health-based approaches to supporting learning technologists

As soon as we all moved to work from home it became clear that our top priority was going to be to identify the protective factors that support health and wellbeing for our learning technology teams so that they would be able to perform at the top of their game in supporting the university in this extraordinary year.

In universities, colleges and schools 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. We have, for many years 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, endeavor with 2 year, 5 year and 10 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 as they have been on the forefront of services overwhelmed by demands from colleagues who are too stressed to care. 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 used.

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. This year these have grown and moved online as community events. Through these we have been able to identify and mobilise the community’s 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 of learning technologists to ensure that the bigger picture is understood.

Staying grounded in what we know has been important. University of Edinburgh has been world-leading in online masters courses for many years and invested heavily in digital innovation and technology for distance education which put us in a better position than many of our peer universities . We have a  strong culture of sharing open resources and a good understanding of the licencing  issues involved in re-using materials from elsewhere. In some of our services this commitment to openness and sharing ensured that we were able to stay in business.  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. During this pandemic year the university has recruited a dozen new learning technologists 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 and a reading group to provide a place to discuss some of the more nuanced aspects of technologies such as bias, surveillance and online harms. 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.  Reflections on the demands of this year have provided good content for their portfolios. Our national networks have been essential for understanding that in each institution the learning technologists are tacking the same challenges. Many of us deal directly with the same software suppliers. We have swapped guidance, experience 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 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. Whether we survive this year unscathed remains to be seen. 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.

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