Why this role is important
Learning technologists influence the day-to-day learner experience. While the role varies between organisations, it generally provides the bridge between technology and teaching and learning.
The role is responsible for the design and implementation of digital resources. There can be a fuzzy boundary between IT support and learning technologists as the IT team also have a responsibility to provide pedagogically informed solutions.
The following list gives an indication of the areas that a learning technologist and IT support can influence within an organisation:
- The choice of content creation tools available to teaching staff
- The availability and accessibility of bespoke learning resources
- The production of high-quality media to support teaching and learning
- Signposting to open educational resources (for example copyright cleared media) to provide alternative resources
- Audio and video or existing high-quality online content
- Promotion of subscription-based digital resources (for example e-book collections)
- Signposting of (and training in) digital tools ranging from apps to web services
- The design, navigation and functionality of the website
- The provision of suitable IT spaces and peripherals
- The accessibility and usability of learning platforms
- The default view, features and functionality available in Microsoft Office (or equivalent)
- The quality of the default text-to-speech voice on the operating system
- Which web browsers are available and whether accessibility plug-ins are already available, or can be installed
- Training opportunities for inclusive e-learning
- The mainstream availability of assistive technology and productivity tools
- Support for assistive technology software and hardware.
In some organisations, learning technologists produce bespoke high-quality content yet in others the task is more about building digital capability amongst the staff. We strongly support the latter as building digital capability helps to create a culture where e-learning is a core teaching skill, rather than a specialist role for others.
What you can do
Empower, don’t disempower
Ultimately, a learning technologist will have done a good job if e-learning becomes embedded across the organisation and adds significant value to teaching and learning. The things that make a difference to the learner engagement don’t need to be complicated. The aim should be, wherever possible, to find the easiest solutions that tutors can implement themselves to grow their own skills, confidence and expertise.
Check your practice reflects good accessibility awareness
Accessibility is as much a core competency for learning technologists as any other legal requirements such as copyright observance. Organisations have an anticipatory duty to provide accessible materials before the need arises.
Accessibility awareness should be demonstrable in practical ways:
- Use tools that support colour change, text-to-speech or keyboard-only access. You can check the accessibility of many online tools and services using the web2access website
- Basic practices should include image descriptions, captions or key point summaries of videos, transcripts or podcasts
- Training sessions on content creation should demonstrate accessibility good practices and why they benefit a range of people
- Raise awareness that improved accessibility is not an additional workload but a better design. Often the more accessible solution runs more smoothly for all users.
Advocate for disabled learners
Learning technologists occupy an important strategic ground between the IT teams and the end users. IT and network managers are often very risk averse in terms of networks and security, and in the process create difficulties for disabled learners.
It can be difficult for disability support staff and teaching staff to engage confidently when discussing e-learning because they lack technical knowledge and confidence. Here, the learning technologist can bridge a gap in understanding. You are in a position to influence things such as ensuring:
- The inbuilt accessibility features in Windows are available for learners
- The default Windows voice is as high quality as possible – install an appropriate alternative if necessary – for example the Scottish Voices
- The speak function in Microsoft Office 2010 (and onwards) is available in the Quick Access Toolbar.
Learning technologists can ensure tools like text-to-speech and mind mapping are available across the network. If budgets are constrained explore free and open source versions.
There are excellent free plugins for some browsers and these can offer instant support for learners with print impairments. Find out more about accessibility plugins for browsers.
Assess how well you are doing
In 2013 a consortium of disability advocacy groups put together learner-focused guidance on reasonable expectations for print-impaired learners. By using a combination of commercial and free/open source tools you can easily support a wide range of learners at minimal cost.
Make it easy for tutors to create accessible content
Commercial content authoring tools do not necessarily create accessible content, however, the open source Xerte Online Toolkits create more accessible outputs. Xerte can be used in a basic or sophisticated way, depending on the staff expertise
Students can also learn to use Xerte to enhance their skills and understand accessible design.
Who to work with
Disability support teams can often be isolated from activities that have a significant impact on their workloads - like staff development in e-learning. A joined-up programme that includes accessibility benefits and opportunities can make a real difference to the independence of disabled learners.
It is vital that disability staff understand the potential of quality e-learning resources to support disabled learners. By reducing barriers to learning at source, disability support staff can provide wider support without an increase in workload.
Learning technologists should also be aware of the potential of library systems and resources to support disabled learners. They may also advise library and disability staff on how to improve the accessibility of pdf's obtained directly from publishers.
Assessment and examinations officers also may need learning technologists' support to help adapt assessments and processes for disabled learners using assistive technologies.
Senior managers need to appreciate the additional benefits of more inclusive solutions and how risk has been reduced by better implementation. This will improve recognition of learning technologists' skills and help develop the role further.
There are some excellent communities of practice including the Association for Learning Technology and its special interest groups. Such communities are vital for your own professional development but also for helping to raise the issue of accessible tools in a broader context where others can contribute.