COVID-19 three months in: what have we learnt?

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photo of a corridor in a modern building with a brigh orange wall on the right

Background

This post is a personal reflection in response to a question posed by Tom Langston on Twitter as a retweet of Dr Andy Clegg. Observing that other individuals tagged in the tweet have more involvement in policy and management, I was both humbled and interested in why my opinion might be sought. Deliberately I have chosen not to read the answers of others, such as @jamesclay‘s blog post, as I wanted to provide my own perspective. I shall be sure to read that after-the-fact of course and thank you for asking Tom!

To provide some context I have been working as a learning technologist for almost 10 years and my perspective comes from that space: the direct solution space. Although I am occasionally consulted on policy decisions, I am rarely a decision maker and I do not manage people, I do manage systems as a product owner of sorts. In addition to my learning technologist ‘hat’, I am an accessibility advocate and a trained User Experience researcher. I am passionate about inclusive design, moral transparency and pragmatic teaching and learning.

Entering lockdown

When it became clear that lockdown would be our new reality; decisions had to be made and actioned rapidly. It also became clear that learning technology expertise was a valuable commodity. As a discipline we were suddenly placed at the centre of supporting the continuation of teaching practice, as opposed to our previous position as the grand adviser-integrator-augmenters. I praise my own managers during the lead-up to and final situation of lockdown, who made quick and clear decisions with regard to which tools would be used, and for what tasks in the emergency teaching situation.

Observations during lockdown

I am going to define these as loose observations at this point as I do not yet have the benefit of hindsight. However, I do believe it is important to record your own thinking at a given point in time even if, ultimately circumstances end up proving you wrong.

The ultimate prioritisation list

An intense re-focusing meant that we were able to work with a clearly defined technical toolset in an efficient way. We also shifted to a more agile CMS in the interest of getting information out quickly via targetted microsites (WordPress Blogs). Under normal circumstances the requirement to use standard platforms and administrative processes take precedence, but there was no time for that. As a consequence within a short space of time a relevant, fresh and ‘living’ set of resources were built to support teaching as it exists right ‘now’.

Sharing is caring

The aforementioned set of resources, are out in the world as open educational resources which feels more important than ever in the time of COVID-19. When my Frequently Asked Questions for Microsoft Teams could make a difference for a primary school teacher without a learning technologist – that means a lot to me professionally and personally. This is why I got into this field and over recent years I have noticed a growing tendency for learning technologies information to be squirrelled away. Hopefully this trend may start to wane moving forward. On a technical level, a small but important innovation on our information site was adding the power of ad-free Google search so that the answers to questions could be found more easily.

Answering the right questions

Referring back to my Frequently Asked Questions, that is not to say that I myself am reinventing the wheel, I am linking to materials which technology vendors such as Microsoft and Blackboard have provided. I already valued these resources which have improved in quantity and quality over recent years. However, a key role of a learning technologist is to know how to contextualise these answers by answering localised questions. Essentially joining up the dots between the question asked, the language used to ask the question, and the language that technology uses to describe itself. So we add grand adviser-integrator-augmenter-translators to our list. I think now more than ever I value and acknowledge the open resources provided by vendors and other universities across the world.

A new conception of time

Due to the sheer volume of work coming in for a brief time the shape of my job changed. I was in a sort of rapid creation mode during the first three weeks of lockdown. This ‘mode’ was at turns the most productive and stressful experience of my learning technologies career and was certainly more akin to the adrenaline highs of my previous vocation as a artist and curator; like the feeling of the hours leading up to an opening night. This productivity was supported by a conscious filter where my clients knew I was busy so instead of asking me a question in the first instance, would attempt to find the answer on their own or sought support centrally from a service desk. This was a new situation for me. I like being known as a solutions person, a go-to person, but it suddenly dawned on me that because I am available and take pride in providing a quality service sometimes this means that my own productivity and wellbeing are put on the back-burner. With fewer help calls and more efficient means of answering the questions that were coming in (I’ll come to that later), I suddenly had the mental focus I needed to develop two new teaching sessions. I had time free of interruption to think hard about showcasing best practice in the session designs and this was a wonderful feeling. Finally I had some head-space and because I was producing enough work to meet my own self-imposed goals, I got to have lunches away from my desk for the first time in years.

There is a piece of learning here for me to take away and ruminate on. My role has since reverted back to something more reactive on the day-to-day. However, I am going to consider how I can reach a better state of equilibrium so that I can have blocks of work free of interruption. This tension has always existed in my work, between proactive and reactive, but I do think that in the longer term a project-based workflow more akin to development work, with Agile1 sprints accompanied by service models which support fewer interruptions may be positive. When you are in a service role there can be an intense feeling of guilt when you have taken an hour to work on workshop preparation and have 30 emails – even ‘quick’ questions at this volume consume work time.

Chat is my new best friend

Thinking of those ‘quick’ questions, I am pleased that HE is finally starting to adopt chat-based tools. I had been using Slack for User Experience (UX) professional networking for a number of years and looked forward to the day when a similar solution would be part of my Learning Experience work. COVID-19 has hastened this change in work practice and although only a small numbers of my clients use it so far, where it is used it is far more efficient. The tendency to write emails-as-treatise in academia is still quite prevalent and when I have found myself sliding into this habit (e.g. >10mins composing an email), I have saved the email as a note and called the person instead. If you can do this too, your learning technologist will thank you (trust me!). Also as a dyslexic, I have often been concerned about how I perceived via the medium of email. Emails end up being more like letters, language and vocabulary can be judged. Furthermore, my tendency to forget words from sentences as my brain works faster than my personal language centres has been a perpetual source of self-critique. With chat I can write the answer with less fear and can always correct a spelling or add a word after the fact. It makes solutions faster and language less precious.

Resourcefulness vs. idiosyncrasy

One of the downsides users sourcing of their own solutions is that the local setup does not always match the technology developer’s ideal. For example, folks find exciting help guides which suggest that they can schedule MS Teams meetings via their calendar. These features are not available due to differences in the local setup and this means that some of a learning technologist’s job is about tempering expectations. It does point to the end of branding and idiosyncrasy. To support more as learning technologists we potentially need to have fewer home-grown elements and this means that branding the VLE/ePortfolio/[insert eLearning tool here] is not as sustainable as it was in the past. This is also true due to the frequency of updates. Vendors are far more responsive to suggestions from users and interfaces change at a steady rate making it tricky to stay on-top of help documentation especially when in a continuous delivery, Software-as-a-Service model.

On the notion of home-grown, I would add ‘fudger’ to my definition of a learning technologist: adviser-integrator-augmenter-translator-fudger. A learning technologist has MacGyver abilities for sure, Hodges et al. (2020) also make this analogy, to transmute existing technologies to fit a need for which the technology was not originally designed. At any given time I am managing and sustaining so many of these ‘solutions’. With the increased demand for my services, the ‘paper clips’ have started to slip and I have come to realise that this is hidden work which could and should be managed using specialist tools. All of these fudges might actually be more expensive in terms of time expenditure than working on a more holistic solution. Furthermore when fudges are applied in the learning space, rather than say an administrative space, they can lack digital authenticity as in using a tool designed for one thing as another. The experience of using such a solution may differ from students’ broader experiences of technology and cause a level of dissatisfaction; a square peg. It is easier to smooth these things over when you are teaching in-person, harder when the interaction is front-and-centre and it doesn’t feel like the right solution.

A illustrative clip of the ‘paper clip’ in the CBS show MacGyver

Online learning?

Up until recently, I quoted the excellent article in the Educause Review by Hodges et al. (2020) and would say that we have been “emergency remote teaching” rather than producing online learning. Having said that, this is now shifting in a very exciting way, and the hybridised designs that I am starting to see for future teaching demonstrate astounding progress in a short time. Part of the challenge of redesign of teaching and delivery is that there is no longer a default. The defaults before were: just do whatever it is in-person, or print it out and give it to people. I cannot tell you how many times I advised on technology and even helped to setup a solution to hear that the person got worried and returned to the ‘safe’ solution of in-person oft to never revisit the technology again. This is no longer an option and it is scary. The closest that we have to a default is the VLE and sometimes I have to remind people that it exists amongst all the new and shiny; it is our dependable pal.

Experience at the picnic blanket level

Suddenly interactions and micro-interactions are gaining importance and this is a very good thing. I have been using Charles and Ray Eames Powers of Ten video for IBM (1977) as an analogy for this in teaching. Suddenly the focus has changed, we are at the picnic blanket level. The clicks are important, the minutes are important in the hours of a day of teaching content. This is key because although as educators we cannot compete with the attention-to-detail that UI/UX designers apply to micro-interactions in software applications, but like designers we are creating an experience and every interaction is part of that experience.

Eames & Eames, Powers of Ten video for IBM (1977)

The Corridor Effect™️

The Corridor Effect™️ may not be the final title of this phenomena, I am still considering it, because really it is about the lack of corridors. Think about how much information we glean from colleagues in corridors, how those encounters build social cohesion and provide other perspectives and most importantly differing interpretations of information. Right now we are all in our own bubbles and this can profoundly affect some students who find locating and prioritising information difficult. They may have relied on the organisation and perception of others to stay up-to-date before. That is no longer an option, unless we build in these opportunities. Discussion boards, encouragement of study groups, specific support groups for some students; all of these approaches and more can be used and must be used. The consequence of not doing so means that the gap between those who understand the rules of academic game and those who are still learning how to play will exponentially grow.

photo of a corridor in a modern building with a brigh orange wall on the right
Photo by Adrien Olichon on Unsplash

Teaching with empathy2

I think that as educators, now more than ever we need to think deeply about the experience of engaging with learning as a journey. For us, we may have travelled this particular learning path many times; we may have taught the same content over successive iterations of a course/module. For the students it is most likely their first time and add to that the current personal, professional and societal challenges and undoubtedly this is a big ask. I have seen some amazing examples of empathetic, yet rigorous, teaching over the past few months and despite the challenges currently facing Higher Education internationally, this gives me hope.

Conclusion

This post is an unabashed summary of my ideas, perhaps fledging ideas, and I do not doubt that these ideas have surfaced elsewhere in educational theory. However, I feel that sometimes writing from experience and considering how something exists and feels at a given time is a valuable endeavour and I plan to test and revisit these notions in the months-to-come. Thank you for reading.

Notes

1Agile is not a panacea, it is imperfect. However, I have had a glimpse of a new world of productivity and personally believe that problems should be viewed as a dataset rather than our raison d’etre as a profession. We will not be able to respond to the ongoing demands of this crisis if we are stretched in too many different directions.

2Empathy is a term that has been overused in design, but it is a term which has never been more relevant when used in its truest sense. Empty empathy when used in a purely semantic sense is worse than none. True empathy is about taking time to think deeply about the path as it is travelled by others. For more on this, I highly recommend reading the designer, Indi Young’s writing.