Technicians in education: recognition overdue
From our extensive work with multiple higher education institutions, we at Lorensbergs are pleased to be able to share our expertize and insight through our latest briefing. On this occasion, we’re focusing on an all-too-often untrumpeted yet utterly crucial role: that of the technician in higher education.
Most people considering a career in higher education will be unaware of just how far universities depend on technicians for their smooth running and essential processes. Many may even be surprised to hear that they exist at all. How can this be the case and why is it so important that technicians finally get some extremely overdue recognition?
Recognition where it’s overdue
It’s by no means an exaggeration to state that, if colleges and universities fail to avail themselves of sufficient technician support, many essential background processes that facilitate learning and research would begin to creak and ultimately, sputter to a halt.
Yet science historian and sociologist Steven Shapin once perspicuously described technicians as being doubly invisible (Shapin, 1989) - invisible to the readers of published science and often invisible to the scientists themselves, despite carrying out and recording virtually all experiments, some of which were exceedingly dangerous!
Matters are somewhat better today - most faculty are aware that their demonstrations, experiments and even their lecture delivery wouldn’t be possible unless the equipment they needed was properly set up. This recognition is becoming increasingly important given the reduction in budgets that institutions are having to swallow. With less money, universities need increasingly to rely on technicians’ expertize to make the right decisions on complex technology choices. Less money also means more careful lifecycle management for the vast inventories of hardware needed.
Technology as never before
The fact that education today relies on technology so heavily only serves to emphasize the importance of the technician. Experiments and the instruments required are becoming ever more complex. And the pace of technological development is accelerating, as reflected in the frequency of new equipment and software functionality releases. This is becoming increasingly apparent as modern campuses build makerspaces and other flexible multi-use learning environments. These initiatives have a massive dependency on staff's technical knowledge, and the breadth and complexity of equipment such as 3D Printers and CNC routers just keeps increasing.
For many courses with a practical aspect, the role of technical teams is also hugely important. Many subjects require access to industry standard equipment and software in order for students to develop the competencies needed for their future careers. Take media courses for example – TV, film and audio production – knowing how to use the latest production techniques is crucial for students to demonstrate their value to future employers. It's mostly the technicians who keep pace with these latest innovations and ensure both hardware and software is kept up to date.
And of course the equipment in question doesn’t set itself up, show staff and students how to use it, maintain itself, diagnose its own faults or rectify them. Without the technician, faulty equipment would simply have to be mothballed. Technicians diagnose repair, maintain and modify vital learning equipment. They ensure it remains within health and safety regulations, and also take responsibility for putting it away safely after use so that teaching spaces can be used for other activities.
When new or replacement equipment becomes necessary, it’s the technician who has his or her finger on the pulse, managing supplies and budgets. New equipment doesn’t simply order itself, on time and on budget although this is a responsibility that is often taken for granted. Thankfully, technicians are reliably there, working to keep equipment functional and help students and staff alike learn how to get the best out of it. Although they tend to be noticed rarely in this role except when equipment goes wrong, they have great enthusiasm for making things work and keeping them working.
Acknowledging a critical role
It’s still the case that the technician’s role is rarely if ever mentioned in published papers, so few people beyond their closed communities are aware of their achievements. Yet good technicians tend to have an insatiable enthusiasm for their fields of specialization, providing far more than just a supporting role. The application of their knowledge often involves real ingenuity for the projects to be successful.
Could it be though that their diverse skill sets and flexibility are difficult to define, putting them at risk of being forgotten at crucial decision making points by university leaders? It certainly doesn’t help that their creations and designs don’t carry their name: usually uncredited in research they tend to be forgotten by history.
However with a substantial amount of restructuring going on within university technical teams, now is a time to address the low-profile/low-recognition issue for technicians. For example, in the case of classroom technology services departments, many are being converged with central IT departments. There is an opportunity here to ensure appropriate job descriptions are in place and communication lines are improved upon.
New departmental structures need to reflect the technicians’ relationship to colleagues as ‘business service partners’ rather than providers of a backend support function. Unfortunately, we hear that job titles can be undermined with these moves: ‘managers’ become ‘technicians’ or ‘specialists’, and management responsibilities go unacknowledged in cases where majority of reports are student workers, regardless of the leadership and training responsibilities that go with the role. More needs to be done to safeguard against this status erosion.
This is also the time to check that performance benchmarks and service level agreements (SLAs) are in place to reflect the importance of the technical services provided. The profile of technicians may be raised further by those utilizing an InformationTechnology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) framework, which sets out best practices for each phase of the IT service lifecycle and keeps activities aligned with business needs (Iglehart, 2016). This is all good groundwork for recognizing the operational day-to-day tasks that add so much value. Many may see this work as akin to simply ‘keeping the lights on’, but it’s also where the quality of learning delivered is critically supported.
Projects that raise profiles
As technology continues to evolve however, it’s the bigger projects that are likely to get technicians noticed – those requiring great feats of ingenuity and efficiency while juggling other daily responsibilities. Some key organizations are ensuing that these efforts don’t go unnoticed. Technicians who are members of the Consortium of College and University Media Centers (CCUMC), are eligible for prestigious annual awards. Recipients of CCUMC’s Innovation Award are recognized for their leadership in an initiative or project that has either advanced their role in the university or has advanced the university itself.
EDUCAUSE has an awards program too, honoring those who have influenced the IT profession or shown promise of future contributions, while EdTech Digest’s annual EdTech Awards honor technicians who have made outstanding contributions in transforming education through technology.
Versatile, knowledgeable and creative
The technician’s role is very frequently concentrated on helping others to solve problems, acting as the missing link between a student’s or researcher’s ideas and the final prototype. Their know-how provides a practical perspective, complementing their academic peers more theoretical approach to lecture and tutorial content. In other words, the technician adds practical solutions to theoretical ideas – something that requires imaginative flair as well as theoretical know-how.
An arts student wanting to construct an elaborate sculpture, for example, may have the creative idea of the finished product in mind from the outset, but it’ll be the university technician who will help her with the details of how the materials can be fashioned, welded, cut etc. Or for an accomplished film production, how to get the best sound quality or lighting effects with the right equipment.
The role also extends to actively supporting both teachers and students during lessons where demonstrations are crucial. Moreover, they will often be consulted by course leaders on program content, working collaboratively to build a syllabus that remains technically rigorous and uses the latest technologies and equipment. From art to zoology, they provide a source of expertize that may be more enduring than provided by their academic counterparts, who tend to have a faster turnover between institutions. Some technicians teach on a regular basis, and even publish their own research, presenting papers at conferences.
An inestimable force
Those who’ve chosen the technician role as a career in education can look forward to an endless succession of intriguing and exciting new challenges. Rarely will one day resemble another. Technicians show true leadership and professional flair within their technical domains, often going beyond this, with interdisciplinary skills and creativity that break down barriers to solve tough problems.
In fact, when all is taken into account, it’s inaccurate to typecast technicians as simply low-profile, modest workers. To do so fails to recognize their enthusiasm and dedication to making the difference to the students and staff they work with. Far from being a support service, they are integral to their institutions and demonstrate ambition to develop the technical capabilities of their universities for the world stage.
Shapin, Steven. 1989. "The Invisible Technician." American Scientist 77: 554-63.
Iglehart, Patrick (2016, October). "The Business of IT/AV Today." Retrieved from https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/ccumc.site-ym.com/resource/cform/1479031/20161007_173330_28433.pdf
Lorensbergs works closely with technicians to automate administrative tasks and empower them to add even greater value in the vital roles they perform. We are proud to be a member of CCUMC.
Lorensbergs' connect2 resource reservation software has been specifically developed to support the technician's role. It optimizes resource access for students and staff, speeds up equipment checkouts, promotes usage and provides invaluable analytics to support new equipment investment.
For further information, please contact Danny Thomas:
Call 646 583 2215 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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