Learning to fail

I often feel out of my comfort zone, working in ed tech. Sometimes there is the expectation that you know how to work every piece of software ever made or can pluck suggestions on what tools are out there off the top of your head at a moment’s notice. There can also be the expectations that you are an expert videographer, editor, instructional designer, web developer as well as having an in-depth knowledge of pedagogy and educational theory.

Part of this may be down to people’s knowledge and expectations of technology, particularly the educational technologies that are often made available in universities. For many, technology = efficiency and ‘quickness’, but thinking about how technology might work in any given educational situation can sometimes require some time to think, experiment and, indeed, fail and make mistakes.

I also know that a big part of this feeling is down to my own Imposter Syndrome and feeling inadequate or feeling like people will think a lot less of me if I make a ‘mistake’. I also didn’t come from a computer science or IT background and have learned everything I know on the job. My own digital confidence and capabilities has grown massively over the last 4 years and I wouldn’t be able to do half as much as I can do now if I hadn’t ended up in this line of work. My history degree, despite how much I loved it, definitely didn’t give me the kind of digital skills needed for many modern workplaces. I still sometimes feel a bit of panic and lack of self-confidence when I’m asked a difficult question at work and often need time to go away and think about it before I can figure out the ‘right’ answer.

I started a PG Cert in Academic Practice a few months ago and have been reading books such as ‘What the Best College Teachers Do’ by Ken Bain and reflecting on the outcomes of the research he conducted. Bain describes the best teachers as being able to create a “natural, critical learning environment” – situations that challenge students but also give them the support and time to try, fail and receive feedback in ways that are completely separate from any kind of final grades or marks. This, as well as some projects I’ve been working on recently, got me thinking about how staff in universities don’t always have the option to work in the kind of natural, critical learning environment that they are supposed to be cultivating for students. The time pressure of the academic year and the stress of working within departments with fewer staff and resources doesn’t exactly cultivate an environment where trying, failing and having to start all over again is actively encouraged. That sort of thing takes up too much time and may impact negatively on ‘student satisfaction’. It’s also one of the main challenges up against jobs like mine. We want to encourage people to try new things and experiment, but do they feel confident and secure enough in their environment to be able to do it?

Our neoliberal society prioritises efficiency and ‘value for money’ over all else and, in my opinion, such values are completely at odds with what a university is supposed to stand for; knowledge creation, curiosity, discovery and collaboration. From a young age, children are conditioned into perceiving failure as the worst thing in the world. I remember feeling stressed about wanting to reach the ‘correct’ level in my Year 6 SATs or worrying that I wouldn’t achieve the 5 Cs or above at GCSE. You’ve got to make decisions about the rest of your life at 16 and then again at 18 and the implicit message is that if you drop out or change your mind you’re a failure. Take this from a former university drop-out who thought her life was over at 18 and that the ‘failure’ would remain a black mark on my record forever. It took me three years to get the confidence to apply to university again after that. Now, I would always advise any young person to try things out and not worry too much if it doesn’t work out or if they want to do something else a year down the line. It’s all really valuable experience.

I’m willing to hold up my end of the bargain and admit that I can be a bit of a perfectionist and I do suffer terribly from Imposter Syndrome. I’m working on all of that and I am learning that sometimes, good enough is good enough and certain tasks and bits of work don’t need to be perfect. I’d also rather explain to someone that I do need some extra time to think and look into something, rather than bullshitting my way through an answer or forcing them into a rushed solution that isn’t suitable for what they need. However, I also believe that feeling the pressure in the workplace isn’t always a matter of individual ‘failings’ and is a by-product of a toxic neoliberal, overly managerial culture that doesn’t value taking your time and having room to fail and learn from it. This isn’t just within education – I think it could probably be applied to most sectors in the Western world. I refuse to spend the next 30-40 years of my working life in this way. We can always do better and we can definitely learn to take our time, think and fail more often.

Are you the Moodle help?

I started drafting this post last month after I attended a White Rose Learning Technology forum at University of Huddersfield and there was some discussion around learning technologists and professional identity. The discussions took place in the context of a workshop on gaining CMALT accreditation, but some further discussions about learning technology roles more generally at Digifest last week spurred me on to finish the post.

The main question that’s been hanging over me is: is learning technology/technology enhanced learning suffering from a professional identity crisis? As a relative newcomer to the profession (less than four years) and after spending around 5-6 years before that working towards becoming a librarian and building a professional identity in that field, I’ve often found it difficult to feel like I know where I fit in terms of the learning technology profession.

Imposter syndrome aside (and I’ve got another post dedicated to that also in draft at the moment – you’re in for a treat!), the discussions I’ve been part of at recent events have made me realise I’m not alone in feeling this way. Many people in learning technology/ed tech/TEL roles, whatever you want to call them, have come from such a variety of backgrounds that it’s no wonder there’s a perceived struggle to assert ourselves as a collective and consistent ‘voice’. Often, it’s even a struggle to get staff across our institutions to understand what we do and where our expertise lies. People have come from library backgrounds, teaching, IT Support desk and training roles, even academia. Some are actually academics and have lecturing roles and others are on professional services/support staff contracts. I think part of the issue could be the language we use to define ourselves. I saw Melissa Highton speak at Digifest last week and they raised some good points about the semantics around terms like ‘Technology Enhanced Learning’ and ‘Virtual Learning Environment’. Melissa’s latest blog post goes deeper into some of this.

Even when you look at jobs that are advertised through the ALT newsletter and various mailing lists, there are some that have a stronger focus on instructional design work, some that have a strong focus on supporting systems and others that focus on staff development, training and pedagogical knowledge. I know that mine is a combination of all three and is likely to evolve over the next year or so, depending on the projects I’m going to be working on.

Don’t get me wrong, I really like working in this field and I’ve met some of the most intelligent, forward thinking and professional people I’ve ever worked with during my time in learning technology roles. I’ve also loved being able to work with teaching staff in both FE and HE and I’ve learned so much in the last 3 and a half years. I also think the work of organisations like ALT and Jisc do allow us to find common ground and a common language across institutions and sectors.

In an attempt to be more optimistic in 2017, I do think there is more that connects us than divides us. Perhaps this isn’t a ‘problem’ that necessarily needs to be solved and we just need to celebrate the diverse nature of our roles and the messy nature of education. Maybe the old librarian part of my brain was wanting to categorise and catalogue everything so it made sense. Who am I kidding, though? I was never any good at cataloguing anyway…

I’m interested to find out what other LT people think and whether my identity crisis is entirely of my own making!

Hare of the Blog

Well, I ultimately failed at participating in Digital Writing Month in any kind of meaningful way. Two days after my first post, my laptop broke and I have only just regained access to a working computer at home. I still had my iPad mini but I didn’t fancy being hunched over that and typing for extended periods of time – my poor neck and shoulder muscles!

Instead, I will crack on with what was going to be one of the longer term aims of this blog anyway: blogging for professional development. I am always lamenting the fact that the working days/weeks/months are whizzing past and I haven’t had any proper time to sit and reflect on the work I’ve done and where I’m going next. Plus, a blog is a great space for the longer stuff that doesn’t necessarily fit on Twitter or Facebook. Someone (Ned Potter) suggested that I call my blog ‘Hare of the Blog’* but I feel like the novelty will soon wear off with that, as funny as it is, so I just thought I would name my first blog post that instead.

I recognise that I am in the fortunate position to be in a job where, on occasion, I have the time to think about and read around the subjects that impact directly or indirectly on my profession. One of my resolutions for 2016 is to use this space to reflect on my work and the wider issues in Technology Enhanced Learning, Higher Education and education more generally. I imagine that the 3 people who end up reading this blog will no doubt be working in TEL or related fields, but I also like to be aware of the ever-looming ‘bigger picture’ so expect musings and stream-of-consciousness style posts on the impact of politics and social and cultural change on education and communities. I don’t have any other hobbies.

For those who are wondering who the hell I am and what I do, you can visit my team’s website to find blog posts from me and my colleagues and more information about the work we do in UK Higher Education. My aim is to blog around once a month, so watch this space!

*For posterity, I will put this in writing here: when I open my dog grooming business in the future, it will be called Hare of the Dog. Got to love a surname that you can build puns from.