Sharing our stories: TEL edvisor narratives

Group camping, storytelling

Read time: Approximately 11 minutes.

The positions and people that encompass what we have coined the “TEL edvisor” role are varied, including learning designers, educational technologists, academic developers, and others who fall somewhere in between or have an affinity/overlap with these roles. Discussions that the TEL edvisor Special Interest Group (SIG) has had over the last two years have included sharing stories and experiences of TEL edvisors, including our backgrounds, our roles, our day to day tasks and interactions with others within institutions, and how we feel we are perceived by faculty staff.

The TEL edvisor SIG seeks to tease out these role nuances and the issues that may exist in daily practice. More often than not, these stories go unheard in Higher Education, as “Typically research has concentrated on the contribution of academic staff, and has largely overlooked the crucial role of professional staff” (Graham, 2012). This has perhaps led to the SIG being coined by one of our members at the recent ASCILITE 2018 conference as “alcoholics anonymous for learning designers”.

TELedvisors meeting up in a workshop
TELedvisors in action

As Colin Simpson pointed out in the Meet your edvisors webinar last year (September 2018), most of us have ended up in such roles without having formal qualifications in learning design/instructional design or educational technology. Instead, many have started in education or media, some via other pathways. We have found that through sharing our stories, we have gained a more nuanced understanding of the variety of people who identify as TELedvisors and the breadth of expertise they bring to their role. That webinar offered a chance to hear these diverse stories directly from TEL edvisors themselves and what they felt their experience and background meant for their work as a TEL edvisor.

Michael Sankey (Deputy Director, Learning Transformations) began as a photographer and designer then completed a Masters of Education and became an instructional designer while also continuing to teach web publishing (TEL Edvisors, 2018). Marlene Daicopolous originally studied education but then moved into marketing and admin as well as training herself in IT for a period before coming back to education. Hyacinth Steel (Learning Designer. QUT) began originally as a librarian in public libraries and HE before becoming a TAFE teacher and then working as an instructional designer and learning designer across TAFE and Higher Education (TEL Edvisors, 2018). Jenny James “was a Graphic Designer for print, then moved to Multimedia Developer, to Educational Designer/Blended Learning Advisor/Learning and Teaching Consultant (Design).”

Research into TEL edvisor type roles and journeys describe similar accounts. Bird (2004) notes that staff roles working with academics in flexible learning (what we would describe as TEL edvisors) “come from diverse professional, theoretical and educational backgrounds and have no obvious career path” (p.123). In ‘Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable: a narrative account of becoming an academic developer’, Fyffe (2018) comments on those working as an academic developer:

“Accounts of coming to academic development are distinct but also remarkably similar. Academic developers come from many and diverse backgrounds; no two stories are the same and each academic developer thinks their own story is unique… Coming to academic development is often described as an accidental career pathway. The majority of people arrive with extensive teaching experience after having a first career… Questions about identity are commonplace.”

(Fyffe, 2018, p.357)

Reflecting on others’ stories has encouraged me to reflect on my own experience and journey in getting here. I came to my role as a learning designer through similar pathways. I originally trained in film and television production, which gave me a love of and further training and work in multimedia. I worked freelance in video and multimedia, taught web and graphic design in TAFE and worked as a multimedia officer in a high school. I then completed a Dip Ed and worked as a secondary teacher for a short period of time, before taking a role as Blended Learning Training and Support Coordinator at a University, where I then also began completing a Master of Education (Research), exploring VET/TAFE teachers’ perceptions of e-Learning. It was in my role as Blended Learning coordinator that I began the kind of work I do now, and where I realised I enjoy this work as I can blend multimedia production with educational design and with mentoring and supporting teachers/academics to incorporate technology in meaningful ways. I then found myself working as a learning designer across several different institutions in differing guises. Like Michael Sankey I have had great mentors along the way who encouraged me in my journey and I was also lucky enough to have a broad based background and an understanding of my skills and worth which I think allowed me to make more lateral jumps across industries and take stock at different points in my journey.

This is where things get tricky for us TEL edvisors. As we all come from slightly different backgrounds but with similarities, getting a clear picture of just exactly who a learning designer, academic developer, or learning technologist is and is not (just how different or similar each of these roles actually are – are they even the same thing?) is difficult. Perhaps this is why we find tensions when working with others in a University or institutional setting.

Many of us are also in “professional” or at times described as “non-academic” level roles, which can put us in a position as being seen as “other”. We often sit in the “third space” (Whitchurch, 2008). A space between professional and academic, between faculty and management, often supporting competing agendas of the academic and the institution.

Research suggests many in TEL edvisor roles feel misunderstood in their role or that their status and expertise is questioned (Bird, 2004). Oliver (2002) and Ritzhaupt and Kumar (2015) found that learning technologists and instructional designers respectively felt that they were perceived by academics or others in their organisations as being “tech people” (Ritzhaupt and Kumar, 2015, p. 58) or ‘only’ having a “technical role” (Oliver, 2002, p. 250) when their roles often required deep knowledge of pedagogy.

Our broad backgrounds and slightly different journeys to the role can also make it difficult for us to feel that our unique skill sets are not only understood, but valued and fully utilised, as others may not recognise the history and expertise we bring to our role. Not only may learning designers be similar or different to learning technologists or academic developers, but each learning designer within a team of learning designers may hold slightly different skill sets.

Fyffe (2018) highlights that new academic developers often have a “thirst for legitimacy” when working in their field, leading them to completing a qualification but “this is not always the most affirming” (p360) – presumably, because they have already come from an experienced base and a qualification does not ingratiate them further in the eyes of academics, which was likely the intended goal. This, I feel, is relevant to learning designers and other TEL edvisors. We already come with a range of experience and relevant qualifications to the job at hand but these are not always recognised by others as they may be lateral jumps or not perceived as ‘legitimate’.

Fyffe argues that having an understanding of the institution and your place within it as an important induction to the academic developer role. She proposes that “academic developers need to be constantly reflexive about who is being developed and to what end” (Fyffe, 2018, p. 361), as well as what we as the developer bring to the situation. I would argue this is a two way street. In order to be effective I feel we have to recognise and respect the experience and history of the academics (and/or others) we are working with. This is important both in order to build a relationship for collaborative design and also to contextualise any suggestions or solutions to learning and teaching challenges. However, we also have to understand ourselves and advocate for our role. To advocate that others recognise the experience and history that we as TEL edvisors bring to the equation (which may be similar or different individually). One of the ways we can advocate and promote better understanding is through sharing our stories.

Why share our stories? Stories are powerful frames from which we make sense of our worlds. They are the way in which we pass on knowledge, experience and culture, so they are important for us when coming to deeper and more nuanced understandings of our identities (both individually and collectively).

There’s also something to be said for using narrative both as a form of analysis and as a writing format as part of research. As Colin Simpson points out in the May 2018 TELedvisors showcase webinar, as TEL edvisors are often working in professional-level (or “non-academic”) positions, we do not have the ability within our role to conduct research which means we can’t contribute to the body of literature or have our voices heard. Narrative (narrative analysis in research methodology, as well as narrative retelling of stories told through interviews, journals, narrative accounts and other means) is a valid and important means of providing voice for those silenced or voiceless. I believe that the same can be said for giving voice to TEL edvisors – to share our stories amongst ourselves and with others, for broadening others’ understanding of our roles and capabilities within institutions and the sector at large.

Sharing our stories helps us to continue to not only understand, but also advocate and build ‘legitimacy’ for our roles in our own eyes and the eyes of others across institutions. Sharing our stories allows us to continually define and redefine these roles and boundaries. As Liz Branigan (2019) via Twitter notes, “These roles are so boundary spanning that defining, re-defining and clarifying role is, by necessity, an ongoing activity”.

For myself, I am entering a new phase of redefining my own personal and professional identities, as I navigate the terrain of both being a learning designer and a mother, and looking to move into a role more akin to academic development or strategic leadership in the (hopefully near) future. I’m interested how I can redefine myself and role in these contexts.

Please continue the conversation by sharing your own TEL edvisor story.


Bird, J. (2004). Professional navel gazing: Flexible learning professionals into the future. Presented at the ASCILITE, Perth.

Fyffe, J. (2018). Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable: a narrative account of becoming an academic developer. International Journal for Academic Development, 23(4).

Graham, C. (2012). Transforming spaces and identities: the contributions of professional staff to learning spaces in higher education. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 34(4), 437–452.

Oliver, M. (2002). What do Learning Technologists do? Innovations in Education and Teaching International; London, 39(4), 245–252.

Ritzhaupt, A., & Kumar, S. (2015). Knowledge and skills needed by instructional designers in higher education. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 28(3), 51–69.

Whitchurch, C. (2008). Shifting Identities and Blurring Boundaries: the Emergence of Third Space Professionals in UK Higher Education. Higher Education Quarterly, 62(4), 377–396.

One response to “Sharing our stories: TEL edvisor narratives”

  1. Hi Kate,
    Great article.
    Flexible learning has to be the way institutions move forward, as long as the diversity of the cohort is given serious consideration. During my ten years in Transition and Retention I would advocate that ‘one size does not fit all’, as there were students who struggled with e-learning. I envisage the challenges the students faced were, and are, not dissimilar to those of the academic developer.
    I agree wholeheartedly that the ‘stories’ need and must be shared as they will continue to redefine ( and hopefully champion) the future of blended learning.

    Thank you for sharing

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