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“Online is a big part of UCL’s future and rightly so”

Matt Jenner (Distance Learning Facilitator, UCL E-learning Environments) discusses his Provost’s Teaching Award, technology and “teaching the teachers”.

27 July 2015

What is your role at UCL?

“When asked to describe my job I place myself in the juxtaposition of technologist and educator for fully online courses. I explain that developers need to hear one language, academics another and I am an interpreter. I feel lucky to see the biggest challenges as educational, not technical. Technical issues always tend to have diagnosis and routes to resolution, somewhere. Educational issues are mysterious, variable, human, and need working through. Increasingly I think (contrary to some) that our technology is pretty solid; the challenges are educational or institutional.

This is my role at UCL – to help make sense of challenges for online learning, to support those in this space and bring benefits to other areas for educational enhancement. I strive to ensure the university is heading in a positive direction; increasing capability in online learning will become increasingly critical for the institutional objectives over the years. I would not claim all courses, or learners, should be fully online – but some are well suited for this format and I want to ensure quality education remains at the core.

Online is a big part of UCL’s future and rightly so. The universities that invest in online will be firmly established in the future. I’m currently spending any spare moments (I recently counted it as 0.05 FTE!) exploring Virtual Reality – this was missed by all the ‘horizon scanning’ that huge organisations do – which is slightly amusing. I am confident that VR will increasingly become more consumer-friendly, it might sneak up on you like smartphones. I’m keen to explore how a learner at UCL might use VR to connect, experience and collaborate with our institution. I’m less keen on it becoming a commuter fad further blanking train-goers from the real world around them…”

What is your approach to teaching?

“My job at UCL is advising colleagues for any aspect of online course design or delivery. My approach is to balance joining their team with a consultative approach and creating a sustaining professional relationship. I aim to empower colleagues, so they retain control and ownership of their courses. My role is to guide, support, advise and occasionally encourage. I do this by demystifying uncertainties, facilitating academic development and reducing barriers, while striving to being available on the ground, with them, as/when needed.

In the past year I have been awarded a Provost’s Teaching Award and become a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy via UCL Arena. I do not think many people would call me a teacher, but I emphatically remind them that my role is to teach the teachers! I will happily confess that I am in admiration of their work, quality education is demanding and doing it fully online is not cushy – especially at the beginning. “

Do you have any advice for UCL colleagues who are unsure about trying a different approach to teaching?

“You must go at your own pace, it’s a long, one-way journey for you and every learner you encounter. It is a rare case for an individual to say to me ‘I’ve tried all this e-learning stuff and it’s not for me. I’m going right back to paper, blackboards and time/space dependant teaching’. Being realistic, it’s more than the pressures of the modern world that embedded technology into the core fabric of education – it also just makes sense. Why print 100 papers when it can be near-instantly digitally distributed? This journey that we all share is deeply personal – hence why you must remain comfortable and in control (as much as possible).

Take time to plan, design and set a direction of travel. There seems to be a lot of pressure to adopt technology like we’re gasping for air – it doesn’t need to be this way. There are well-established workflows for online learning (and design in general) which include; planning, building, running and evaluating – miss one out and things tend to get messy.”

What does your Provost’s Teaching Award recognition mean to you?

“Perhaps arrogantly, I see this as confirmation to just keep going. Being awarded a Provost’s Teaching Award is a real privilege – I know these are not handed out to just anyone and I am confident there are many other deserving people. I can’t really wave it around and command anything, nor can I use it to claim more resource – this is probably a good thing. Instead I see this as a large organisation giving me a massive confirmation to keep pushing at what I can get away with. I don’t think I have a conventional job and I have no plan to do anything in a standardised way. This makes me feel very UCL-ish and why working here aligns well to my character.”

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