It’s all about innovation

Inspiration and innovation are always linked. As Albert Einstein famously said, “You can’t solve a problem on the same level that it was created. You have to rise above it to the next level.”

For James Michael Maltby the inspiration came from teaching high needs learners five years ago. Like many teachers, James discovered that his students often engaged with the technology in ways they could not with other people. For all learners, electronic resources enhance the curriculum; for high needs students it simply transforms it.

James, who is now a learning technologist working at Plumpton College, says “I found it so impactful as people with autism have an affinity to technology. It was amazing how many technologies apply to high needs learners.”

A learning technologist is one of a growing cadre of professionals who support the use of technology across curriculum areas. For James the role is about being “…a specialist within teaching, except the medium is the learning technology itself. It’s about supporting both teachers and students in the use of new and emerging technologies.”

There are some obvious applications that apply across the whole college such as induction of new students – for example a virtual reality health and safety ‘checklist’ – and assessment. The increasing use of digital badges is one area being explored by a Teacher Regional Improvement Project that James is involved in. Students can use badges to develop their own portfolios to present to employers and build on while on placement or in permanent employment itself.

But learning technologists also use their skills to develop resources that help teachers deliver across a wide range of curriculum areas. “It’s often about recontextualising what other teachers have done,” he says. “I don’t work on separate projects; they are all part of the same project. We mustn’t see them in isolation.”

This chimes with current thinking on vocational and technical education; we know the workplace doesn’t always replicate clear curriculum areas. Real life industrial projects tend to be multidisciplinary, so project-based learning across curriculum areas is critical.

These are themes that James has taken forward in his research over a number of years. First on Teach Too, and then as one of the first Technical Teaching Fellows looking at an extended role and greater impact for immersive technology.

“I think we can make an impact beyond colleges using IT for inductions,” he says. “I’d like to see it used more for formative assessment, in a more evaluative way, and in role play, for example, and learning through experience.”

In order to do this, James warns, professionals need space to innovate and this sometimes means not all ideas will ‘stick’ or work in practice. That is where teamwork comes in. Digital support staff are there to make sure everything is done properly. Colleges need their own multidisciplinary approaches: teachers, support staff, and learning technologists working together and learning from each other.

College leaders create the space for innovation. Innovative colleges tend to be led by an innovative senior leadership team or principal willing to push the agenda forward.

James says, “I feel very empowered by senior managers to learn from other colleges and local employers.” Company visits are a critical part of the work, such as a recent one to a multinational focused on diversifying its talent pool. Perhaps colleges need to do the same and think more creatively about roles that enhance learning” James suggests.

“Working with employers about their workforce needs always begs the question: how am I staying up to date?”  In this, James’s thinking reflects the Teach Too principles.

“It’s all about our own professional development and progression too. We may be at the top of the current hype cycle for immersive technology, but who knows what the future will be?”

James is closely connected with JISC, the network for providing digital solutions for education and research. But he also accesses professional development in the digital rich economy around Brighton, where he can hear about cutting edge innovations. The danger is that “…pure technologists can get obsessed with the solution and not the problem itself.”

This is where educationalists can bridge the gap. In this James reveals an important principle behind the technical education reforms. It is not just about reflecting and supporting current industrial practice; it is about enhancing it.

James is taking forward his thinking on a more expansive curriculum as part of an ETF MPhil at Sunderland University. Rethinking design of the curriculum begs the question: how can teachers think creatively about designing it to use technology more effectively?

It is natural that not all colleagues will be ‘on board’ at first, or that all innovations will work in practice. “Sometimes I need to manage my own expectations about what impact is possible,” he says. “We may want to change the world, but I realise that we need to make marginal improvements first.” 

Sometimes that means going back to the drawing board, but that’s what you expect from innovation. It’s never over.

Cerian Ayres

National Head of Technical Education

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