Engaging staff in technology enhanced learning: Workshop write-up

This is the write-up of a workshop I ran for the HEA’s Gwella programme in November 2009. The programme is a change programme supporting e-learning units to embed technology enhanced learning (TEL) at their institutions. As with all workshops I run, I got the delegates to do most of the work, so a big thank you to them.

There is a predilection for educational and staff developers to take a positivist approach to this kind of workshop, which for delegates can often seem at odds with, what may seem to some people, a deterministic institutional culture resistant to change. After having spent some time on the previous evening and earlier in the day with the delegates it was apparent that there was a huge amount of experience in the room, both in e-learning and wider institutional change processes.  To try and explore discussions we don’t normally have I decided that a novel (for me) approach would be to identify those things that are less successful, starting with:

What’s not working?

Immediately eliciting a few comedic responses, or at least in part comedic:

“Making them bring their own sandwiches” Lunchtime sessions are a staple for staff developers, a poor lunch for people who are giving up their lunch hour will normally be met with negative feedback, which may seep into the rest of the session.

“Too much PowerPoint” we’ve all been there, we all know what that means, and yet, it is so easy for us to fall into the habit.

In groups we then started to pick-up some of the more serious issues

“Talking about technology they haven’t got” this had a lot of resonance with the audience, some people expressing annoyance at the ‘Macarati’ who always seem to be sitting and looking smug at learning technology conferences with their powerbooks etc. This is easy to translate institutionally, when many staff we work with in institutions have low powered or out of date laptops. It also manifests when developers start talking about packages they don’t have, such as “well if we had moodle here we’d be able to….” or “if we were allowed to use Skype here…”

“Technology demonstrations where the technology fails” or “telling them that this technology is cutting edge”

Giving the wrong expectations, such as “doing a session where the title doesn’t reflect the session” or “using a clever title that obscures the meaning”

One of the problems that some sessions suffer from is “a lack of authenticity”, where learning technology is being discussed in the abstract, or the session convener is not using the technology themselves, it may also be that the delegates need a strong discipline focus, after all each of the disciplines [feel they] have unique needs. This latter issue can sometimes be overcome by co-presenting with someone from the discipline. Similar issues include “learning from the session not needing to be applied until a much later date” and “session is not pragmatic enough”.

What we say and what they hear

Following the ‘not positivist’ approach, we had a discussion around how we interact (as technology evangelists) with senior managers, we put some examples up of what we say, and what the SMT [might] hear.

Technologist: “We need to move to a more learner centric, open source VLE”   

SMT: “They want and excuse to get rid of xxx and spend all their time playing with code”

Technologist: “We should be investing in mobile learning and augmented reality”

SMT: “They want an excuse to buy an iPhone”

Technologist: “We should be podcasting all our lectures”

SMT: “Maybe I can cut staff”

Though these are partly tongue in cheek, they serve to illustrate the point that if we want change in TEL to happen in institutions it needs to align not only with the needs of staff who are teaching, but also with the strategic needs of the Senior Managers.

Confessions of a Staff and Educational Developer

We picked up some of the things that we know don’t work in workshops at the outset of the session, but as developers we also have to work in many other ways, having many tools at our disposal for making learning and teaching interventions. Here we “fessed up” to our ‘worst’ intervention.

I started the confession session by owning up to giving some staff the ‘tools’ to assess the accessibility of their materials in one northern institution – this, firstly, led to a fixed approach to accessibility, closely followed by the ‘ratting out’ of co-workers who didn’t have accessible materials.

Other confessions included:

“Developing a 40 page L&T strategy that nobody read” – could have had a one page summary.

“Running a session called ‘Pedagogical Modelling’” not ideal for staff who just want to use technology in their teaching, no one turned up.

“Showing someone how to put a quick link into the VLE for a resource, ended up by having 75 resources for one module”

“Running a session based on a technology that we didn’t have, nor were we going to get it”

What does work?

It would have been cruel and unusual to have left a session based only on the negative aspects of what we do (although some delegates thought they might try that in their host institutions), so after reflecting on the fact that we had looked at issues around our weaknesses and some of the threats to what we do and we finished by focusing on our strengths and the opportunities that afforded. We also recognised that the answers to supporting change lay within the room. So, what does work?

These were some of the suggestions from delegates:

“Focus on the issues that people want addressing, not technology”

“Understand the pedagogical goal”

“Demonstrate that interventions on the PGCert influence student feedback”

“Work with the Senior Management Team – see them as allies”

“Accept that academics are tribal, work in the context of their discipline”

“When you can work one to one, and when you can’t, relate what you’ve learned working one to one”

“Make the process a dialogue”

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