Who are the Learning Technologists? (Part 3)

In part 1, I looked at the shifting definition of educational (or learning) technology; In the second part, I looked at a brief history of educational technology. This is the third in a series of short posts concerning the field of educational (or learning) technology and the people who are practitioners and theoreticians within the field.

The Coming of the New Professionals

The Dearing Report (NCIHE, 1997) had originally outlined the notion of a “new professional” working within the HE sector (NCIHE, 1997, report 4) and that the learning technologist was perceived to be one of these “new professionals”.

The research literature had noted these “new professionals” and, in particular, the learning technologist as a professional occupation and were keen to observe and document them. Numerous descriptions had been attached to the role such as “new specialist” (Beetham, Jones & Gornall, 2001), “para-academic” (Coaldrake, 2001), “unbounded professional” or “blended professional” (Whitchurch, 2008).

It became quite clear to the many authors who undertook research into the role of the learning technologist that this “new professional” was made up of diverse and multiple roles. Beetham, Jones and Gornall (2001) had identified at least 11 roles that were associated with being a learning technologist. Indeed, if learning technologists were a mythical beast, they would be closely identified with the chimera. Another aspect of the learning technologist that was becoming clear was that they were often marginalised, in part due to the precarious nature of their tenure and in part they were often perceived by academics and professional services staff as some form of cosmological “other” (Gornall, 1999). The learning technologist often operated within a “no man’s land” or “liminal space” (Gornall, 1999) that Whitchurch (2008) describes as a “third space” that bridges the worlds of academic and professional staff. Here the learning technologist is a “threshold person” who falls on, between and around those traditional University boundaries (Gornall, 1999)

One of the biggest barriers in the learning technologist’s professional life was acceptance, credibility and legitimacy within the wider Higher Education community. Many educators perceived learning technologists as “latter-day oil prospectors of the academic world” (Bonham, 1976); a “blunt instrument” in helping HEIs to deliver on the institutional strategies and policies; or were largely dismissed as a “self-invented profession” (Boyd, 1988).

One of the standing jokes in our office is based around the social situation where people ask you what you do for a living. Most jobs like plumber, teacher, IT trainer, accountant and mechanic instantly conjure up what that job entails – it’s a shared vocabulary we are accessing. Not so for the learning technologist, this “lack of definition” according to Caplan (1998) makes us the “invisible people“; hence we get treated to blank looks or confusion.  Nevertheless, as the field and the profession grew in maturity and confidence, it saw the establishment of associated fields (like e-learning), formation of professional organisations (like ALT, LTSN), routes into accreditation and certification (like CMALT and SEDA) and the creation of academic journals (like British Journal of Educational Technology).

A significant aspect of the role is that of a “broker“, “bridge builder” (Joyes, 2006) or “boundary crossing agent” (Wenger, 1998). This “brokering” role can take many forms: between academic and professional staff; between academics and students; between academics and ICT systems; between academics and pedagogic practices.

I will look at how the role of learning technologist has diversified and evolved in part 4 of my short series of posts.


Beetham, H., Jones, S. & Gornall, L. (2001). Career Development of Learning Technology Staff: Scoping Study Final Report. JISC Committee for Awareness, Liaison and Training Programme. Bristol, England: Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC). Available at: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/publications/reports/2001/cdssfinalreport.aspx [Accessed 23.11.2013].

Bonham, G.W. (1976). “Educational Media: A Mixed Bag”. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 8(3), pp. 32-34. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00091383.1976.10569313 [Accessed 2.12.2013].

Boyd, G.M. (1988). “The impact of society on educational technology”. British Journal of Educational Technology, 19(2), pp. 114-122. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8535.1988.tb00259.x [Accessed 23.11.2013].

Caplan, D. (1998). The Invisible People: Educational Technologists – Do We Exist?. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada: University of Saskatchewan. Available at: http://www.usask.ca/education/coursework/802papers/caplan/invisible2.html [Accessed 23.11.2013].

Coaldrake, P. (2001). “Rethinking Academic and University Work”. Journal of the Programme on Institutional Management in Higher Education, 12(3), pp. 7-30. Available at: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi= [Accessed 23.11.2013].

Gornall, L. (1999). “‘New professionals’: Change and occupational roles in higher education”. Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, 3(2), pp. 44-49. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13603109981847 [Accessed 26.10.2013].

Joyes, G. (2006). “Bridging cultures in designing for learning: An eChina project case study”. In: Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Networked Learning 2006. Lancaster University, England, UK, 10-12 April 2006. Available at: http://www.networkedlearningconference.org.uk/past/nlc2006/abstracts/pdfs/03Joyes.pdf [Accessed 21.10.2013].

National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (NCIHE). (1997). Higher Education in the Learning Society (Dearing Report). London, England: HMSO. Available at: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/ncihe/ [Accessed 22.11.2013].

Wenger, E. (1998). Learning in communities of practice. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Whitchurch, C. (2008). “Shifting Identities and Blurring Boundaries: the Emergence of Third Space Professionals in UK Higher Education”. Higher Education Quarterly, 62(4), pp. 377-396. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2273.2008.00387.x [Accessed 22.10.2013].

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