Interview with Sheila MacNeill and David Walker, #EdTechBook chapter authors

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 sixth post I talk to Sheila MacNeill (Senior Lecturer, Glasgow Caledonian University) and David Walker (Head of Technology Enhanced Learning, Sussex University), who have chosen to co-author a chapter for the book on Learning Technologists as ‘digital pedagogues’.

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

SM – Good question. In reality, without using technology I wouldn’t be able to do my work. Almost everything I do at work relies on technology. Face to face communication is still very important, but I do all my “stuff” via technology, be that my desktop computer, my iPad or phone. If the “t’internet” is down at work I’m a bit stuffed! I would probably use up a months data allowance on my phone in a morning – or go home and work there. Luckily that doesn’t happen very often. 

DW – Like Sheila technology permeates pretty much everything I do and figures in much of my thinking on a daily basis. When it comes to the use of technology my focus is less on how it affects my own working practices but on how it is used – and to what effect – by students and staff within my institution. Technology is, though, my conduit to the wider world and, through the connections it has mediated, I have developed many valuable relationships, which have in turn resulted in lots of rich ideas and rewarding initiatives. I’m probably at my happiest though when I’m working with people, talking about teaching and learning issues with technology waiting patiently on the sidelines, ready to be introduced to the play when it can make a positive difference.

DH – Do you see any discrepancy between what we, as learning technology professionals, ask of ourselves and what we ask of our colleagues or students? Is there a balance where we can continue our own advancement in the tools we use and the tools we expect or ask others to use?

SM: I wouldn’t say discrepancy, but I think sometimes we forget that some of our colleagues maybe don’t have the same working practices and habits in terms of using and experimenting with technology. I’m really comfortable blogging, tweeting, Google+-ing – they are part of my practice and how I keep in touch with my personal learning network. For many of my colleagues they are not. That’s fine, we just have to keep context to the forefront. Technology has the most impact in learning and teaching (and anywhere really) when it makes sense in that context. I think that there is less of the dragging people kicking and screaming to learning technology these days. Partly that’s due to better UI design and partly due the amount of technology that permeates everyday life. I think “people like us” should always be willing to experiment and take the lead with technology, that’s part and parcel of the job. Not everyone needs to do that. We just have to ensure that we share the potential of new, shiny things in the context which our colleagues are working. Equally we need to be able to share why things might not work so well.

DW – I’ve always believed it’s a question of both personal preference and where we as individuals find value. It’s an expectation – and I think a completely appropriate one – that Learning Technologists should evaluate new tools and engage in horizon scanning activities. Many, if not most, of these tools will never be adopted into mainstream practices but it is this process of playful experimentation and informed choice that we should seek to instill within others. I want colleagues and students to be receptive to the potential benefits of technology for learning and teaching but to approach new tools and ideas critically. As Sheila says we need to be able to talk about the limitations of any technology as well as its strength. In an HE landscape increasingly saturated with technology, and where there can be a temptation to look for technological solutions to every educational ill, Learning Technologists need – now more than ever – to have a firm grasp of pedagogy and to take an evidence-based approach to promoting or arguing against the implementation of any new technology.

DH – Is there enough support from the department, faculty, or institution for this level of activity? I realise that each institution or employer will differ, but is the ‘role’ sufficiently defined to allow and encourage development like this? My own experience here is that it has been down to individuals within the management structure that encourage this extracurricular activity, rather than the structure or role itself (for which I am extremely grateful to those very special people!).

SM – Well, that depends partly on the institution and partly on the individual. I think there is a lot of fuzziness between formal and informal support too. Formally I think most institutions would say that they are committed to using new/digital technology effectively. For instance in my own institution one of the key principles in our strategy for learning is “digital learning/technology”. The implementation, sustainability and commitment to that is less well defined. In recent job descriptions for LTs here, the role of experimentation isn’t explicit either – tho’ it is a question that is always asked at interview. Lots of people (LTs, lecturers, support staff) are willing to try new things and experiment. Some departments invest and supply tablet devices to staff – others don’t. I would agree that it is down to individuals most of the time. However I do think that there is a real opportunity to (re)engage senior management in the debate. “Digital” is a very powerful (yes not very well defined) word just now. Along with Bill Johnston and Keith Smyth I’ve been developing a framework to help staff have meaningful discussions around what it means to be a digital university.

DW – Tough question. In my experience this can vary significantly within, let alone across, institutions. Innovation is a ridiculously overused term in HE (I include myself in this rebuke) but you won’t find an institutional strategy that doesn’t include it and usually in conjunction with some reference to technology. The 2014 UCISA Survey of Technology Enhanced Learning ( shows that availability of TEL support is the second most important factor (behind feedback from students) encouraging the development of TEL practices and processes. More effort is certainly required to provide people with the space and time to engage with these types of development activities and to take advantage of that support where it is available. I’ve long argued that there’s also a real need for institutions to start acknowledging those who do experiment and enhance their teaching practices through formal reward processes (going beyond mere recognition through mechanisms such as teaching awards – important as they are). The job descriptions for Learning Technologists here at my own institution include explicit statements regarding contribution to the development of understanding and practice in the field of learning technology through engagement in relevant CPD opportunities and they are given time to engage in this professional development as I believe their ongoing development is crucial to furthering the wider goals of the institution.

Interview with Sheila MacNeil and David Walker, #EdTechBook chapter authors

DH – Your chapter looks at the rise of the ‘digital pedagogue’, and Sheila’s blog post – – opened the chapter and question up to anyone who wanted to contribute. By asking four questions of those who consider themselves involved in learning technology (and is not limited to those who are specifically Learning Technologists) you’ve been looking at the attitudes and approaches to the individuals as well as the roles themselves. Have the responses been as you hoped or expected?

SM – The response was great and we were both really pleased that people took the time to share some very considered points of view via the comments and also some shorter, but no less pertinent points via twitter. I also think this approach illustrated the new open, connected ways of working we have now.

DW – We’ve both been delighted with the amount of thoughtful responses we’ve received. The comments have been very revealing and largely mirrored my own views about the evolution and current nature of the role. It’s a topic people within the field are very passionate about. Some of the power relations between different roles are fascinating and for some a source of discomfort. However the overriding sense you get is one of professional respect for the role of the Learning Technologist and of a strong community of practice.

DH – Thanks Sheila and David. Lastly then, where, or how, do you see the Learning Technology ‘teams’ developing? Is the drive from the individual, academic, or ‘IT’ departments?

SM – Probably from all three! In my own institution we have a school-based approach, with each of our three schools having a team of learning technologist who work with staff. Each school takes a slightly different approach. The team I work in is part of a central academic department so we co-ordinate and liaise with each of the schools. We also liaise with our IS department and the Library.

Over the next year we are embarking on quite an ambitious online development programme and I very much see a team based co-design approach being at the heart of that process. Our IS department is pretty hands off when it comes to learning technology, but there are key areas where we need to develop more of a team based approach with them too; particularly around the use of data and any developing analytics work we want to pursue. We are also engaging with students far more now which is really positive and I see lots of potential for working with students in relation to the development and sustainability of effective practice and systems for learning and teaching.

DW – The enhancement agenda across the sector is for me the key driver. Quality enhancement has long underpinned practice in Scottish HE and it is pleasing to see this increasingly figure now in England rather than a focus on assurance. In a deregulated system ‘teaching excellence’ and the ‘student experience’ become arguably even more significant than before, impacting on league table placing’s which in turn have a knock-on effect on recruitment (student and staff). Learning technology figures strongly in both areas and there is a growing demand for support in the area of researcher development.

At institutional level, certainly among the senior colleagues at the institutions I have worked with, there has been/is a genuine interest and strong awareness of the learning technology field and the significance of developments for the sector. Learning technology teams will continue to be located/co-located in a variety of departments alongside other professionals whose roles may, to some extent, overlap (and lots of useful ideas and initiatives have emerged from such synergistic groupings). Internal drivers (notably student feedback) and specific strategic ambitions will of course also shape the development of such teams but I have a sense learning technology has re-entered a growth phase and there is recognition (across levels) that professional support of this nature is desirable, valuable, potentially essential and certainly worthy of investment.

I do foresee a split between those (ignoring job titles) who operate at a more senior level who will likely possess (and in future be required to possess) qualifications such as postgraduate certificates, CMALT etc. and who are likely to be involved in discussions around curriculum/policy development and those in more operational type roles. This will continue to evolve as it has over the last decade but one thing I’m certain of, learning technology – under various guises – is here to stay.

DH  – Thanks Sheila and David, I’m really excited at the collaborative aspect of your chapter as well the way in which you opened up the subject of the ‘digital pedagogue’ to your respective networks and have sought to use these wider experiences to form and support (?) your ideas.

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: Alex Ahom (CC BY-NC 2.0)