Love at first byte

April 30, 2004

Chemistry was not for Grainne Conole but technology inspired her and she is now a champion of e-learning. But this growing breed of professional is not getting a fair bite at the academic cake, as Pat Leon discovers

When someone asks Grainne Conole what she does for a living, the reply that she is a learning technologist often elicits a blank stare. It was different when she was a chemist - “people at least had some idea”, she says.

Conole is one of a new breed of professionals in UK universities. She is a professor of educational innovation at Southampton University, where she co-directs an e-learning research centre hosted jointly with Manchester University. But she says the learning technology community to which she belongs occupies a no-man’s land between academia and administration. “We play a vital institutional role that spans the technical and educational aspects of e-learning, but we are still searching for recognition and a professional niche.”

Conole’s career typifies that of many researchers who have shifted across into information and communication technology from other disciplines. She went to university to study chemistry but, after graduating in the 1980s, took a job as a management trainee with Allied Bakeries. She hated it and returned to academia for a PhD studentship in X-ray crystallography at the North London Polytechnic. She was soon researching, lecturing and dabbling with computers.

In the 1990s, before the web exploded into the workplace and home, chemists were very active in national teaching and learning-technology projects, and many were starting to develop software. On holiday in Cork, Conole met a professor who showed her an interactive tutorial. “I’d never seen anything like it. I went back and we bought the package for £1,000.”

When the worldwide web took off, Conole learnt hypertext markup language and designed a virtual noticeboard for her first-year tutor group. “It cut my message workload by 90 per cent overnight,” she says.

She went on to develop a range of teaching resources, including interactive materials, but she was constantly confronted by pedagogical, technical and organisational research questions. “I kept asking myself questions such as how do I integrate different materials? Do I develop them myself or adapt others’ work? What will be the impact on people’s jobs and university systems and processes? What are the ethics of collecting statistical data?”

In 1996, North London created a central post in learning and teaching innovation. Conole was seconded from chemistry and given free rein. Money flowed in from industry and government. “We grew to become a research centre. My vision was to link our research with staff development, policy and strategy,” she says.

Her final break from chemistry came in 1999 when she was offered the job of directing Bristol University’s Institute for Learning and Research Technology. “It was a hard decision, but that hybrid stage between two research interests was important,” she says.

Bristol was a step up in terms of scale and experience. “There were about 30 staff when I started, but this mushroomed to 80. We relied mainly on soft money - external funding and consultancy work. We couldn’t offer direct financial incentives, only kudos. Although staff were on short-term contracts, they tended to stay because it was creative and exciting.”

Although the projects cut across the range of information and communication technology (ICT) research and development, from soft pedagogical to harder technical issues, the centre was still on the periphery of university life and there was some debate about whether to spin it off. Conole lobbied hard to convince the university of the benefits of the institute’s work. “I could see a shift from the first wave of innovators through to a second,” she says. “E-learning masters programmes were starting. But we were still searching for a professional niche.”

The Southampton chair came up just as Conole wanted to concentrate on establishing learning technology’s credentials as a rigorous field of research.

A major concern now is the dearth of senior managers with a good knowledge of ICT. “Bad decisions about computer systems are being made on scant evidence. Managers are overemphasising cost-effectiveness when we still don’t know how to compare e-learning with traditional teaching methods,” she says.

The next decade will be critical for the first generation of learning technologists, she predicts. There is a danger that they might slip out of higher education if there is not a career route that awards them chairs and professorships, and allows them to get to the very top. “We’ve had our waves of historians, economists and scientists at the top. Why not learning technologists?” she asks.

ICT in Higher Education, Issue No. 3
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