Instructional Innovation through Leadership, Support and Agency

As a former Learning Designer, Learning Technologist and present instructor, I’m always interested to look at the relationships between how innovative educational institutions are, both in terms of their culture of innovation, as well as technical capability.

In the 1990s, with the explosion of internet technologies, online learning was in its excited, animated infancy, with new technologies opening the door for new teaching and learning opportunities. As technology progressed and the web grew, certain technologies matured and became commonplace (the so-called Web 2.0 technologies, for example).

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Flash forward to 2021 and many of us who have been teaching online for a long time, and those of us who have been thrown into teaching online as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have recognised the opportunities and challenges that come with teaching with technology.

What’s true, is that none of us can teach online without help. We always need dedicated and expert support staff to help us with a variety of needs, based upon our experience, ideas, time constraints and the availability of learning technologies.

A Framework for Instructional Innovation

As I was thinking about these factors, and my experience over the last 20 years in edtech, it’s clear that the choices we make as Leaders in Educational Technology mean a lot, because they affect the whole teaching and learning landscape of an entire institution, and they are more interrelated that we may consider. As I tinkered with these ideas, a spectrum emerged – one of HOW learning technologists, learning designers and other support staff engage in their work, and of how academic and instructional staff are able to take agency to implement their pedagogical ideas.

From here, I doodled, diagrammed and played – thinking about how much time has passed since the advent of online learning and all the people that support this effort, from the top-floor Directors of Instructional Innovation (or insert your highest leadership title here) to the basement-dwelling learning technologists who are, to their own frustration, almost always mistaken for IT support (while IT folks are also mistaken for learning technologists).

The Framework below simply presents that spectrum, including the parties involved (whoever they may be at any given institution), the decisions made by leadership and the nature of technology as I’ve experienced it wearing my many hats over the years.

Let’s start with Tech

To start, if the technology being used is antiquated, then we can assume it’s pretty challenging to use. Designers and Software Engineers have made great strides in the last 20-30 years, so if technology you’re using to teach hasn’t been updated for a long time, then chances are the usability will be low. Sure, lots of tech tools are good at putting a new coat of paint on something that was new 20 years, ago, but all paint does is cover the rust.

Let’s take the example of using email to communicate with students, when all they use is instant messaging outside of their studies. If we’re supposed to prepare our students to function in the professional world, our learning technologies should mirror this world – this means instant messaging, team chats, images, GIFS and most importantly, emojis and reactions.

I loathe the time wasted every time I write an email that simply reads “This is great! Thank you. Kind Regards, Someone who’d much rather give this a thumbs up”

When technology is old and less usable as its modern compatriots, this leads to support

The Nature of Support

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When technology is more TECHNICAL and less usable, this means the level of support given is primarily going to be of that nature – to fill that support need. When technology is more usable, intuitive and self-describing, users are able to figure it out on their own much easier, meaning the support practices that involve “let me show you how to click the correct button” fades away, leaving support staff and resources to focus on other things.

This nature of support is an interesting one. Between Learning and Educational Technologists, Learning Designers, Instructional Designers, Learning Technology Support Officers and every other job title out there, there will always be a need for both technical and pedagogical support. How this is weighted though, and how many resources are dedicated to support button clicking and how many on innovative and effective activity, assessment and content presentation design depends greatly on the technologies being used.

Technologies, then have to be examined, because they have to come from somewhere.

Who’s Choosing the Technologies?

Back in the 90s, educational technologist wasn’t really a job you could get like you can today. It was mainly tinkerers – IT folks, STEM and computer instructors, and others who were interested in how technology could change teaching and learning for the better – this division of labour and specialisation in the field of learning tech hadn’t happened yet. And so who was making technology decisions in schools back then? Mostly IT folks.

I have never envied the responsibilities of IT leadership anywhere I have worked. They are some of the most knowledgeable, pragmatic and collaborative minds I have ever worked with. The needs of an IT or administrative technology will always have specific requirements which are 100% valid – including security, reliability, back-end management, vendor support, uptime monitoring, interoperability, physical and building infrastructure and many others. But their expertise is rarely in teaching and learning and was less so 30 years ago.

Which leads us to the question of who made decisions for learning technologies 30 years ago, who makes them now, and are there vestiges of those factors listed above still around today? Again, this may exist on a spectrum, but the choice of learning technologies is not really up to those doing the teaching or the learning, then this will definitely affect how these practices play out.

While it’s true that edtech leaders do involve teaching and learning staff (and hopefully students) in the selection of new tools, the question around who initiates and who controls when new tools are selected is also a factor. Having a robust system of evaluating the teaching and learning needs of our institution, as well as providing opportunities for teaching and learning staff to test, trial or pilot technologies to fill their needs is also super important, which again comes back to the nature of support and the culture of innovation.

Putting it all together

In my doodling, I simply couldn’t separate leadership from technology from support. They were all interrelated and formed a perfect trifecta for fostering instructional innovation through technology.

If the technology is antiquated, the support needs are different, and if those making decisions around technology are fine keeping antiquated technologies around, the opportunity to trial and integrate new tech into systems that can’t integrate simply won’t happen.

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What’s interesting is that from a leadership perspective, the nature of support does still depend on the technologies used. An edtech leader may want to provide all the learning design, curriculum mapping and innovative support they can, however if instructors are using systems that aren’t intuitive or easy to use, innovative practices are not where the need is, and the need should always be met first. Only when there is space to innovate, can innovation happen – it can’t be forced, and it can’t happen without that space.

On the other end of the spectrum is a scenario in which those in leadership work with teaching and learning staff to select contemporary and usable technologies. From here, the support needs will change to match, meaning less technical support and more of a focus on the pedagogy of technology use and with more robust technologies that allow for integration with others, the opportunities to experiment and innovate will grow.

What’s clear is that the interrelationships between different factors mean that ‘technology ecosystem’ is definitely an apt way to describe what happens in educational settings, as all of these factors affect another in a very meaningful way.

Agency and Pedagogical Change

So if the technology we use for teaching and learning is antiquated and potentially difficult to use, and also doesn’t mirror what we use outside of work, chances are the agency we have to implement innovative ideas is low from a teaching and learning standpoint. If most resources are dedicated to either telling us which buttons to click in a low usability system, or simply clicking those buttons for us, we have little agency to move beyond that.

If however, support resources don’t need to focus as much on the technical side of things due to more usable technologies, the agency instructors have to explore different ways of teaching, presenting information, providing feedback and feedforward are greater. This is why agency is really important. Ultimately those doing the teaching are the once who can change how students learn, and the pedagogical choices we make in this space are reliant on that interrelationship between technology, technology choice and the nature of support that is derived from both.

After I completed my Masters in Adult Education and eLearning, I didn’t know much about actual professional practice in this space. Given that many university educational experiences are based on theory, with a little bit of practice, these are insights I’ve had to witness first hand over many years. So now as an instructor, I look to edtech leaders I admire to carry this forward, with the hope that the recent turbocharge in technology-enabled learning we’ve experienced will usher in a reexamination of how we choose, support and use technology in educational settings.

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