The dull murmur of instructors and students casually chatting before a class begins has been replaced by the hum of server fans and air conditioning in computer rooms. The instructor standing in front of a class has been replaced by the flow of packets from faraway servers to the student’s computer. It’s the distribution specialists who keep these connections flowing and the servers humming along.

What Is a Distribution Specialist?

Distribution specialists are the professionals who keep the learning platform running so that students can access the materials. While this role is dramatically different than a frontline, in-the-trenches role, it has the important goal of distributing content. Distribution specialists have a radically different skill set than instructors. Where instructors are skilled in instruction and facilitation, distribution specialists may not be comfortable when placed in front of a class.

What Is Expected of the Distribution Specialist?

Distribution specialists are responsible for a wide variety of technical skills and most often identify with information technology rather than training. However, their skills are no less essential to the learning process than any other role. From a skill-set perspective, this IT focus is appropriate. They’re not creating content or directly interacting with students.

Distribution specialists are expected to have the same considerations as IT professionals. They keep backups. They eliminate single points of failure. They consider alternative technologies with better performance, stability or costs. They’re at their best when the systems just run, and no one even realizes that they’re there, behind the scenes.

What Is not Expected of the Distribution Specialist?

Distribution specialists don’t need to be experts in learning. Despite the technology focus, they’re also not expected to be the ultimate expert on networking, video streaming or every possible technical aspect of the distribution. They’re only expected to be able to facilitate conversations across disciplines when problems are occurring.

Where’s the Role Going?

Though the transition from instructor-led courses to electronically-delivered courses has been slow, it is happening. As more and more courses are delivered online, there will be a greater need for distribution specialists who can manage the course delivery process. Because the technology is essential to the learning process, good distribution specialists can make the difference between a deeply frustrating learning experience and a great one. As the number of learning hours delivered electronically increases, so, too, will the need for distribution specialists.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

  • Good: When things are working well, the distribution specialist can work on low-stress tasks like monitoring and capacity planning.
  • Good: The distribution specialist can see the number of people who are learning because of the platform that he or she maintains.
  • Bad: Maintenance windows tend to be in the middle of the night or on weekends to minimize the impact to learners. That means some non-standard working hours.
  • Bad: Tracking down odd quirks in the system can be difficult and time-consuming.
  • Ugly: The distribution specialist can be awakened at any time of day or night to respond to a system alert or customer report of problems.