Innovate or Die!


The NMC’s ‘On the Horizon’ Report is one I  look forward to reading at the start of each year.  It’s clearly written, it’s honest and, for me, it’s a pretty good gauge of how successfully and creatively  learning technology is being used in HE.

This year’s report starts big – page one proclaims that there are two long-term trends: advancing cultures of innovation and a fundamental rethink of how universities and colleges work. Those are two pretty big areas, so rather than looking at all of the trends and challenges highlighted in the report I want to concentrate on the first of these two overarching trends.

‘Innovation’ is a word that has been used repeatedly since the effects of the 2008 recession started to be felt in education. It usually boils down to ‘doing more with less’ – though if you need to produce twice the amount of ‘stuff’ with half the amount of resources / staff / money, you’re pretty much forced into being ‘innovative’ in order to survive. As a result of attending many, many faculty meetings with various employers over the past 8 years and hearing the word ‘innovation’ used in the same sentence as ‘budget cuts’ over and over again, I now wince whenever I hear it. It’s just a pretty way of saying ‘We have had our budget cut in half again, so things are going to get even harder this year.  Deal with it!’

Here’s more from the report:

The Innovation Policy Platform…asserts that universities should bolster entrepreneurship courses to attract and accommodate more students, while nurturing faculty that can meet high-quality teaching standards…universities should even encourage faculty and staff to hone their own entrepreneurial skills through professional development and opportunities to participate in start-ups. The IPP recommends that training policies move beyond business development and management to emphasize the challenges of enterprise growth, risk-taking, and building strategic alliances.

Let’s try to unpick what this means. If we read between the lines, is the NMC recommending that we all need to learn how to start up our own businesses so we have something to fall back on should the worst happen; or are they talking solely in the context of business-related courses? Let’s see what the report goes on to say:

There is a growing consensus among many higher education thought leaders that institutional leadership and curricula could benefit from adopting agile startup models.

This is a rather broad statement.  And once I’d finished dry-heaving over the term ‘thought leader’ (which scores double points in Bullshit Bingo, and sounds like something from a George Orwell novel) I found it to be a little sinister too. Business has now, apparently, subsumed education completely. Students are often referred to as clients and curricula are business models.  (Apropos of nothing, I don’t have staff any more either – I have direct reports.)

I get it;  in this endless recession no job is secure (thanks George Osborne). But the students I deal with are training to be healthcare professionals – nurses, midwives, radiographers, and physiotherapists – they have neither the time nor the inclination to start learning about entrepreneurship – it’s not what they signed up for, and there isn’t much space in their timetables (because lectures form only half of their study – their medical placements form the other half).  And let’s face it – it’s hard enough to get staff to engage with embedding technology effectively into their curricula, so asking them to start teaching another subject, or find the time to participate in a startup…it’s too much, and, to be honest, it just all feels a bit sinister.

Maybe I’ve missed the point entirely here.  Maybe this is a positive move, and something that I should be engaging with myself. Maybe the skills learned in ‘How to be an Entrepreneur 101’ are wholly transferable to all educational (and medical) settings – though the healthcare sector is steadily become ‘businessfied’ itself, with patients now also called service users, clients or customers.  All of this seems a little clinical (excuse the pun) and dehumanising.

So what do you think?  I’d appreciate some comments about this one, as I’m not sure what this all means and may well be worrying about nothing!

It’s all Academic! 

academicWorking as a Learning Technologist (LT) means that it can be hard to feel a true sense of identity. Rather than sitting squarely in one camp – be it academic or professional support – the LT often has a foot in each tent flap. As far as my particular role (Learning Technology Manager) goes, I am aligned to the professional support framework, so I am a member of several administration-themed committees and working parties along with colleagues from our student data, marketing, admissions and assessment teams.

I do spend some of my working week carrying out various administrative tasks including but not limited to enrolling staff on our LMS, checking student alignment to modules, setting up rubrics in Turnitin and copying content from one area of Blackboard to another. However, I spend more of my time talking to academic staff about where to embed technology into their curricula, their modules and their individual sessions. I discuss with them the pedagogy of online and blended learning, the best methods to use to enhance learning, to improve students’ critical thinking skills and to allow students to engage reflectively on course content. I show academic staff how summative and formative assessment can be carried out with real accuracy and validity using digital enhancement and how web apps and smartphones can make a session more innovative and interactive. I develop online resources and modules for national and overseas students that nod to a variety of learning theories and engage users via a multi-sensory, multi-media, truly two-way experience. I also show academics how to best use a toolkit of technology-based artefacts to enhance teaching and learning and I explain why this toolkit is just so bloody valuable.  And if there is time, I spend the rest of my working week reading, researching and writing around the subject of education and technology.

I started reading The Really Useful #EdTechBook by David Hopkins on the plane back from *INTED2015 last week, and was struck how different institutions perceive the role of Learning Technologist in very different ways. This, I assume, has a lot to do with the fact that it’s very hard to categorise or pigeon hole what a LT is. ‘In reality‘, states Peter Reed, one of the contributors to Hopkins’ book: ‘the Learning Technologist is a complex professional (and academic) role, and its variations and derivatives have increased over the years.’  However, Oliver suggests the practices of Learning Technologists are ‘little understood, even within their own community.‘ (Oliver, 2010) Reed expands upon his original statement:

Think of the Learning Technologist as the middle person in the complex relationship between learning and teaching and technology.  Typically, the role involves a good appreciation of both elements.  Critically though, a thorough understanding of learning and teaching precludes an understanding of technology.  This is imperative, as we must first identify the challenges, within and of, pedagogy, before applying theory to practice.  If we don’t understand these core aspects of what it is to learn, or indeed teach, how can we possibly advise on how technology might be an influencing and enhancing intervention?  The understanding of technology and its place in education, for me at least, will always come second.  Thus the role of the Learning Technologist sits comfortably alongside academic staff within curriculum development initiatives with a particular focus on applying theory to practice.’

So there seems to be a growing consensus of opinion that the role of the LT is firmly entrenched in the academic side of institutional life.  This then highlights an issue that needs to be unknotted.  If Learning Technologists are working with academic staff to shape their teaching practice (and don’t forget, we have the word ‘Learning’ in our title), then perhaps we should be aligned to the academic side of our institutions’ lives?  That way we can help to shape teaching and learning with technology at grass roots level. Here’s one final quote to finish off:

‘Learning Technology teams are typically considered a professional service – some institutions, (which Selwyn suggests is derogatory) consider them non-academic, non-Faculty or ‘support’ staff (Selwyn, 2014, p56), but the very placement of the team can have consequences for the role and how they are seen by academic staff.’


Oliver, M (2002), What do Learning Technologists Do? Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 39(4), pp. 245-252.  Available at, date accessed: 18/03/2015

Reed, P (2015) The Structure and Roles of Learning Technologists within Higher Education Institutions: The Really Useful #EdTechBook, published by author under Creative Commons Licence

Selwyn, N (2014) Digital Technology and the Contemporary University: Degrees of Digitalization, Routledge

*INTED2015 post-conference blog post to follow. Honest!