Learning Technologists at Oxford Brookes University – Jacks-of-all-trades?

Irmgard Huppe started working as a Learning Technologist in the School of Health and Social Care in spring 2004. In September 2011 she took over a new role as Digital Media and E-learning Developer for the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences. She is also a ‘Oxford Brookes University Teaching Fellow’.

Aim

This short article argues that it would be beneficial for Oxford Brookes University (OBU) to work towards an outline of what Digital Media and e-Learning Developers (DMeLDs) should do which takes us beyond their current job description.  DMeLDs need to work towards clearly defined goals and products, while having enough room to keep abreast of constant changes in technologies. Opportunities to be involved in research and learning design should be a part of a new identity for DMeLDs; the consequence of such a development would help OBU to keep up to speed in technology enhanced learning and teaching.

Working in learning technologies

Currently many staff members at OBU are putting their hopes in the virtual learning environment (VLE), Moodle, implemented in autumn 2012, after many years of working with Blackboard (respectively WebCT). Why? Learning Technologies in OBU focus on the Brookes Virtual Learning Environment. Learning technologies and the work of learning technologists centre on supporting people in making best use of this VLE. An underlying assumption seems to be that the Moodle VLE will help to finally establish a firm connection between the ambitious aims of the Strategy for Enhancing the Student Experience (SESE: OBU, 2010a) and the Brookes VLE.

Positioning DMeLDs

In 2011 the Schools and Departments at OBU were re-structured into four Faculties. Since then OBU learning technologists have been renamed Digital Media and eLearning Developers. We work with academics, supporting them in choosing and using technologies which can enhance learning and teaching.  According to our very broad job description DMeLDs are also expected to support the development of digital assets.  They are placed as part of the support staff, working as ‘hybrids’ between academics, administrators, librarians and IT officers. Mediators, jacks-of-all-trades – what are they? Each faculty has at least two ‘jacks-of-all-trades’ called DMeLDs. All of them have very different skill sets and backgrounds. They are all working to the same broad job specification.

Line Management

DMeLDs report directly to the Associate Deans Student Experience although they have no direct contact with students. Their way of supporting students is via “enhancing and augmenting tutor skills” (Browne & Beetham, 2010, p. 11).  Their connection to the SESE, which informs and shapes their work, is therefore indirect, but has great significance. In the past, Learning Technologists’ responsibilities and duties could on occasion be reduced to one main theme: encouraging and supporting tutors in their use of the Brookes VLE. There is a danger that current practice could result in DMeLDs being reduced to old-style VLE supporters, busy with fire-fighting everyday technical problems. While this might enhance the tutor and student experience in a small way, it does not result in sustainable and accumulative gain.

Guidance

DMeLDs are also guided by the team of the Media Workshop, the central learning technologies unit at OBU. They meet once a month in a Learning Technologists forum to discuss and share work related news and issues. Due to time constraints and the diversity of the Faculties, which are still looking to establish their own identities, the opportunity has not yet been taken to collaborate across the institution.  DMeLDs still tend to solve problems in an individual, Faculty-based fashion rather than looking to solve problems on a more general, higher level.  An example can illustrate this: the DMeLDs in the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences had the chance to develop a training scheme for the new VLE in team work with one of their Principal Lecturers Student Experience. This team work was based on personal initiative rather than a structured approach on how to solve this kind of problem at a university level.  DMeLDs in other Faculties followed a similar approach, but it could potentially have been more efficient as a joint planning effort by all DMeLDs, the Media Workshop and the Principal Lecturers Student Experience at a university level. Working together for the transition to Moodle has already proved to be a uniting factor in the DMeLD work, and this trend  continued throughout the journey to the top of the ‘move to Moodle’ mountain.

What next?

In an ideal world DMeLDs would find ways of realising their personal potential and put their abilities to their best effects.  It could help to have a clear framework in place which supports them to do this. Finding answers to the following questions could help DMeLDs with the task of putting their broad job specification into practice:

  1. Who decides what are the main responsibilities for DMeLDs in a faculty at any given time?
  2. How do DMeLDs within a Faculty co-ordinate their roles, i.e. define their aims and divide up the resulting workload?
  3. How (and what) to delegate with regard to IT and admin related requests?
  4. Who should DMeLDs work with and at what level – individual tutors, programme leads, teams, librarians, administrators?
  5. What is their position within the structure of the faculty, i.e. in which groups should they advise, participate or consult?
  6. How will DMeLDs be integrated in the overall university structure and the structure of faculties – with relation to OBIS, Learning Resources, the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD) and academics? Will they have the opportunity to work together with a “learning resources centre” with people who support the creation of reusable learning objects and open educational resources? Such a centre could house graphic artists, video producers and possibly also programmers? An example of this approach can be found at Coventry University (Huppe, 2012)
  7. How could the DMeLDs’ potential for co-operation be realised on a university-wide scale? Might the Media Workshop be strengthened to part-manage learning technologists in their Faculties? How could this be done across campuses? It might further the work of DMeLDs if the University had an e-learning forum where DMeLDs work jointly with the Principal Lecturers Student Experience, e-learning champions in the faculties and OCSLD staff specialising in e-learning.

A tentative vision statement

From my perspective DMeLDs should be able to make recommendations for the future regarding the optimal use of learning technologies in a world which changes at an incredible rate. Our task is to step away from trying to find answers with technology, and instead to focus on up-to-date insights about how we learn as ‘modern’ human beings, and then recommend technologies if and when they are useful to satisfy a need which has been established by evidence. This means DMeLDs need research skills and time to use them within a clearly defined framework, based on the SESE and supported by the Continuing Professional Development Framework (OBU, 2010b). Transferring SESE statements to the situation of DMeLDs could mean:

  1. Depending on background, skills and interests DMeLDs could be allowed to specialise in for example pedagogies, computer technology, staff development sessions, animation, or video. 
  2. DMeLDs could build development groups, where different skills can be assembled to achieve the best results in, for example, the production of reusable learning objects. 
  3. A career structure for DMeLDs:  a technologist with more experience in the job could guide others with less experience, and the establishment of a ‘senior DMeLD’ grade? 
  4. DMeLDs need the chance to participate in project-related teams to have a better insight into the context for their work.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Mary Deane (OCSLD) for her invaluable writing support, and to Abi Ball (Media Workshop) for being a critical friend.

References

Browne, T. and Beetham, H. (2010) The positioning of educational technologists in enhancing the student experience. Project Report. ALT and The Higher Education Academy, Retrieved on 18 May 2012 from http://repository.alt.ac.uk/id/eprint/831.

Huppe, I. (2012) Short résumé of my visit at CELE, Coventry University. Musings of a Learning Technologist blog, 11 May 2012. Retrieved 6 July 2013 from http://whataboutajellybear.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/short-resume-of-my-visit-at-cele.html

Llewellyn-Jones, C., Agombar, M. and Deane, M. (2011). Writing in the disciplines and learning technologists: towards effective collaboration. In Deane, M. and O’Neill, P.(eds) Writing in the Disciplines. London: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 237-49 

Oxford Brookes University (2010a) Strategy for Enhancing the Student Experience 2010 – 2015, Retrieved on 29 May 2012 from www.brookes.ac.uk/about/strategy/development/docs/sese2010-15.pdf

Oxford Brookes University (2010b) Continuing personal and professional development framework. Retrieved on 29 May 2012 from www.brookes.ac.uk/services/ocsld/resources/cppd_framework/

Contact Details

Irmgard Huppe, Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, Marston Road, Oxford. Phone: +44 (0)1865 482581, Email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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