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Higher Education from the sidelines

This week I sent off my 13th job application since finishing my last HE post. I’m still working as a consultant developing online course content, and as an external examiner, but for three months now I’ve been able to look at the role of TEL from an outside perspective – and 13 applications means 13 institutions analysed in some depth.

Several things have struck me. Obviously even a sample base of 13 isn’t enough to form any generalisations about the sector, but I’m going to anyway.

The first is the general contempt HR departments display towards people. Not one of the 13 institutions contacted to let me know that my application had been rejected. The one I got to interview with informed me I had an interview, and then didn’t contact me again afterwards. Considering that an application takes half-a-day at least to complete, sometimes two if it’s a lengthy online form with a huge person spec, then it’s beholden on the institution to at least spend the twenty seconds it takes to cut and paste an email address to a bulk email. There simply is no excuse; and seems to be a practice solely in place to demean applicants and re-assert the power difference between employer and potential employee.

The second is how the terminology for job roles seems to be becoming more specific. At one time the role of TEL adviser could fall under any name, but now lecturer in TEL or learning developer, or academic adviser seems to cover it all. The most recent post I applied for asked for someone who was experienced in working with content developers. The idea of someone having a specialism in how people learn, and someone else having a specialism in putting materials together in a user-friendly and aesthetic way being two different skillsets seems to now be generally accepted. I had noticed this a couple of years ago the last time I was in the market for looking for a new contract; it’s reassuring to see it’s embedded.

Having said that, a worrying trend seems to be that institutions are increasingly expecting people with TEL to be able to teach about the technology itself. I’ve seen person specs which want the TEL adviser to also be able to teach programming, or teach how to use the software (I mean, just look on youtube, or RTFM), or even have a background in research into software design. I think of all the things changing in the field this is the most worrying. If you look at the leaders in the discipline they come from all over; fine arts, biology, English literature, psychology, you name it. TEL is a means to an end, but that end can be any form of teaching. It’s not that computer scientists shouldn’t can’t use TEL well in their teaching (I worked with some at Coventry), but if you’re going to advise other people and support them in using technology in their teaching, then the biggest barrier you’ll face is the idea that it’s for technical people. If you’re seen as the tech-guy (male specifically) then you’re immediately set yourself up to make that barrier even more difficult to break down. Ideally (and this is my excuse) you should be seen as someone who struggles with technology too, and is sceptical about it, but still gains something from using it in their teaching. The logic of having to understand how it works in order to be able to show people how to use it in teaching escapes me, it’s like expecting anyone teaching about lecturing to be a geologist because you’re using chalk.

Another drift I’ve seen in the field since 2015 is what (if I was a software engineer) I’d call feature creep. The qualifications required to get the jobs keeps expanding. Most obviously is Fellow of the HEA. Well I anticipated this, and am now an SFHEA. Sorted, I thought, but now added to the list for some jobs is QTS. I qualified as a teacher in 1989. I didn’t go for QTS status, even though I’d have qualified for it as I taught for five years, because it wasn’t necessary for the job back then. I’ve been teaching in HE since 2005 – roughly. My line manager at Warwick extended my role about half way through my time there (before that I was only researching) because she could see the way things were going, but I’m not sure of the precise date. So I’ve been doing that for 12 years. QTS has never cropped up before. So why now? I’m guessing it’s because it’s a means to trim applications – just pick something random that most people aren’t likely to have and you speed up the sifting process. That doesn’t stop it being frustrating however. If I’ve been doing the job for 12 years without the qualification, and doing it well, it seems like it’s not really necessary in order to do it.

A final observation is how poor the search criteria are on all the job databases. I probably get about 100 job notices a week from various databases. Of those one is relevant about every other week. What boosts the average to 1 a week is the ALT mailbase. Sifting through them isn’t that time-consuming, it’s just bewildering. I cannot imagine how my criteria apply to some of the notifications I’m receiving, though it’s occasionally good to get the completely off-the-wall ones, I suppose.



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