The dirty word that is Technologist

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Are you a Learning Engineer? It’s a new (to me) title/role that seems to be in vogue right now to describe what I would call an Instructional Designer or, in Martin Weller’s world, a Learning Designer.

But, as Martin notes in his post, this new moniker is more than semantics. It could be marking a deeper shift in how some in higher ed are thinking about the future of education.

This is not just about semantics however, but surfaces fundamental beliefs about education. For some it is a precise science, where education can be reliably and repeatedly constructed in the same manner for everyone. For others it is complex field where different approaches have desirable outcomes for some learners but not others and one that is continually negotiated. This dichotomy represents the manner in which education will be shaped in an AI/Data/Networked world.

JR Dingwell picks up on Martin’s post, and makes the point that, not only is the term “engineer” a protected title, but that the whole notion of impressive titles calls into question whether these differentiations come from a desire elevate the prestige of certain positions.

Ok, I get it. No one wants to call themselves an Educational Technologist anymore. Ugh. Technologist. Such a techno-centric term. And talk about lack of prestige in the title. Technologist? Who in academia wants to be a technologist?

Well, actually, I do. I don’t want to be a Learning Engineer, and I don’t think of myself as an Instructional or Learning Designer either. I am an Educational Technologist, and I think we need more technologists in our institutions to better face exactly the challenges that Martin speaks about in his blog post. I don’t want to see education blindly wander into an AI/Data/Networked world of education, which we are at risk of if we don’t have people in our institutions who deeply understand technology and can critically understand the “precise science” Martin speaks of, and help call bullshit when bullshit needs to be called.

But in order to do that – to fully understand technology and all the benefits and pitfalls – we need good technologists. A technologist, after all, by its very definition is someone who is an expert in a particular field of technology, and our particular field is education.

This is something that I touched upon in my Gasta talk at ALT-C last fall.

The Learning Technologist is not an Instructional Designer. I don’t mean this pejoratively or in a way to pit one role against the other. Both are valuable and important roles to maintain high standards of teaching & learning excellence in our institutions. But I think of these as 2 separate roles. Complementary and needing to be informed by each others practice, yes. But distinct fields requiring different skills and attributes, and I often feel that the profession that we call Learning Technologist or Educational Technologist is undervalued in our institutions and tends to get tacked on to an equally important, but separate role, of Instructional Designer.

Or Learning Engineer.

I have called myself an Educational Technologist for years now. I am not an Instructional Designer, although I work from a similar base of knowledge that ID’s work from. I know learning theories, I understand what it means to correctly sequence learning materials. I can write learning objectives and lesson plans, but it is not what I do on a regular basis.

What I do spend my time on is trying to understand technology through an educators lens. I admit, I have a techno-first bias, but that is what a technologist is supposed to have. And it is what we need to do if we are to truly – and critically – understand the role that technology has in shaping, not only the learning experience, but also the wider sociotechnical landscape that our educational institutions operate in. In a world where education technology is growing increasingly more complex (have you seen the number of technologies in use at institutions these days?) and the conversations (in the words of Clay Shirky) get more <ahem> interesting and nuanced, it is becoming more important we have people immersed in the role of Educational Technologist that lives apart from the role of Instructional Designer. Or Learning Engineer.

I actually think it is time for a decoupling of the roles, and an elevation for the role of Educational Technologist within our institutions. Yes, we need to have ID’s who understand technology, and yes, we need to have EdTech’s who understand ID. And certainly the two have to work together and have their work informed by the other. But as the technology issues we grapple with in education become more complex and deeply interwoven into the fabric of our institutions, I think we need to elevate what a technologist brings to the table.


Jim Groom (@jimgroom) May 31, 2019

Yeah, I think the crisis of titles is a crisis of shifting focus, so much of edtech is marginally interested in the technology. And I understand the pendulum swings, and that is not all bad, but I feel alienated from most of the edtech discussions because so few of them have to do with thinking through the design of ecocsystems based on available technology technology. There seems to be so little R&D like the folks at OpenETC are doing, and that is a real shame. That was my sense of the job when i took the technologist title, and it is also what I still very much identify with. So, I am biased for the technologist title, despite all its shortcomings, and I find designer to be far too hyperbolic for much of what we do and engineer to be downright absurd. My 2¢ from the Italian peanut gallery 🙂

Thanks for the post!

Clint Lalonde June 2, 2019

There are a lot of things to love about the OpenETC, not the least of which is the capability it has to build technical capacity at a very grassroots level across our system. IMO, it is a fantastic collaborative technology sandbox for those who want to build the skills needed to be a technologist.

I agree about the crisis of shifting focus, and think it is a crisis that might have been mitigated a little bit if we had more technologists in our institutions. More developers. More builders. More skunkworks projects. More creators of education technology than users of education technology. Because, as every good educator knows, it is in the creating that we do the deepest learning. Too bad so many of our institutions seem to have forgotten that pedagogical lesson when it comes to building and maintaining their own internal technology capacity.

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