Learning Technologist…and what is next? The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in the opportunities for career progression
by Mari Cruz Garcia Vallejo
Exactly a year ago I had written a blog post titled “Learning technologist… and what is next?” that was meant to be the closure and conclusion of the excellent series of blog posts “What makes a learning technologist?” written by Chris Melia for the ALT Blog.
At the time, November 2020, nobody could have predicted the paradigm shift that the Covid-19 pandemic would bring about in the education sector, in particular the HE sector, forcing universities across the globe to evolve so rapidly from a traditional face-to-face instruction to a situation of “remote learning” or “emergency learning” in such short period of time. Learning and Teaching Committees soon realised that they needed to move to more sustainable pedagogical models that combined online learning with elements of blended learning across different educational contexts and that learning technologists were crucial to support those new pedagogical models.
In my initial blog post, I talked about the career stagnation that learning technologists may experience at some point in their professional journeys through different causes (e.g. lack of opportunities of promotion in professional services, several types of glass ceilings, etc.). At that time, I had identified three main progression pathways for learning technologists:
- Stepping into senior management positions in teams and divisions related to technology enhanced learning, learning and academic services, etc.
- Migrating to the academic route, either through research or teaching, and applying for positions such as teaching fellowship, academic developer, associate lecturer, etc.
- Switching to the commercial sector.
These three progression routes are equally valid 12 months later, the pandemic hasn’t changed much the choices for career progression, albeit this lack of choice was temporarily overshadowed by the “summer of love” for learning technologists that HE institutions around the world initiated in May 2020, when professional profiles that included skills such as “learning design”, “technology enhanced learning”, or “digital learning” were in high demand to help universities deploy the new “hybrid” or “blended learning” pedagogical models that had been designed in response to the pandemic and in preparation of the new academic year.
During the “summer of love”, recruitment agencies in the UK were desperately looking for professionals whose profile could match the job description of a “learning technologist”. Agencies offered contractor appointments with universities which could last between 3 and 6 months in the “early autumn” that followed the summer of love. Those of us who have professional profiles in LinkedIn can remember how persistent the recruitment agents could be offering the flexibility of working remotely from home and a substantial daily rate which makes some professionals reconsider seriously the “contractor route” as an alternative to the perspective of salary freezes, redundancy schemes, hiring freezes and null opportunities of progression into more senior positions.
If you are considering the contractor route, this route has pros and cons. One of the pros used to be its flexibility: contractors can choose the project assignments they work in and, in some cases, the possibility of working remotely either from what you define as “home” or from another country. This was a great advantage because, until the pandemic outbreak, it was unthinkable that learning technologists could work remotely.
The main disadvantage of the contractor route is the uncertainty of generating a sustainable income as it relies on fixed-term projects. Hourly rates and daily rates offered to contractors must be higher than the ones usually paid if you are working as an employee of a university as those rate should include costs such as: contributions to the universities superannuation scheme (USS) or any other private pension scheme, paid annual leave, sick pay and national insurance contributions.
Likewise, be careful if you decide to work remotely from another country as you may be liable to pay taxes there if you stay longer than 180 days. Also the UK will not longer be an EU country from the 1st January 2021 and The Withdrawal Agreement has not clarified yet if double taxation agreements with EU countries will still apply.
If you are considering the contractor route, how much higher your rate should be in comparison with what you are paid as a university employee?
Although there is not rule of thumb for calculating a fair professional rate, my advice would be:
- Clarify first the project timeline and if the expected number of hours per week complies with Working Time Directive 2003/88/EC (you are not expected to work more than 48 hours per week and over certain time conditions) or it exceeds the directive dispositions. If the project timeline involves working beyond the Working Time Directive Regulations you should charge an hourly rate, ensuring that you set up a higher rate if you work during bank holidays (Spoiler: you may lose the protection of the Working Time Directive after the 31st December 2020, ah.., the joys of Brexit).
- For project timelines that are compliant with the Working Time Directive, you should charge a daily rate. Experienced learning technologists should charge around 250GBP per day and new technologists no less than 125 per day. However, never say never as institutions willingness to pay those daily rates will very much depend on your skills and experience and the offer of technologists available.
As a contractor you would need to set up your own limited company -there is plenty of information about this in Internet- or you could be employed by umbrella companies to work on temporary contract assignments in HE institutions. If you plan to be a contractor for a long time, it makes sense to start your own limited company. As a contractor working remotely off campus, the IR35 legislation should not apply to you, which would represent a significant tax release. The term IR35 refers to the two sets of tax legislation that are designed to combat tax avoidance by contractors, as well as the firms hiring them, who can be seen by the HRMC as “disguised employees”. The IR35 legislation applies to contractors that, according to the employability test of the HRMC, are in reality employees in disguise that are using the limited company to pay less taxes. So, make sure that you familiarise yourself with the employability test.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also increased the career opportunities for learning technologists in the commercial sector. In addition to the existing providers of online content and digital platforms, such as MOOC and online education providers, new start-up companies are jumping into the niche market of digital content. As an example, the start-up Odilo, that aims to be “the Netflix of education”, experienced a significant increase of staff and turnover during the lockdown.
The spring lockdown was also the wake-up call to speed up the digitalisation for all economic sectors, from banking to manufacturing, which also involved adapting their training needs to digital means and platforms. The private sector is now demanding learning designers, technologists and digital educators who can develop content and learning platforms to train their employees online.
With regard to the routes of stepping into management or changing to the academic route, in my original post I wondered how far learning technologists were able to travel physically since, at that time, it was unthinkable to work off campus and stepping into management positions or academic contracts were very limited in the HE sector. The possibility of working from home, with no foreseeable date to come back to physical campuses, have made professionals to apply for job opportunities in universities or institutions that are beyond any reasonable commuting distance, for example, in another geographic region or even in another country. As medical authorities are stating that it could take up to two years to come back to the “old normal”, it seems that we will keep working “remotely” for a while. However, for those who are applying to job opportunities located in institutions far away from a reasonable commuting distance , it is important to highlight that, unless the job contract specifically supports working from a different physical setting on a permanent basis- which involves undertaking specific health and safety risk assessments- those who have accepted a job opportunity in another geographic region will be asked, at some point, to relocate to that region. This relocation may affect family life as well as emotional and social needs.
The impact of covid-19 in UK higher education institutions in terms of enrolments and economic downturn has been widely reported: London Economics estimated a total decline in tuition fees and teaching income across the sector of £2.472 billion for the academic year 2020-2021, being the average loss in income per higher education institution of approximately £20 million. This income decline has brought about that many British universities are going through redundancy schemes -some of them expected to be compulsory- with an estimated total of 63,000 job losses across the sector.
The profession of learning technologist is being regarded, so far, as “essential” for the deployment of the responsive blended or hybrid teaching models that have emerged as a result of the pandemic; learning technologists, as many other professionals responsible for supporting staff and students through the “blend”, have been excluded -so far- from any “red-cycling” redundancy schemes. However, our profession will also be affected by the predicted impoverishment of the working conditions in UK universities that will follow the covid-19 economic aftermath.
In this respect, it is particularly concerning that some UK universities are advertising positions of senior learning technologists or digital learning managers in a grade 7 within the HERA (Higher Education Role Analysis) scale, a tool used to analyse and rank job roles used in UK HE institutions. It is, likewise, concerning that more than 80% of the position advertised as “learning technologists” by British universities since March 2020 were fixed-term contracts.
There is not a clear successful route when it comes to further career progression for a learning technologist and the future looks very uncertain. When choosing your next move, you really need to explore your motivation and interests on the long term as well as the pros and cons of each progression route.
The question that only you can answer is: what do you really want to do and where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Please share your thoughts and comments.
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