Learning technologists and the ‘third space’ professional
The concept of the ‘third space’ higher education professional is frequently associated with those whose roles span the academic/non-academic dichotomy. Learning technologists, for example, often find themselves in the curious position of occupying the professional No Man’s Land that lies between academia and professional services. I myself have spent a decade in this professional wilderness; first, as a learning technologist and more recently managing a team of learning technologists. The pandemic has undoubtedly increased the visibility of our role and demonstrated the important work that we and other third space professionals do, however, there are persistent challenges in this area and, as institutions adapt to new modes of academic delivery, these challenges are likely to increase as the demand for learning technology support grows.
The challenge of CPD
Continuing professional development is important in all professions. Engaging with developmental activities has many benefits for both the individual and the organisation. On an individual level it can enable a greater degree of confidence, self-fulfilment and job satisfaction, it aids in career development and future opportunities, and it helps individuals to reflect on their practice. CPD can enrich the working environment of an organisation and, a happy workforce aside, it enables employees to see their work through a broader lens.
The challenge for third space professionals is the nature of CPD activity. The duties of a learning technologist are diverse; this is symptomatic of their situatedness on the academic/non-academic continuum. Suitable role holders are generally expected to possess both technical skills and have experience of pedagogy and assessment. Job descriptions tend to be littered with phraseology such as ‘the pedagogic application of technology’ or ‘the appropriate use of technology in educational settings’. Learning technology represents a unique intersection between technology and pedagogy and, notwithstanding the excellent work of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT), it is this uniqueness that limits the range and nature of the CPD activities available to its practitioners.
A recurrent challenge for learning technologists is the perception of their role and the nature of their work. Learning technologists work closely with academic colleagues; they understand the interplay between technology and learning and are often at the forefront of pedagogic innovation. Despite this, the learning technologist is still ‘other’ to the academic and for those that do not possess the necessary academic currency, be it through CPD activities or professional experience, it can be challenging to develop professional relationships.
I once discussed these concerns with an academic colleague; I noted that I was mildly frustrated that I was perceived (and sometimes referred to) as a ‘techy’, despite my previous experience as a teacher. I explained to my colleague that I felt like I didn’t possess sufficient academic credentials and that I felt like an interloper whenever I strayed into academic discussion.
My colleague suggested that I should look into gaining Senior Fellow status. Initially, I was dubious, not least because it seemed like a lot of work. My colleague persisted and I eventually set aside some time to read through what the process entailed.
Recognising diversity of experience
I had, by this point, worked in higher education for just under fifteen years and so I had amassed a significant amount of professional experience in a variety of settings. What struck me about the application process for Senior Fellow was the breadth of the criteria and the scope to reflect on a variety of professional experiences. The ingenuity here is that the framework that underpins Descriptor 3 allows the applicant to draw from diverse professional experiences. In many ways, this was ideal because, like many other learning technologists, my route into the profession had taken many twists and turns and it was crucial that I was able acknowledge and draw from this. To that end, the application process didn’t just afford flexibility, it actively embraced it.
I have never really considered myself to be a reflective practitioner. The nature of my role often means that I jump from one project or initiative to another, whilst keeping several plates spinning behind me. I probably engage more in light touch reflective practice; perhaps thinking about what went right and what went wrong, and how I’d do things differently. This is certainly the case throughout the global pandemic.
The application process for Senior Fellow made me reflect with a greater degree of depth and consideration. The UKPSF framework gently nudges applicants to think beyond simple cause and effect reflection and instead to consider concepts such as why and how. This is where the true value of undertaking the Senior Fellowship comes to the fore; it forces applicants to challenge preconceived ideas and to think about and reflect upon their situatedness in the HE canon and what the impact of their work is.
I was able to draw from a range of professional experiences; often, these experiences were diverse and completely unrelated and yet when compiled as part of the reflective narrative, they collectively conveyed my professional journey and engagement with the criteria of Descriptor 3. For me, this was particularly important in addressing the ‘interloper effect’. I mention earlier in that, as my application progressed, a picture began to form, and I began to recognise the impact of my work.
Why Senior Fellowship is a worthwhile endeavour
I’m not going lie; applicants for Senior Fellow should be mindful that the process requires focus. In these unusual times, focus is a luxury. One thing I’m certain of, however, is that the process is hugely beneficial, particularly if, like me, you have doubts about your academy currency or struggle to see the tangible impact of your professional activities. The application process holds a mirror to an applicant’s professional journey, their experiences and the impact of their endeavours.
Seeing one’s work in context is a hugely important aspect of professional development, so too is recognising one’s professional impact. In roles such as mine, and in other third space professions, impact can often be hidden, it may be ephemeral or only seen months or years down the line. Becoming a Senior Fellow allowed me to see my professional activities in context and to reflect on my journey working within HE.
For people occupying roles like mine, I would wholeheartedly encourage them to consider applying for Senior Fellow status.
Daniel Clark leads the University of Kent’s E-Learning Team. He has worked in the Higher Education sector for over fifteen years and is currently undertaking a PhD at Lancaster University. His research interests include access to Higher Education and the application of critical theory to educational policy.
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