Monday 4 October 2021

The hierarchy of priorities on a digital learning technologist during the national lockdown of 2020-21

The BLE Executive team, Sarah Sherman (Director), Nancy Weitz, (Digital Learning Specialist) and Julian Bream (Coach for Digital Education Leadership) have been reflecting about how learning technologists coped during the thick of the global pandemic. We've been talking through the pressures our colleagues faced when demands were being thrown at them - thick and fast, from all directions - all requiring immediate attention and resolution. There was no time for anything, yet everything had to be done. In the early days of the national lockdown in March 2020, learning technology and digital education staff were working all hours of the day - whilst somehow trying to manage their private lives (caring responsibilities, household obligations and attending to their own wellbeing). It was a nightmarish time for everyone involved in learning, teaching and assessment delivery - but, in our opinion, our coworkers were at the sharp end. During our discussions, Julian described how he had envisaged a hierarchy of pressures - or impacts - on an average learning technologist, similar in design to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. 

The basic level of concern, as we saw it, lay in the working environment: access to equipment, functional technology, space to work. Some of our colleagues were forced to work on the edge of a sofa, resting on a coffee table where others converted children's bedrooms into a second office whilst their partners worked in another room. A space to work was fundamental to establish before anything else.

Prior to the pandemic, learning technologists rarely had a quiet working day: training colleagues, developing content, designing courses, administering learning environments, producing audio and video material, etc, etc. The unprecedented volume of work caused by the pandemic hit our colleagues hard - but it wasn't until later on that the learning technologists were realised by all to be the heroes of the pivot to online learning, teaching and assessment. 

Interactions with colleagues - teammates, managers, those that they supported (academics/students) became a source of pressure. These interactions were intense - online meeting followed online meeting, with no time for comfort breaks or space to think (or do the actual work). Interactions were difficult because in a traditionally in-person role, these all had to take place virtually; many between colleagues who had never met in person, since recruitment (in this area) was not frozen and new starters were joining all the way through lockdown.

Learning technologists had to work through the initial lack of institutional support - from personnel understanding to the creation of policy and strategy of remote learning and teaching. These developments came later but for the learning technologist, there was no time to wait. 

Learning technologists had to work through despite (or in spite) of institutional culture. For universities where a willingness to be open in practice, flexible about sharing and adaptable to change was not the norm, the learning technologists had to strive on regardless.

And there was certainly no time for professional development or career recognition; CMALT portfolios and applications for HE Advance Fellowship were abandoned due to just needing to get on with the job.

To illustrate this hierarchy of pressure points, Julian and Sarah drew out (remotely!) a pyramid placing working space at the bottom (as the fundamental layer) and career progression at the pinnacle. However, inverting the pyramid offered a better visual representation of the force and weight of the individual pressures.

As a result - and thanks to Nancy for designing exactly what they wanted to convey in their model - we present the Hierarchy of Priorities on a Digital Learning Technologist During the National Pandemic (select the image itself to see a larger version):

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