Assembling the heterogeneous elements for digital learning

The new educational technologists: A call for evidenced change

The following is a summary/overview of Shurville, Browne and Whitaker (2008) – a paper title “Employing the new educational technologists: A call for evidenced change”. One of the authors has a blog.

I came across this paper while looking for evidence of people using Birnbaum’s (2000) take on management fads in higher education in connection with e-learning. A connection I will certainly be making and was part way through creating a post about, when I came across this article.

I interrupted that post to look at this article because the topic is related to an opinion I’ve had for quite some time. i.e. that most learning and teaching at universities is somewhat less than effective and that most attempts to improve that teaching are just as, if not more, ineffective.

So, anything that proposes to search for evidence associated with this work, is of interest. Especially when I believe the absence of agreed upon evidence of improvement is a key flaw in university teaching


The basic message of the paper – a call for more research into the roles, perceptions, place, staff development, and characteristics of “educational technologists” – is important. The paper does provide some pointers to some of the current problems and issues around these types of position. The brief ideas they have for future work are good.

However, I found the early parts of the paper – especially the arguments about why changes in society/sector are increasing the importance of institutional systems and hence educational technologists – as problematic and frankly, unnecessary. I tend to disagree, or at the least have concerns, about this argument. I also don’t think the argument is necessary.

That said, my current organisation is going through many of the problems the paper identifies and would benefit from the insight and even participation in the type of research the authors propose. If only we had the time.


Essentially, “flexible technology-enhanced learning environments” are important to universities. Educational technologies make significant contributions towards this goal (that’s a big assumption). Their role is complex and requires skills in learning and teaching, management and information technology. Paper proposes an international program of empirical research.


Sets the context/importance of this through the following chain:

  • mass acces to universities is major contributor to knowledge society;
  • ICT engine for knowledge economy;
  • ICT-driven university business models important;
  • However, research raises some questions about how well this is being done.
  • University leaders need to recognise need for strategic transformation.

Leads the authors to the suggestion that the role of educational technologists needs to be re-thought. In particular, “we advocate that institutions investigate sustainable career- and organisational structures for educational technologists”.

But, to do this properly, senior managers need evidence to inform such reflection. The paper seeks to contextual the requirement for evidence and propose a research initiative.


  • Rather limited success and other reasons.
    At my organisation, my perspective is that “educational technologists” have had limited success. The only impact has been small and at the boundaries. I believe this is because of a mismatch between how management conceptualise how to go about the act of improving learning and teaching. Something I’ve argued elsewhere. It’s just not the role of educational technologist that needs rethinking, it’s the entire structure.
  • Shudder at strategic.
    The mention of strategic sends shudders through my body. This generally means a teleological approach to solving the problem. An unquestioned response that has no evidence to support that it works and a lot to suggest that it doesn’t (take a look at Birnbaum).

Approach: Grounded theory and lived experience

Essentially a brief “research method” paragraph. The use of “grounded theory” doesn’t seem to indicate the use of that specific research method. But that the rest of the paper is based in literature. The “lived experience” bit refers to the authors experience in institutional technology enhanced learning (TEL) initiatives and human resource management.

The phrases/terms being used are suggesting to me that the approach will be teleological.

Drivers for the transformation of educational technologists

Two identified drivers for adoption of flexible learning:

  1. Increase access to education while reducing costs.
  2. Promoting student-centered learning styles.

Offers a definition or two of flexible learning.

This isn’t the way they phrase it, but they essentially suggest that there are 5 broad strategies that a university can take in response to massification:

  1. “trade out” of the problem – i.e. by getting a big endowment.
  2. Accept a reduction in quality – e.g by increasing class sizes.
    I’m sure some kindly sole would refer to increase class sizes as aiming to increase productivity.
  3. Reduce labour costs through casualisation, off-shoring and outsourcing.
    Explored by Evaline (2004)
  4. Transform the institution through business process upgrades and technology.
  5. Increasing research income.
    Looked at by Bok (2003)

Author’s focus is on the transformation approach. (The first two options aren’t specified as approaches by the authors). I found this particular quote interesting and something I’ll follow up

Here we will focus upon the e-transformational strategy, which has recently been shown to produce realistic improvements in the order of 3.3% across all Australian universities—with a range of 1.8% to 13.0%— (Worthington and Lee, 2008).

Sounds questionable to me.

Given the emphasis on the transformation through ICT approach in the paper. The authors now give some evidence that this is an approach worth of investigation. e.g.

Nevertheless, in Browne and Shurville’s experience, institution-wide approaches to supporting TEL can provide opportunities for economies of scale and centrally managed educational technologists can provide a cost effective resource for change management, development of materials, and training and support of academics (Browne et. al., 2003; Shurville and Owens, in press).

Fred in the shed

I paused here or a bit when reading the paper. There are aspects of the current paragraph that create tension and uncertainty and other bits where seem to gel with what I’m thinking. I’m not sure how to take this, should I hate it or applaud it?

The paragraph starts with these sentence

Cost is not the only reason to prefer institutional educational technology services—offering expertise in education and technology—over the grass roots approaches personified by ‘Fred in the Shed’ and the ‘Lone Ranger’ (Stiles and York, 2006).

It then goes onto offer various quotes about how too much elearning is driven by the technology, rather than by “good learning”. The implication is that “fred in the shed”, if left to his devices, will simply be a “boy with his toys”. It implies that the solution to this is for the “centerally managed educational technologists” to “develop systems that deliver both educational and institutional flexibility”.

This is the interpretation that I hate for the following reasons:

  • “Blame the teacher”.
    It sounds like the ultimate blame the teacher approach. Poor “fred in the shed” he doesn’t know about good learning, he needs our help. It assumes that the deficiencies of the “teacher” are the only cause of the observed problems and assumes that the only solution is for someone else to prescribe a system.
  • System/technology determinist.
    It assumes that this prescribed system will change anything. It ignores task corruption, gaming etc.
  • The technologists gap.
    It illustrates/creates a gap between the educational technologist and “fred in the shed”.
  • Where does innovation come from?
    It ignores where most innovation comes from. Institutional systems generally aren’t the source of innovation, it is “Fred in the shed” where true innovation comes from.

Yes, you have to be careful with generalisation. There are always exceptions. I’m also not sure how much of this is my interpretation and how much is the author’s intent.

Back to the paper

Embedding this type of system at the institutional level, requires new skills and abilities. Hence a transformation in the educational technologists role. One the authors believe isn’t recognised in terms of career stability and progression.

Employing the new educational technologists

The argument here is

  • Educational technologists have operated in small scale communities researching and doing a bit of staff development and support.
  • As argued above, there is no a need for “institutions to seek wide-scale efficiencies and flexibilities by applying ICT” while also improving L&T outcomes.
  • “So the cottage industry of educational technology is transforming into a profession whose members need to deliver institutional systems for TEL”

My problem here

Before I read any further, I’m going to explain my concerns and disagreements with this argument. I hope/wonder the authors will pick this up.

First, I wonder if my problem is due to differences in definition and understanding. For me “institutional systems” are constraining, prescription-based approaches that are destined to fail. They are generally aimed at the lowest common denominator and with an emphasis on efficiency, not effectiveness or innovation. The authors talk about “flexible” systems, but institutional and flexible, as currently practiced, do not often/ever go together.

Limitations of measurement. The claim is that to get wide-scale efficiencies you have to have an institutional system. To test this you have to be able to measure and most attempts to measure efficiency are somewhat less than appropriate. One reason is encapsulated in the phrase associated with Einstein

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

There are more, but let’s get back to the authors.

Symptoms – some agreement

What follows seems to be a list of symptoms of the current problems with the role. Most of which I have seen.

Precarious nature and lack of equivalency. Okay, some agreement with the authors

Many, because of the fixed-term nature of many contracts and limited career potential have had to respond to such uncertainty by re-orientating their careers……In Browne and Shurville’s direct and indirect experience, the organisational setting for educational technologists can be precarious and these senior educational technologists can still lack equivalent status with managers of more established services when competing for institutional resources. So senior educational technologists can represent significant flight risks for their institutions as their frustrations can make them prone to moving into academic or more mainstream academic-related/ professional positions.

My experience and observations back this up.

Need for training. Argument is that the educational technologist job requires skills in a broad array of fields that are difficult to acquire and update. One solution is to be research active, but this has its own problems. The one the authors mention appears to be the “why are you researching, you should be helping me” problem. i.e. faculty academics perceive the educational technologist as their helper/assistant and perceive any attempts to research by the assistant as either a luxury or as them getting “above themselves”.

Outsourced or local connections. The cost of knowledge raises the question of whether or not expertise should be out-sourced. i.e. rather than pay for the educational technologists to keep up with everything, why not buy in the expertise? The problem is the importance of local connections – “The importance of educational technologists being embedded in local social networks argues against adopting the labour cost reduction strategy”.

Structural location Educational technologists cover the academic and professional staff divide. Which leads to problems in terms of titles, management, position descriptions …. They do give good coverage to the various possibilities for locating educational technologists within the organisation. There is a variety of approaches and all have their problems.

Further research

Points to some existing research on the organisational location, position descriptions and other characteristics of educational technology staff. But the authors argue that there needs to be more. Outline what they are doing around this. Some of it sounds good.


Birnbaum, R. (2000). Management Fads in Higher Education: Where They Come From, What They Do, Why They Fail. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Shurville, S., T. Browne, et al. (2008). Employing the new educational technologists: A call for evidenced change. ASCILITE 2008, Melbourne.

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