About the author
Tom Buckley is Digital Learning Manager in the Education Innovation Team. The local learning technology support team in the Faculty of HAS. He has worked in educational development and technology for over 10 years. Tom manages the recruitment for the team and this is his perspective on becoming a Learning Technologist at UWE. The quotes provided here are from employees within UWE taken during focus groups in 2020.
Who is this article for?
This article is for those who are curious about a new career and interested in finding out more about the role of ‘Learning Technologist’. ‘Learning Technologist’ is a new cadre of professional primarily within educational institutions. It is a role that provides a particular service but a service that can differ wildly. People can often be aware of Learning Technologists within an organisation but have no idea where they come from. The good news is that people are not born as Learning Technologists they become them. The bad news is they become them without having a particular training course or route into the role. Meaning it can be unclear how to get started with a career as a Learning Technologist and also what the job entails. The article and shared testimony aim to address this.
What is it aiming to do?
The 2020s COVID 19 pandemic drastically altered the education sector’s approach to using technology in teaching. It has been one of the few instances where Learning Technologists have been pivotal to a crisis response. It has shone a spotlight on their importance and is a growing part of the jobs market. There are plenty of opportunities for long and rewarding careers in learning technology. This article is aimed at helping you assess whether you’re the right candidate and, if you are, making sure you know how to make yourself competitive in the application process.
About the role
What is a Learning Technologist?
The complexity in explaining the role comes from how specific it is to the Higher and Further Education sector. This is compounded by the variation with what the role does between, and even within, institutions. This can ultimately be as drastic a differenced as whether the role is seen as more academic, technical, administrative or more generalist. This variability also manifests itself by where the role is situated. Whether it is situated in: a local Faculty team; a central team; or a pan-institutional service like a library or IT service. Some Technologist roles are tool focussed whereas others are pedagogy focused. It really comes down to the particular role you are looking at. Whatever the role there are pervasive and universal parts to any Learning Technologist job. That is being active in the digital transformation of education.
You will: advise; coach; research; & support teaching and learning. You are in the business of change, partnership and improvement. The focus is always on improving student’s experience or learning. Notice how I have not mention digital in that list. This might surprise you. It is obviously important to the role but not as important as supporting positive change. Sometimes this change will be knowing when not to digitise things.
Why did existing Learning Technologists apply for their roles?
As mentioned there is no academy or course to become a Learning Technologist. The thing that may surprise you is a lot of practitioners didn’t know what one was before applying for their first role. The rationale for applying differs between practitioners:
“I just thought that it was really cool…”
“It’s genuinely not something that I had known much about coming into it…everything I’ve done has kind of led up to this point”
You might recognise the thoughts above and that might be why you’re reading this article. That is good. Learning Technologists, amongst the other traits, are curious by nature. So don’t be put off from applying just because the job title sounds exclusive or niche. We all have come from different walks of life to become a Learning Technologist.
What does a Learning Technologist do all day?
This is a tough question. Learning technologists job roles change daily and depend on the time of year. Here are what our practitioners have to say:
“The beauty of the role is, no two days are exactly the same…before the start of the academic year; one is working on getting courses ready for the next year. Once the academic year starts… training, support (pedagogical and technical), problem solving, research…and sector trends, plus lots of meetings.”
“the day is quite varied…it does sort of depend on what projects are happening or what is generally just happening in the day… what I do is just about helping people. So whether it’s giving people advice or just doing little training sessions… or creating things with people… It never feels boring or repetitive because you’re doing quite a lot of different things.”
Our focus group touched on the ontology of the job or simply ‘the vibe’ of the job. This is an important part of understanding the role and changes unit to unit or between organisations. However, there is a distinctive feel working within digital education.
“you can be quite individual and innovative …it’s essentially helping people. Understanding what the problem is… working out how they can solve it and understanding where they’re coming from. Also providing written guidance…communication in all sorts of different forms, but I think that’s the main difference against a Technical role is that it’s not just about, you know, understanding a piece of software …”
A lot of what is required in the role comes from the type of person within that role. You have to be inclined to help people but also have the drive get stuck in on digital projects. You need to be a problem solver and a horizon scanner but fundamentally someone dedicated to the student and staff experience. What you do will vary but it will always be framed as helping people and supporting change. So the question you need to ask yourself before applying is how much drive you have to shape your role and help others. How much you are interested in ‘a job’ or whether you want to become a practitioner of something. If you crave structure, boundaries and consistency this might not be the role for you.
What kind of person is a Learning Technologist?
Individuals drafted into learning technology alongside practitioners to help scale up operations during the pivot to online learning caused by the 2020s COVID 19 pandemic shared these thoughts on working within digital education:
“The community is… Resilient, helpful (to each other as much as to academic staff), approachable. Supportive, Knowledgeable, Curious.”
These stakeholders had the ability to relate the job to a more technical role. Learning Technologist is sometimes read as a synonym for IT which is unfair for both disciplines.
“The main difference is… The range of demands whether it be the vast array of software and platforms or the wide range of academic confidence. Dealing with solving problems and developing practice”
Learning Technologists can be part of a service but they seldom work in a service model of delivery. They are more involved in partnership working. So you focus on people, projects, pedagogy or outputs rather than working to a standard of universal service. This is where the difference can be felt between being a learning technologist and being another type of professional. You need to follow things down rabbit holes and smash through dead ends. An agent for change rather than a provider of a service. The word ‘No’ can be in your vocabulary but you are more likely to say ‘actually I would suggest doing it like this’. Usually alongside ‘shall we have a chat about it over a cup of tea’.
Who would be a bad fit for or would struggle as a Learning Technologist?
Our focus group had this to say:
“a limited scope of what is possible…a lack of interest in evolving … a poor team player and equally, who isn’t able to work independently.”
“cannot build productive working relationships and communicate effectively”
“structure, stability and predictability. It is impossible to plan a career in learning technology, and the job in itself is a constantly evolving mix of priorities and pressures. It is … for those who are comfortable dealing with chaos on a regular basis.”
Learning Technologists are technologically agile, literate in learning new bits of kit and applying to real world problems. Yet, we are looking for is someone who is kind, patient, flexible with good people skills, who can build a rapport and want to continually grow. These are the core values and the core parts of being a learning technologist.
The right skills are important. You will need to know enough HTML to unpick a faulty embed code and that is about it. There will be peer support and we can teach a lot of the technical elements in post. ‘Digital agility’ is important but pointless if not matched with the right values. A lot of the technical parts are about knowing products you wouldn’t know if you weren’t in the tertiary education sector. So we do not expect this kind of experience on day 1. Just the right values.
About building an application
If you like the sound of the above then I encourage you to think about applying. It is currently a super competitive jobs market. Here I wanted to give some guidance on building an application that is going to get you noticed.
Firstly, here are my personal top three application red flags:
- Primary and secondary level teachers not displaying interest in the field of learning technology within their application. It’s a distinct discipline from teaching. Often applicants give off a ‘I’ve been a teacher so this will be easy’ attitude in the application. It is different. Display you understand that in your application.
- IT professionals not displaying interest in the role of being a Learning Technologist in their application. It’s a distinct discipline from IT. Display an understanding of and interest in the interplay between technology and learning in your application.
- Not showing signs of research about learning technology/digital education or the specific role of Learning Technologist. It’s a discipline that produces lots of online content. Finding out about the discipline is easy to do. The interview process shouldn’t be seen as a research exercise. So no ‘I would love to find out more about it at interview’ in the personal statement.
It is likely there will be candidates who have postgraduate qualifications in the same interview process. Being up against people with MSc or PhDs in the discipline doesn’t mean you’ll be unsuccessful. Remember it’s about values, behaviours and attitudes as much as hard skills.
Here are my top three tips for applicants outside the sector. By this I mean for people who aren’t already in a related field or a Learning Technologist. The things that will make your application stand out to me are:
- Do 2x MOOCs. Each on a different platform. One on a subject you’re truly interested in but outside of technology and learning. The other on e-learning, learning, blended learning or learning development. In the application tell a narrative of your learning, your experience as an online student and how it differed from being a traditional student. The insight this gave you. If you don’t know what a MOOC is then do some research on this subject.
- Read the job description of the Learning Technologist role you are interested in and then go to the ALT Blog and the ALT Journal. Scan for words you recognise in the article titles and identify consistent themes or trends. Focus on current or the next big thing that emerges from these articles. Find articles on the core products or approaches from the job description if you can. This will give you literacy in the language used within digital education. This will make you stand out.
- Engage with the theories and practicalities of teaching where you are applying for. Firstly, be interested in human behaviour as it pertains to education. For the application show you have done research. This could be research into an aspect of digital teaching or learning theories. Or a reflection on your own educational journey. Most importantly link it to any strategy documents you have found on the recruiters website. Secondly, learn about the core toolset of the institution you are applying for. For UWE this means: Panopto; Collaborate; PebblePad; and Mentimeter. Explore these tools. Mention them in your personal statement. For example you might not know Panopto but you know it is a tool for lecture capture. You can link this to transferable knowledge or experience you have in video.
I hope this has helped add some colour on the opaque role of Learning Technologist. There will be those of you that feel like it isn’t for you. That you might need something that uses more hard skills and has more structure. Good luck finding the right role for you. There are those of you that might have read the above and been further intrigued by the career. I encourage you to contact the named recruiter on the job advert and start the conversation. We need people of all talents to apply so good luck!