About two or three times a month I get requests to meet or talk on the phone to someone who is looking for a career in online learning, educational technology or instructional design. I am always happy to give half an hour of my time to help as best as I can. We need good quality people in this field.
My advice of course depends to some extent on the particular context of each person requesting the advice:
- Some are looking to get into the field but haven’t done work to date in this area (novices). Often these are mature graduate students, sometimes in their mid thirties, or others, often in teaching, who are looking for a career change.
- Others have experience as educational technologists but are working in conditions that they wish to change, such as being underused, or more likely overworked, or blocked in terms of career development (career).
- Others are very experienced but wish to move into more strategic positions, usually in senior management, to influence policy (advanced).
Nevertheless, although the context is often different, there are some common themes that come up in our discussions. I thought I’d share these with you, just in case you fall into one of the three above categories.
What is an educational technologist?
I’m using the term to describe anyone with a professional interest in supporting instructors and students to use technology for learning purposes, so it covers all three of online learning, educational technology or instructional design, but could also include educational media producers, serious games designers, digital graphics designers, etc.
Generally, these are non-academic positions, although some institutions may have Canada Research Chairs in this area, or some professors in communications or education faculties or departments may have specialist expertise or interests in the educational technology area.
Many an educational technologist got their first job on a contractual or short-term basis, but most eventually become full-time salaried staff.
What are the job prospects?
Overall, very good. It is a relatively new professional area but most universities and colleges, at least in Canada, have an office or centre for teaching and learning where you will find educational technologists. However, they are relatively few (I estimate in Canada that there is one learning technology support person/educational technologist for every 1,000 students – or roughly 2,000 educational technologists in total), but demand is growing.
As more and more faculty and instructors start to move into online learning and even more so blended learning, and as new technologies are continually being developed, demand is bound to increase. I would say that the majority of post-secondary institutions in Canada need to double the number of educational technologists they employ over the next five years to meet demand, but this is unlikely to happen without additional funding or without a very strong institutional strategy for digital learning. Nevertheless the overall numbers are still likely to increase because of the dynamic pressures on instructors to make greater use of technology in their teaching. It is therefore an expanding profession.
There are also other fields where educational technologists are in demand:
- corporate training (this is probably the fastest growing employer of educational technologists)
- non-governmental organizations that are involved in education and training
- online continuing education in professional areas (accountants, law, health care, etc.)
However, I do not know these fields well enough to offer advice so I will limit myself to careers in post-secondary education.
There is no road map
No-one leaves high school and says: ‘I want to be an educational technologist.’ Most of us have drifted into the field, usually in our 30s or later. Some come directly from teaching, but many start as specialists in other somewhat related fields, such as video production, print editing, graphics design, web design, or IT. Some have obtained specific training in educational technology through a masters or certificate program, but the educational technology qualifications have been taken usually a few years after graduation in a completely different field or discipline. Others will have done some research into online learning or other learning technologies for their Ph.D. Some initially classroom instructors started teaching online and then have become interested in specialising in online learning and supporting others. Some have been seconded to help classroom instructors but then find themselves working on online courses.
In other words, many have not only drifted into the field, but have learned on the job. However, as a result there is often a richness of experience among educational technologists.
Get qualified and become a super-hero
However you arrive, or before you arrive, though, I strongly recommend that you take some form of formal training and study in the field of educational technology. In some ways you need to be a super-hero, with expertise in pedagogy, technology, project management and, above all, in inter-personal communication, as 90% of your job is persuading people to do things differently.
Fortunately there are plenty of good quality graduate programs now in this area, many of which can be taken on a part-time basis and fully online. In Canada, UBC offers a Master in Educational Technology, fully online, and Concordia University in Montréal offers a mainly on-campus MET. Royal Roads University offers a mainly online Master of Arts in Learning and Technology (MALAT). For other quality programs in this area from other countries, click here. In the UK, The Association for Learning Technology (ALT) offers a peer-based professional accreditation scheme to enable people whose work involves learning technology to have their experience and capabilities certified by peers and demonstrate that they are taking a committed and serious approach to their professional development.
As in any career, you need to build your network. This means getting to know the people already working in this field, particularly in the vicinity of where you want to work.
There are lots of opportunities to do this. Educational technologists are a pretty open group and are willing to share their knowledge, especially about job vacancies. WCET in the USA is an essential network for most people working in this field, as is ALT in the UK and ASCILITE in Australia and New Zealand. The Canadian Network for Innovation in Education (CNIE) and the Réseau d’enseignement francophone à distance du Canada (REFAD) are the two main national networks in Canada, although some provinces also have excellent provincial networks, such as British Columbia’s Educational Technology Users Group (ETUG). Most of these organizations offer annual conferences or workshops which would be well worth attending to get yourself known. They usually also have newsletters where jobs are posted. Individual membership is not usually expensive (although the conferences can be).
Since most Canadian post-secondary institutions now have centres for teaching and learning and/or for learning technologies, it would be worth getting to know your local institutions. If you think you have at least the minimum qualifications or experience, call the local university or college’s centre for teaching and learning and ask if (a) they have any vacancies and (b) if you can meet someone for coffee, so they can get to know your interests and qualifications. Try also the Continuing Education department, as online learning is often managed from there. However, don’t waste their time if you are unqualified or have no relevant prior experience.
I am often asked which are the best ones to work for, but at least in Canada, most publicly funded post-secondary institutions (universities and colleges) have relatively competent and some times outstanding centres for supporting learning technologies, but they are always on the look-out for good people.
Lastly sometimes you need to be a crab and approach this area sideways. One way to do this is to get an administrative position, such as a marketing officer if you have that experience, in a teaching and learning centre or even an academic department, then earn educational technology qualifications while working or look for opportunities to support online course design when they arise.
Getting the first position is usually the most important and the toughest. You need to be flexible. It might not be exactly what you were hoping for but it might open the door to possibilities later. I can’t overstress the importance of getting known and impressing through the quality of your work the professionals in this area. People with the right practical knowledge, aptitude and inter-personal skills are more likely to succeed than the highest qualified people such as Ph.D.s without such skills.
You may already have experience and a job in educational technology but need to move on. This is one of the downsides of the profession. There are not clear milestones for advancement. Educational technologists, although they may have two graduate degrees and oodles of teaching experience, are not usually in academic but administrative positions. Furthermore, few institutions have enough educational technologists to have a career structure of educational technologists, such as novice, experienced/career, and senior/advanced. (I spent the whole of my eight years at UBC fighting HR for this.)
There are two other main barriers. One is moving from an educational technology to an academic or teaching position. Often after a few years educational technologists get a little frustrated helping others to teach better and want to teach themselves. Sometimes, if you have a Ph.D. in a subject discipline you might get offered a temporary adjunct position at a low wage or fee, but there are fewer and fewer tenured academic positions these days and a surplus of subject discipline Ph.D.s. If you can’t show you are able to bring in lots of research grants to a department, it is very hard to move from educational technologist to tenured professor.
The other barrier is moving from an educational technology position into senior management, such as AVP, Teaching and Learning. You may be the best qualified person in the university in terms of what you know about teaching and learning, and have years of administrative and management experience, but these positions always go to someone from an academic department. This is a great pity, and needs to change, if universities and colleges are to adapt to the realities of digital learning. They need the knowledge and experience of educational technologists at a senior management level, not as someone to consult (and then ignore) but as someone to make key decisions based on expertise.
Creating your own future
However, things will probably change over the next few years. I have managed to combine my experience as an educational technologist with being an academic researcher and a tenured professor, as well as at times being a senior manager during my career, so it is possible.
Flexibility and a willingness to move when necessary are critical elements in any successful career these days. Educational technology is an exciting and challenging profession with tremendous satisfaction when all goes well, as it does a surprising number of times. But in the end, you have to create your own opportunities. As the golfer Lee Trevino once said, ‘It’s surprising how lucky I get, the more I practice.’ Go for it: it’s a great career – and we need you!
I’d like to hear from some of my more experienced colleagues on this topic. Do you have suggestions for how to become an educational technologist? What advice do you give? Do you disagree with some of my suggestions? Could we do more to find and train educational technologists – or are they not really needed? Over to you