Hacking who we are


I recently ran my second ‘Changehack’. A changehack is a method developed by Peter Bryant, Donna Lanclos and David White for ‘Future Happens‘ to bring together people to develop innovative and workable ideas to make change happen. Like a technology hack-a-thon participants dive into problems, define them, and ‘nut them out’. A changehack uses similar principles of time limited activities, specific rules of participation, and is led and engaged in with positive energy.  The model works because it seeks to challenge head on and examine only what we have the autonomy to change, avoiding some of the standard blockers that prevent real and productive debate and solutions to a problem: systematic moaning, resistance to others ideas, the excuse ‘Oh, its a great idea, but it won’t work here’ or ‘that’s someone else’s problem’ .

The first hack was a 40 minute activity which I ran with learning technologists from Oxford University and Oxford Brookes University. It looked specifically at how express our value as experts in a variety of scenarios. The second hack was a day-long workshop with online education colleagues to evaluate and propose solutions to challenges faced in a programme of work we are undertaking. Despite the different foci, both hacks followed the same structure apart from one activity, and they worked incredibly well. I won’t relay the structure here as it’s not mine to tell, it can be found on the Future Happens site (via Web Archive as it has disappeared).

Images of Burnt activity post-it notes
Outputs of the ‘Burn’ activity in which participants wrote post-it notes on their experiences in a learning technology role to ‘clear the air’: Pink: The worst things that have happened: Blue: Hopes and dreams: Yellow: Success stories.

A theme that came up in both hacks is the challenge we experience in defining what we do, thus getting buy-in for the work and projects we undertake. Be that from our colleagues in the more technical and business side of the institution, academic colleagues, or those involved in organising teaching and learning.  ‘Learning Technologist’, ‘Learning Designer’, ‘Online Education Developer’, ‘TEL Advisor’, ‘Instructional Technologist’…. no matter the title of our role, what we do always seems to be shrouded in mystery and this causes problems when it when it comes to expressing our expertise, giving authority to our practice, and keeping control of the scope of what we are responsible for: ‘Oh that’s a job for the LT?’ or ‘Can you fix the lecture capture?’ are common nags.

In the sector the role of the person who works at the intersection of teaching, learning and technology is not clearly defined. It is a role that can be moved across a continuum of technological and pedagogical. Some colleagues are more one than the other – some have PhDs in education, some are qualified teachers, some have come from an information science/systems, editorial, or digital media background. Everyone tends to have a degree of coaching and change management experience, most have managed a project or few. However, when expert roles exist for many of the areas we absorb into our own practice (Project Manager, Business Analyst, Business Change Manager, Educational Consultant, Digital Media Officer, Web Developer etc), it becomes very difficult to express our own expertise in what is a moving and bitty context: ‘Well I do a bit of everything, and when one thing is needed more than the other I become that person’ said one of me team to me once. If we were animals we would be chameleons.

At Oxford I presented the learning technologists in the team as ‘experts in teaching and learning who focus on how digital tools and spaces can be used to enhance the student experience.’ This quite often had the dual effect of confusing my colleagues in the IT department we were based due to our lack of compatibility with ITIL frameworks, and giving us a degree of credibility ‘out there’ in the wider University. AT UCEM we are a different flavour, we are much more involved in the design of learning before it gets to the digital tools and spaces stage, with less focus on tech support. I imagine that in a move from any institution to another I could experience the same job title but quite a different role.

The collective solution proposed in both hacks was to create a clearer understanding of what we do, our responsibilities, our value and our part in realising the institutional vision for teaching and learning. Practical solutions include: publishing blog posts to raise awareness of what we do; producing a roles and responsibilities document when working as academic teams on learning design; more regular show-and-tell events with other teams;  and, undertaking a roles audit to understand where responsibilities lie across a process and communicating that effectively.

I strongly believe that one of the issues we need to overcome is a lack of confidence that we deserve authority and autonomy as experts in the field, experts who have a professional practice that is of no lesser standing than another field. Expressing what we do in clear plain English, and being able to advocate the benefits of what we do for the institution will support that.


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