module which encourages undergraduate historians to develop digital skills in the humanities. No doubt there are many other examples I haven’t heard yet.

Right now, here’s a great example. There is a student-run producer and broadcaster of live interactive TV and documentaries at Warwick, called SIBE. They are running a Hackathon this weekend, 23-24th June, on campus:

“The hack will focus on developing web solutions for the new OSAAT campaign model of global collective action to aid in addressing the major global issues of our time in a coordinated and efficient way. We’ve already come up with a few concepts for web solutions together with major national and global campaign organisations during a series of interactive workshops.”

I have pledged a small grant to support the event, because colleagues and I believe academic technology should empower students as producers (a perspective that Rob O’Toole has been strongly advocating). You can participate this weekend by registering on the site, and if you aren’t on campus you can join in remotely.

On a related note, earlier this week I was really pleased to see a couple of Warwick entries to the Jisc Summer of Student Innovation. “Sigma: a new online learning system” is from a group of students, and “Unibubble” is clearly filmed on campus (no mistaking the Arts Centre in the background).

Clearly, Warwick has some serious student talent when it comes to technology and digital skills!