On Digital Frustration: An Interview with Learning Technologist Javiera Atenas

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of informal interviews with some of the colleagues I have conversations with on Twitter.

Just as I am an advocate of digital scholarship, I am also interested in researching what is often not publicly said about our engagement, as academics, with everyday technologies: the frustrations and obstacles we face.

I have been writing what I hope becomes a paper with the general working title of “On Digital Frustration”, and in this first installment I chat with  Javiera Atenas, who  is an Educational Technologist at SOAS, University of London. She is also Associate Lecturer in New Technologies and Social Media for Museums and researcher at the DidPatri Research Group, Universitat de Barcelona.

In this interview Javiera tells us what a lerning technologist does, why learning technologies are important, what are the main sources of frustration in this area and what should direct the creation of policies and guidelines. Finally, she discusses the challenges in the adoption of Open Educational Resources.

Ernesto Priego: Tell us a little bit about what you do. How do you define the job of the “learning technologist”?

Javiera Atenas: I am a learning technologist and BLE officer at SOAS (University of London) and an online lecturer at a distance course at the University of Barcelona; I basically teach social media and content management for museums and I’m doing a PhD in Education in Barcelona as well. I have a degree in Library Science but I was always curious about the e-learning world so after I finished my master's degree in information and knowledge management  I have basically been doing e-learning as a teacher, student and technologist for the last 8 years.

The role of the learning technologist is a strange role, we not only support  the use and implementation of new technologies for teaching and learning but also engage and train academics in the use of technologies. Somehow our role is to take academics out of their comfort zone and to help them to change the traditional teaching and learning paradigms by using technologies.

We, the technologists, deal with a lot of tasks, apart from dealing with the daily virtual learning environment (VLE): issues and helpdesk, or with developing teaching materials and training guides. We train academics in the use of learning technologies; we do research about new tools for teaching and learning; we study the latest trends in technology, evaluate tools and gadgets and help lecturers in using and implementing new teaching models, helping them re-engineering their courses. We also support and train librarians, students and admin staff by helping them with their enquiries, mostly about the use of the VLE or certain specific technologies.

EP: Could you please discuss what “learning technologies” are and why are they important? Can they be picked up intuitively, the way many people learn, let’s say, to use Facebook or play Angry Birds for the first time, and if not, why not?

Learning technologies are technically those that have been designed to enhance the teaching and learning experience. However, nowadays any technology can be a learning technology if used with a pedagogical intention. Learning technology can be almost anything, a voice recorder or an Ipad, from a website to a social networks, digital images, videos, smartphones, e-books or any other tool that can help you to learn.

We expect that the technology we use in teaching and learning is intuitive as we tend to review the latest technology trends and understand how society uses the technologies in the daily life, but learning technologies are not always as intuitive as Facebook is (also Facebook is not intuitive for everyone), and sometimes even when we think that certain technologies are easy to use, the final result might be complicated or not intuitive. For example you can easily produce a video by using a flipcam, but then, to convert the video into the right format, edit the video  and upload the video to the net or the VLE can be quite challenging, and it is our responsibility to support lecturers to get familiar with the production of digital learning materials by using a combination of technologies.

EP: We began this chat on Twitter by discussing the frustration many academics feel with the available technologies. Could you expand on this? What kind of frustrations do you have to deal with, in terms of the technologies you work with?

JA: The first source of frustration is normally related with the political decisions in the adoption of technologies. It is like a continuous ….”there you are: you have to learn how to use a new entire new system because that’s how it was decided (but you are still struggling with the previous system)”. So when some decisions about the implementation of technologies have been taken without asking the academics and they are forced to use some new technologies without having a say, it makes them frustrated and unwilling to learn it (“how long will this last?” is the typical question on the first training sessions).

The second source of frustration is that if they promise you that a given technology is easy to use and the first time you try it it fails (in front of the classroom) because you were not trained enough or because the systems were not tested enough, then you become frustrated and you won’t be likely to adopt any new technology for quite a while. It is more likely that you will be willing to adopt or embrace these systems when you are being told that they will make your life easier, but they don’t and you haven’t been given enough support to learn how to use the systems, so you can become more and more frustrated, or simply become a technophobe.

Another source of frustration is the lack of communication among different departments regarding the use of technologies and mostly about troubleshooting. If your videos are not working and you contact the central help desk, sometimes you can spend ages trying to figure out who can help you. If your students cannot access the courses in the VLE, you might not know who to ask: the registry? VLE support? admin staff? What happens if the projector is not working and ICT does not help you? if you need to fill in lots of forms to use a gadget and then it takes time to get it? If your online submission system fails, and nobody seems to be able to help you, you want to go back to paper; if the electronic blackboard is not working or you cannot find a pen to use the electronic blackboard you want to go back to a whiteboard (or maybe to use chalk again).

Yet another source of frustration are the policies for the use of technologies in education. Even though they are written with very good intentions, if they are not being developed putting teaching and learning first, they can cause more harm that the lack of a policy. One example is a policy I read a while ago; it was a clear example of how some decisions are taken with loads of good intentions but they become the biggest barrier of the use of technologies: The policy was written by a non-academic department and said something like if you were filming a video that would be used in any of the university platforms you needed to make sure that one person on the film crew was a first aider. But also, another department has bought  many mini video cameras to encourage teachers to record lessons, ideas and feedback and it was, apart of the economical investment, a huge human effort, so the policy clashed with the intentions of promoting  the production of recorded materials and caused more harm than good.

However, and from my personal point of view, the biggest source of frustration seems to be the lack of education-focused IT support in institutions. I don’t mean that all the institutions fail here; there are a lot of dedicated IT professionals that help us every day, but there are some common mixed-up feelings in this area. It feels sometimes like a permanent “computer says no” answer. To get help (even urgent help) you need to fill in a form, wait for your calls to be allocated and wait until a technician is available, and then explain back what was going on (being told to restart  your computer) and...yes! then you are not only frustrated but also fuming. You end up not trusting the departments in your own institution, fearing that the next time something fails, you will have to fill in a form, wait for the call to be allocated..... and computer says no... so there is a need to rethink the ways in which IT support is provided in academic institutions.

EP: How could these frustrations be tackled? Are these problems in your opinion unique to higher education institutions or is there some experience we could gain from the way other big organisations work?

Tackling digital frustration is quite a challenge, as it is related with personal expectations and personal experiences, but also, they are both shared and unique in every institution. There is no magic formula but to use common sense when implementing services, enabling new technologies or when writing policies. It is similar in other organisations, technologies must be used to support your work, not to make your life more difficult.

It is not enough writing a chart of good intentions, or to provide personalised training, or to provide more support, or to get new gadgets, or to update the technology. It is important to develop good communication channels in higher education institutions where academics know what is happening in the IT / E-Learning backgrounds and they participate in the decisions and their ideas or suggestions are taken into consideration.

We need to ensure that academics can rely in the services we provide, so it is mostly about opening our services and make them friendlier, avoiding for example asking them to fill in a form every time they need support. There are many issues that can be solved over the phone, or by chatting with other academics. Providing a friendly service is key to improve the confidence of the lecturers, and for this all the departments that liaise with technology need to understand that if we work in universities we are there to provide support for teaching and learning, which means supporting people, not equipment, systems or formats.

As I mentioned before, the lack of communication amongst the different e-departments in the universities is one of the biggest sources of frustration. If you don’t know who can help you, if you were not told that you needed a password to use a system, if nobody told you that certain programs are not compatible with the university systems, if nothing works and nobody is there to help you, you end up stopping using the technologies.

An example of the lack of communication of the departments that deal with technologies can be as simple as trying to upload a video. You try to upload a video onto the VLE, but you can’t because it is too heavy, so you call the helpdesk asking for help to deal with your videos for teaching.They log your call, or they ask you to fill in a form, and few days later they send you a note with standard instructions, so then you decide to upload the video in YouTube because it is too heavy for the VLE as the instruction in the standard mail said, and marketing calls you asking you to delete it because they do not support YouTube as an institution; so you send the video back to marketing to brand it before you send it to ItunesU as they reccomnended, but then it is rejected because the quality or the format is not the official one, and  they send you in a new set of guidelines you didn’t know existed, so you become at least angry and frustrated, but you can add your favourite word here.

So policies and guidelines in the use or production of technologies need to be education-friendly. They need to be academic-friendly and need to be agreed by all the departments that use the technologies or that support interactive content together with a panel of academics. They need to be written for teaching and learning, because that’s they key of using technologies in universities and that’s what needs to be supported, persons that are there, to learn, to teach and to do research.

EP: In this context, what are the odds of a wider adoption of open educational resources?

This is a very different scenario, and can be a cause of frustration as lots of institutions are embracing the use and production of open resources which can be open-access articles and open educational resources. Finding these resources can be challenging, so instead of investing time in finding these materials, people end up producing more power-points and re-inventing the wheel. Regarding democratic learning content, it is important that lecturers are supported and helped both from librarians and technologists so they can locate and produce open resources.

There are many repositories of OA articles, Open Course Wares and OER repositories, as many institutions are developing their own and also there are some national and international initiatives. This means the market where  to find published research results and learning materials is huge, but as not all the resources are easily reachable by using Google, or not all the repositories are well known, or not all the resources are well indexed or, as in the case of OER  they are not easy to translate, re-use, adapt or modify, rather than being a solution to teaching they become a problem.

Moreover, there’s a cultural issue around the use of OER. As academics are not evaluated by their production of teaching content as they are by their publications, and there’s a lack of understanding about copyright and licences, many lecturers fear that their resources will be stolen, that they are not protected and that uploading the materials in OER repositories has no value, because these are not taken into consideration in their career progression and don’t seem to have the same value as their publications. Also, in the academic community there’s a reluctance to share resources due to the  fear of being judged about the quality of their teaching through  the quality of the materials they produce; this includes the fear of  being judged by their students for using someone else's materials, so using or producing materials, without the support of the learning technologists and librarians, can be challenging for academics.

EP: I wish we could keep on chatting about these issues, but for now, thank you for talking to us, Javiera!