Thursday, January 23, 2020

My thoughts on an IT Strategy for Learning & Teaching

This week we had a meeting of IT staff from around the University, with our director of IT telling us about the University's new IT strategy. There was a lot of good things there - major new investment in infrastructure to reverse years of underspending on IT, and a commitment from senior management that this investment will be ongoing, rather than a temporary fix. However, one thing that was missing was any mention of learning & teaching. Of course, many of the infrastructure improvements will be of benefit to learning & teaching, but it would be nice to have a strategy for the parts of our service that specifically support learning & teaching. The director did say that the strategy isn't finished yet, so maybe learning & teaching support is still to be covered. However, in the absence of a current strategy, here is my thoughts/wish list...

Our current support for learning and teaching seems fragmented and often contradictory. In addition, it leaves gaps, particularly when it comes to supporting the scholarship of learning and teaching. The fragmentation means that we have different teams supporting learning and teaching who technically have different roles, but whose roles seem to overlap. We need someone with a proper overview of all learning & teaching support to eliminate this overlap. The current structure also means that the expertise in learning and teaching that there is within IT services is buried under too many layers of management to have influence, so this role needs filled by someone who either shares that expertise, or is at least knowledgeable enough to recognize and use it. 

Supporting scholarship of learning and teaching, (teachers in higher education developing expertise in the pedagogy relating to their field and  contributing to educational literature and practice) is a University priority that we should share. Part of that scholarship is engaging with new or innovative use of technology in education, so we need a coherent structure to provide both technical and logistical support for that, with staff available to meet with teachers to discuss their needs, and then collaborate closely with them to develop solutions. Part of this means that we need to recognise that learning technology and business systems are fundamentally different and need managed in different ways - learning technology is an early adopter of new ideas, and is constantly evolving, whereas business systems are fundamentally conservative and aims for stability.

The next generation digital learning environment (NGDLE) is already present in higher education, even though it is still not really clearly defined. Broadly speaking this is a digital learning environment made out of small specialised tools linked together using LTI or similar technology.
Like every other University we are already moving to the NGDLE  through increasing use of LTI tool, both on and off campus. We need to embrace this properly, and decide whether we want to be leaders or followers. We also need to have a system in place to cope with the fact that the future DLE is going to be a network of different tools, with different licences, contracts etc. What we must not do, but are currently at risk of, is become the big name university that every dodgy supplier with more skills in sales than in IT targets for their customer list.

One thing that I have felt has been missing from IT services for the last few years has been a senior member of staff with a background of working in the teaching side of the University. In the past we had deputy directors of IT services who had started off elsewhere in the university, and even in one case, still involved in teaching. More recently our senior staff have all been IT professionals, which possibly is why our support for learning & teaching has lost focus. I'm not sure we need someone as senior as a deputy director, but we do need someone with deep knowledge of learning technology and related pedagogy in a more senior role. This person could then address the fragmentation of support, provide a suitable communication channel with teaching staff, and take charge of the NGDLE related changes.

At the moment there seem to be two rather extreme models of management in IT Services - one very much a hands on member of the team in the hardware sections, and in the software side, a very hands off hierarchical structure with managers also doing a lot of administration. I don't think either is ideal, but for learning technology I do think a degree of direct involvement is essential to remain on top of the subject - maybe the solution is to resurrect the idea of an Academic Related post, and get someone who's got some academic credibility into a senior IT role, with a professional administrator to support them.

At one time this was the type role I aspired to, however in recent years, the way my career has gone has not given me the opportunity to develop the skills needed for such a senior role - my management development ended when JISC stopped funding development projects. That brings me round to one final piece of strategy - we need to invest in our own people, and develop the future leaders ourselves. Otherwise, we risk ending up in a situation I've seen develop elsewhere, buried under an ever increasing load of bullshitters...