Interview with Sharon Flynn, #EdTechBook chapter author

The Really Useful #EdTechBook, edited by David HopkinsAs part of a series of posts, I will be talking to authors of The Really Useful #EdTechBook about their work, experiences, and contribution to the book. In this fifth post I talk to Sharon Flynn, Assistant Director at the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, National University of Ireland, Galway.

DH – Hi Sharon. How does the use of technology, in all its various forms, affect your day-to-day working life?

SF – Almost everything I do, on a daily basis, is affected by technology. From the radio alarm waking me in the morning, the coffee machine that provides the kick to get me started, the always-on aspect of my mobile phone, the constant expectation of availability by email/phone during (and outwith) office hours, my almost constant presence on twitter, my new slow cooker that allows me plan family meals, through to the glorious availability of anything I want to watch on sky+, my day is mostly ruled by technology. And that’s before I get into the proper work aspects of technology for teaching and learning! 

Even when I go running, which really helps to clear my head, I’m using an app to track my route, pace and progress. In the last month I’ve been using an app to track my daily steps, so I know if I need to go for a quick walk in the evening to make up my daily target.

I am always connected. In some ways, it helps me to control my life – at work and at home. But I have to be very aware and very careful that it doesn’t control me. I think I succeed – most of the time.

I love technology. I always have – even when it wasn’t particularly exciting. Moreover, I love to share my love of technology with others. Not everybody appreciates that. But I believe it helps me in my work. I know the limits of technology, which is a good thing. And I know when technology will not help to solve a problem.

DH – Have you found any one aspect of technology, not necessarily one tool or one piece of hardware, to be more valuable than anything else?

SF – In my day-to-day work, social networks (Twitter in particular) has allowed me to build up an amazing Personal Learning Network (PLN) which is probably the most valuable resource I have available to me. Through my PLN I can keep up-to-date with current news and trends in all aspects of my work, not just technologies. Every day I learn something new. It has also given me the possibility of working collaboratively with some fantastic people. Apart from the networking that is offered by attending conferences, which is limited, the opportunities provided by this network of people could not happen in any other way.

DH – It wasn’t until I started using Twitter back in 2008/9 that I started to realise that there was more to my role as a Learning Technologist than I first thought. By following and engaging with others like me, and questioning what I was doing, I developed by chance (there was no ‘grand’ plan or anything like that) my PLN.

I know your chapter is looking at Learning Technologists and the culture(s) we work in, and whether we’re “preaching to the converted or affecting a culture of change”, but is an active online presence a good thing? Is there such a thing as too much information?

SF – I think that an active online presence has been very good for me, but I accept that it’s not for everybody. I was definitely a slow starter, more of a lurker for quite a while. An introvert by nature, I prefer to listen than to talk. But I have slowly built up a valuable PLN that has afforded me more opportunities than would otherwise be possible – especially for somebody who lives on the very edge of Europe, where networking activities are restricted by geography.

In the last 4 years I have introduced many academics to Twitter, through our module on Learning Technologies. For some it has no value at all, they see it as frivolous and a complete waste of time. Others dip in and out, visitors to the the stream. And then there is a core group who become residents, who I meet on a regular basis in my stream, who will DM rather than email, and who are now part of each other’s PLN.

But recent stories of women being targeted in online spaces are very worrying. I like to think that the online world is a great equaliser, particularly in the student/teacher divide. The recent spotlight on the harassment of women such as Kathy Sierra has been truly shocking, and has caused me to question my assumptions. I have never been seriously harassed online, but I am nowhere near as high profile as Kathy Sierra. It does make me wonder how I would react.

DH – I completely agree that, for some, the value of these online spaces for connection and collaboration doesn’t excite or interest them, and something like Twitter won’t fit the need of the individual or the lesson.

Is there a direction you’d like learning technology,or specifically the professional of Learning Technologists to take? I know other #EdTechBook authors are looking at the ‘digital pedagogue’ (David Walker and Sheila MacNeil) and as ‘magicians’ (Rachel Challen), and even as the ‘jack-of-all-trades’ (Sue Beckingham), but where do you see the generic LT role (if there is one) – is it becoming more professional, or more academic?

SF – This is a great question. My own background is as an academic in the discipline of Computer Science, and I worked as a lecturer for more than a decade before moving to my current role in Teaching and Learning. I am not a Learning Technologist, though I lead the learning technologies team at my university. But my role is much broader than technology for teaching and learning.

I think my background helps when I am working with academic staff, because I understand their environment from experience and I know their challenges and pressures. I believe that, to be a successful Learning Technologist, awareness and understanding of the pedagogical context is vital. Everything we do has to start with the pedagogy. A successful technology intervention should be almost invisible.

At the same time, I believe that it is important for Learning Technologists to have the opportunity and support to carry out research that can be more widely disseminated. So, from that point of view I think we must continue to straddle the professional/academic divide, while keeping our roots firmly in Teaching and Learning.

Interview with Sharon Flynn, #EdTechBook chapter author

DH – There is, or rather should be, a freedom in our roles as employees, with an employer, to engage in professional development that both supports the employers needs and the needs of the employee. What direction this takes will be unique to both employer and employee combination.

My own development began when I started to question the role and what I should be doing. Once I realised there wasn’t actually a known, or defined, remit other than reactive and semi-proactive work I searched for opportunities to grow myself and the role. This led me to Twitter and a very unique learning environment of my own PLN (not that I knew anything about PLNs at that point). I am not academic, in either approach or outlook, not do I want to necessarily go down that route, but I do acknowledge I work in an academic environment and I need to be able to talk to academic about established research to back up claims or arguments about the introduction or modification to tools and systems used for and with students. Do you think this is enough, or do we need a balance within a team of those with a greater ‘technology’ angle and others who are more ‘academic’?

SF – I think that Learning Technologists, in an academic environment, have to be very aware of the context within which they work. They also need to have the necessary tools and methods to evaluate what they do and to measure the impact of their work. This is a strong basis for dissemination of good practice within the PLN, but it also provides the business case for our continued existence. Having a keen awareness of the wider academic context also provides opportunities for more strategic work and longer term projects.

I know that I value being able to work as part of a cross-functional team – with learning technologists, AV technicians, educational developers and academic staff within my unit, as well as a myriad of people – technical, academic and administrative staff – in my institution.

DH – Are Learning Technologists appropriately supported in this environment, are institutions capable of supporting the development of such a wide range of individual skills or directions, and is too much left to the individuals own motivation to source and execute their own learning opportunities? On the back of this, for those departments or institutions without (large) teams of LTs to support them, is enough done to support academics in their own developments to enhance their teaching paractices, or is it again left to the individuals to do what they can?

SF – Given that Learning Technologists are still trying to define their role, I think it’s fair to say that institutions don’t have a full understanding of the potential of a good LTA team. In the absence of appropriate development programmes, it’s natural that we should find our own learning opportunities through familiar tools and platforms, building our own PLNs. In one sense that’s a very positive and empowering experience. But more formal, organised approaches to professional development for LTs are emerging. These are mostly driven by the community itself, rather than being imposed, and can be informed by the types of evaluation and measurement of impact suggested previously.

The culture of a department or organisation will be a significant determinant in the resources available to develop academic staff in the enhancement of their teaching practice. In a research-focussed institution, like my own, it may well be left up to individuals to do what they can. But if teaching is valued within the culture of a Department or School, a lot can be achieved to support and enhance good teaching practice.

In that situation, even a small LT team (we are 4 + me) can support, empower and help to develop academic staff in a university with 17,000 students. It means working strategically and, as I hope to show in my chapter, we can make a difference.

DH  – Thanks Sharon, I’m sure, like me, many will agree with you and also hope that initiatives like CMALT and PG Cert courses on Learning and Technology can continue to support an individual’s understanding of their role, and how this fits into their own institutional setting as well as the wider industry sector(s). 

More news about The Really Useful #EdTechBook will be posted here and other social media platforms, using the #EdTechBook hashtag. Please follow and join in for news on the book’s development as well as each individual author’s own interpretation of the process and their own chapters.

Image source: Derek Bruff (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)