Health-based approaches to supporting learning technologists

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In this extra post, Melissa Highton reflects on the importance of health-based approaches to support our learning technology colleagues so that they are able to perform at the top of their game in supporting the university during a time of unparalleled disruption and uncertainty. Melissa is Director of Learning, Teaching and Web in the Information Services Group, and Assistant Principal for Online Learning.

Last year, in universities all across the UK and the wider world, learning technology managers could quickly see that their services were going to be put under extreme pressure. For many years, we have been persuading, inspiring and supporting colleagues to make use of online technologies to do their teaching in different and new ways. It was a long-term, gradual, endeavour with two year, five year and ten year plans. This year has seen a huge shift from using learning technologies with colleagues who had opted in and wanted to learn, to a world in which people with very little knowledge, or familiarity with the tools for teaching online were suddenly forced to upskill fast.

Focusing resources that promote the self-esteem, resilience and coping abilities of individuals and communities of learning technologists has been essential because they have been on the forefront of services overwhelmed by demands from colleagues. It is challenging for online learning leaders and learning technology aficionados to come to terms with the fact that we did not deliver this pivot to online teaching through inspirational argument or the power of convincing evidence. We had to do it in ways we never anticipated. We have put in place systems and support for rushed replication of on-campus delivery online even though we know in our hearts that is not the best way for learning technology to be scaled up.

With many people locally engineering their own solutions in a panic, resilience mitigations against the risks of chaos were essential and we have brought a new focus to sharing practice in our community. For many years, The University of Edinburgh learning technology roadshows provided a focus for distributed learning technologists to come together across Schools. These have grown and moved online as community events. We have been able to identify and mobilise community assets to help local learning technologists to overcome some of the challenges they face. We have invited senior managers to give regular updates to the community to ensure that the bigger picture is understood.

Staying grounded in what we know has been important. Edinburgh has been world-leading in online masters courses for many years, and invested heavily in technology for distance education, which put us in a better position than many of our peers. We have a strong culture of sharing open resources and a good understanding of the licencing issues involved in re-using materials from elsewhere. Information Services Group have good infrastructure for media which ensured that we didn’t have to resort to YouTube. Senate Education Committee have spent time on the policies for privacy, ethics and accessibility in digital teaching. We have a strong culture of research informed delivery and we have ensured that learning technology at Edinburgh is shaped by published educational research about uses of learning technology in pedagogy.

The learning technology community of practice has grown fast this year, and it is important to take time to ensure than new members were welcomed. This year, a dozen new learning technologists joined us and, in order that they were all able to join our community with a shared understanding of the technologies we have on campus, we put together a training programme available to Schools to ensure that their new recruits were quickly up to speed as expert users of the university systems. We invested quickly in a ‘grow your own‘ strategy for up-skilling and cross-skilling other technology staff to support learning technologies and in recruiting and training students to help us with the up-scaling and heavy-lifting in our services. Last summer, 40 students joined us to help with Learn and I am delighted to see so many of them return to ISG for another stint as interns this summer. Their input and insights are energising.

Recognising the professionalism of the community, we have continued to support colleagues in completing their professional accreditation and CPD to develop in their roles. Our national networks have been essential for understanding that in each institution the learning technologists are tackling the same challenges. We have swapped guidance and shared stories to keep each other going and offered help to those whose systems collapsed. At the annual national conference of the Association of Learning Technologists (ALT) we came together to share experiences and everyone got an award to say thank you, recognising the importance of the role they play in keeping our institutions teaching.

As learning technologists’ mental health suffered and they joined the queues to access counselling support, we worked hard to ensure that the central technology teams had the regular meetings, catch-ups and social interactions needed to combat isolation. We have used blogs and social media to celebrate achievements and talk about the things that are going well, exchanged home-schooling tips, and grieved for the loss of loved ones. Universities across the UK seem to be expanding their online learning teams in moves towards the future, but at the same time many exhausted technologists are leaving the business and taking the opportunity to find new things to do. The set of digital skills, understanding of technology, empathy, resilience and commitment to helping people, which are core to the job of learning technologists, are transferable in many ways, and this year has underlined the importance of support for health and well-being for resilience.

photograph of the authorMelissa Highton

Dr Melissa Highton is Assistant Principal Online Learning and Director of Learning, Teaching and Web Services (LTW) in Information Services Group. Melissa leads services and projects in support of the University’s strategic priorities for digital and distance education on global platforms, blended learning on campus, virtual learning environments, technology enhanced learning spaces, the digital student experience and use of the web for outreach and engagement. She has particular interests in digital skills, open educational resources, equality and diversity and online media. Follow her on Twitter @HoneybHighton

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