In week one I was fortunate to attend the Changing the Learning Landscape event on Digital Literacies at LSE. It was a really useful event, both for the content of the presentations and the networking opportunities it provided. Unfortunately it meant that I missed the live webinar on concepts and strategies and I’ve only just found time to catch up with it!
As I listened to the presentations from the vantage point of the end of week 3, when I’ve looked back at my initial aims and ‘big and small questions’ from week 0, a couple of things really leapt out at me and I’m going to reflect on those here.
First, a recap on those questions I set myself as a guide to my engagement in ocTEL:
- How can I use my role, knowledge and experience to develop digital literacies among staff so that they can in turn develop them in their students?
- How can I encourage colleagues to explore or try digital technology options?
- How can I best bridge the gap between teaching/learning from a (research) academic perspective and technology?
Working in a team-based approach developing courses
As Dr Kyriaki Anagnostopoulou (University of Bath) was discussing strategies in relation to learning technologies she used the phrase ‘when we are working in a team-based approach developing courses’. Although this approach was not discussed or explained in detail it strikes me as an incredibly important and valuable way for learning technologists to work and for academic colleagues to be encouraged to try technology in their courses. It is a model which we are seeking to develop at my institution.
How courses should be designed, and by whom, is a fascinating and potentially contentious question – particularly if colleagues are unaware of concepts such as constructive alignment and think of courses primarily in terms of content. If content is what counts then of course the proper person to design the course is the content specialist, the lecturer. It is only when a course is seen as a whole learning system that it becomes possible to fully see the student, teacher, methods, assessment, resources, technologies and any number of other interlocking components. Then a team course design approach makes sense.
Whenever I talk with early career lecturers about developing their teaching practice – by making lectures more interactive perhaps, or introducing opportunities for formative feedback during the term – the concern is expressed that these learning activities will take time away from ‘covering the material’. And when asked to design a new course, even more experienced academics tend to focus on ‘what topics should it cover?’ and only move on to things like the assessment mode and the learning outcomes later. Why is that? Is it anything to do with research? How can we encourage colleagues to look at the wider learning process and join with others in a ‘team-based approach [to] developing courses’?
Answers on the 21st century equivalent of a postcard please – Twitter or the comments box!
Residents, Visitors and Learning Technologists as Tour Guides
In the second half of the webinar James Little (University of Leeds) set me thinking in a rather different direction. When discussing the choices to be made in digital spaces, James referred to the categories of digital residents and visitors (as discussed in the work of David White). I recently had cause to consider my position on this continuum (as part of a reflective writing activity following my first experience as a facilitator on an open online course) and concluded that I am mostly at the resident end of the scale.
When I talk in my big question about developing digital literacies among staff, am I implicitly talking about turning them into digital residents too? Is there some sort of implied value judgment there? Resident good / visitor bad? I really hope I don’t give that impression when I’m talking to colleagues. I have a particular interest in technologies and especially social media for creating learning networks and collecting and curating resources. I don’t really know when or how that started and how it got to be as important to me as is now, but I don’t expect everyone to have the same degree of enthusiasm!
I do, however, believe that if you are teaching at a university in 2014 you should have a basic understanding of the main functions of the most popular digital technologies and have made informed decisions about which ones you want to use. If that means that you only use a couple of things as and when you need them (as digital visitors do) then that is fine – but that shouldn’t be because you have no idea what else is out there or what it does.
The challenge then, is to use my enthusiasm and the wider ‘resident’ knowledge that has given me, to show ‘visitor’ colleagues some specific ‘tools’ that they might find useful. It’s a bit like acting as tour guide when friends come to visit your town. You want to show them all the places you love, but whether they go away sharing your enthusiasm for the place will depend on how well you match the outings you plan to their interests and needs. Your elderly aunt probably has different interests to your college pals or your teenage niece and the same itinerary won’t suit them all.
If staff are to be encouraged to explore digital technology they need help to narrow the range of options – they need a local guide. A digital resident learning technologist like me can be that guide but to give them good suggestions I need to get to know them, their interests and their needs. To a certain extent academics are knowable by their discipline (see Academic Tribes and Territories) so some general assumptions can be made about the sorts of tools that might be useful to a particular lecturer, but nothing beats sitting down and talking to him/her about their research and teaching context. It is these conversations, difficult to arrange and time-consuming though they may be, that promise so much in terms of personal engagement with technology and development of digital literacies.
To push the ‘learning technologist as tour guide’ analogy, we could consider the group workshop a bit like a coach trip. Not as personalised as it could be – we are all going to the same place at the same time and have to wait for the same comfort breaks! Workshops can be organised to introduce various tools and platforms to groups, but these need participants to have already formed an interest in the tool being discussed or demonstrated. One way to improve the relevance and engagement of a workshop is to encourage departments to work with you to plan their own ‘works outing’. In other words, organise department-based events where relevance and engagement can be improved by bringing together staff from within one department or from cognate disciplines to share their experience and practice with digital tools.
Finding time for face-to-face sessions is always a challenge, though. It is tempting to think that we can use technology to get around this by providing online courses that will offer staff the flexibility to engage with them when they want. Too often, if my experience with MOOCs is any indicator, this means when they have ‘spare time’ – which as this post has shown could be a long time coming.