An Interview with Tom Preskett: The Evolving Role of a Learning Technologist

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

Updated 11/6/13, 5:40am HST.

Introduction: Tom Preskett was a staff writer with ETCJ from 2008-2011, and we make it a point to touch bases with him from time to time. For example, in 2012, he wrote A Londoner’s View of the 2012 Olympics: Live Feed of All Sports at Any Time!. He brings a reflective insider’s view of what it means to be a learning technologist in the most exciting period in the history of the field. The following interview, conducted via email over the last few days, is prompted by his recent move from the London Centre for Leadership in Learning, Institute of Education, to Nord Anglia Education, Oxford.

JS: Tell us about Nord Anglia Education.

TP: Nord Anglia Education is a premium schools organisation. We own 27 schools located in South East Asia, China, Europe, North America and the Middle East. Most of our schools follow a curriculum based on the National Curriculum of England, adapted country by country to meet local culture and conditions.

Tom Preskett

Tom Preskett, Learning Technologist, Nord Anglia Education.

To support these schools are two online environments. One aimed at the students, the Global Classroom, and one aimed at the teachers, Nord Anglia University. Both are moodle environments although they don’t act like traditional virtual learning environments. Our online environments tie together as each school has a moodle, and authentication carries across the Global Classroom and Nord Anglia University. The ethos is one of High Performance Learning as created by our educational director, Professor Deborah Eyre. You can read all about this in her paper “Room at the Top.”

The Global Classroom provides students with the opportunities to learn and collaborate with students from other Nord Anglia Education schools. The Nord Anglia University is about teachers sharing practice and being given CPD (continuing professional development) opportunities.

Where do I fit in? I’m based in Oxford in the offices of the education department. The head office is in Hong Kong. My position, Learning Technologist, was created to help kick start the online courses initiative across both environments.

JS: Tell us more about your work.

TP: This is a new thing for me. In my previous role in designing online courses I was a pedagogical adviser to academics who would take my advice and then utilise our moodle tools to design online activities in a blended or purely online course. The challenge was to educate them about the pedagogical affordances of each tool so that they understood how best to incorporate them. There were no interactive content tools so the content was presented in mostly document form although audio and video was starting to creep in. Here at Nord Anglia, I’ve started with the remit of designing self-study online courses exclusively with Articulate Storyline. What I do is work with a subject matter expert to produce content that I can then take and design into what is essentially an interactive, narrated slideshow. If there’s a technie involved, I guess it’s me. However, I don’t consider myself a technie. Over a couple of months I taught myself Articulate Storyline, and, luckily for me, this is the least technical of all these types of software.

I still feel like a learning technologist dabbling in instructional design. An important part of my role is to assist in the development of our moodle sites, and I’m developing areas to provide advice on a variety of online tools. This is something I intend to grow as I see a real need for this.

JS: What is Articulate Storyline? Is this something other learning technologists need to know about? How does it differ from your past approaches?

TP: As with its competitors (e.g., Adobe Captivate and Lectora), Articulate Storyline is Powerpoint on steroids. It works best on a Windows machine, taking the premise of a slideshow and giving the user many opportunities to interact with the content. Each of our courses ends with a quiz, but it doesn’t have to be straightforward multiple choice. You can set up images and create hotspots for clicking and dragging, add feedback and clues for multiple attempts. Also, each slide gets a timeline so content display can be synced with the audio narration. It uses SCORM so it’s easy to share. Also, my courses are exclusive for our environments so I can’t really share what I’ve produced. However, to get an idea of what I’m talking about have a look at the example they showcase. I have no informed opinion of whether Articulate is better than Adobe Captivate or Lectora or anything else, but I know I like it.

It’s easy if you want to create self-study courses. You just create the best interactive content you can. However, what’s interesting is working out how such interactive content fits in with other content and activities in a more extensive online course. I’ve been developing more traditional online courses that dovetail collaborative, creative or discussion activities with content mostly delivered via Articulate Storyline. In these contexts, you don’t necessarily have to provide all the interactiveness via the slideshow. This is because there is facilitated interactivity occurring elsewhere in the course. In a sense, having software like this is an extra tool to help design an online course. I put a tool like Articulate Storyline firmly in the content camp. It’s content, albeit engagingly produced. You still need to facilitate the learning of your students via asynchronous or synchronous activities and creative tasks.

JS: What are some of the successes you’re experiencing?

TP: It’s only been a few months but to successfully create and publish my first few online courses using a piece of software I’ve never used before is very rewarding.

JS: What are some of the challenges you’re facing?

TP: It was a real challenge to hit the ground running. Any new role feels disorientating, but with a change in the type of work I’m doing the adjustment was a challenge. There are also no shortcuts to learning a piece of software as complicated as Articulate Storyline. It’s fairly easy to quick up the basic, but to deliver quality required a total grasp of what it offers. I absorbed over a hundred of their excellent tutorials and built a library of graphics before I even started. This delayed my actual starting of the work, but it saved time further down the road.

JS: What are your thoughts on MOOCs in general, and, more specifically, does your current work in any way relate to the trend toward MOOCs?

TP: I came from a higher education environment where MOOC discussions were high on the agenda. We even had a space on Coursera setup and feelers put out to potential course creators. The big question with MOOCs for an organisation is “Why do them?” I subscribe to the “it’s good for marketing and showcasing our brand” argument. I also think it’s important to decide whether you are facilitating the learning or not. And then it’s to what extent they are facilitated. The early MOOC from Downes and Siemens about connectivism and exemplifying connectivism seemed from the outside to be fantastic. Using tagging and any platform the learners wanted there was freedom complemented by a hub facilitated by the tutors. As MOOCs have grown, just providing content seemed to be taking over. There’s no defined structure, and it feels like just sharing resources. This is less a MOOC than an online resource. Even a MOOC needs to be carefully structured teaching and learning.

JS: What are the latest changes in your field, and what are your reflections, as a learning technologist, on these changes?

TP: It’s all about the new mobile devices for me. I was running lots of iPad workshops in the last year of my time at the Institute of Education. I believe the tablet is the most important device to enter the classroom since the computer. It’s about the potential for creativity, multimodality, personalised and seamless learning all packaged in an experience that research shows motivates students. You are welcome to check my current website, Using iPads in Education Settings, on this. I’ll probably try and post more on this subject.

I see that future of technology in education as consisting of a suite of mobile devices that students use to perform the tasks that they are best suited to realise. Currently, you need laptops alongside tablets. Phablets may well come into play as well. The hard part for teachers is getting their heads around this. It’s a pity I don’t get to run this type of face-to-face session anymore. However, I aim to develop spaces in our online environments to help teachers and students in the Nord Anglia family with this learning process. I see a lot of screencast creation in my future!

JS: Anything else you’d like to say or expand on?

TP: Not for now. Good to connect back with Educational Technology and Change Journal.

Updated 11/6/13, 5:40am.

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