About This Course
How It Works
Listen to Audio
Join a Backchannel Chat
Read Discussion Threads
Read Daily Newsletter
Browse Blog Posts
Add a New Blog Feed
View List of Blogs
Listen to Recordings
Blog Posts RSS
OPML List of Feeds
Week 01 : Orientation
Week 02: Zoraini Wati Abas
Week 03: Martin Weller
Week 04: Allison Littlejohn
Week 05: David Wiley
Week 06: Tony Bates
Week 07: Rory McGreal
Week 08: Nancy White
Week 09: Dave Cormier
Week 10: Eric Duval
Week 11: Jon Dron
Week 12: Clark Aldrich
Week 13: Clark Quinn
Week 14: Jan Herrington
Week 15: Break
Week 16: Break
Week 17: Howard Rheingold
Week 18: Valerie Irvine and Jillianne Code
Week 19: Dave Snowden
Week 20: Richard DeMillo, Ashwim Ram, Preetha Ram, and Hua Ali
Week 21: Break
Week 22: Pierre Levy
Week 23: Tom Reeves
Week 24: Geetha Narayanan Week 25: Stephen Downes Week 27: Antonio Vantaggiato Week 28: Tony Hirst Week 29: Alec Couros Week 30: Marti Cleveland-Innes Week 31: Diana Laurillard Week 32: George Siemens Week 33: George Veletsianos Week 34: Bonnie Stewart Week 35: Terry Anderson
The nature of technologies
All technologies are assemblies that orchestrate phenomena to some purpose (Arthur, 2009). They may consist of, use or embody tools that may be physical or conceptual or both. There are as much technologies of prayer as there are of steam locomotion (Franklin, 1999).
Soft and hard technologies
For some (e.g. (Bessant & Francis, 2005)) hard technologies are physical while soft technologies are human-mediated processes. For others (e.g. (Norman, 1993)), hardness or softness concerns technologies’ effects upon us. For others (e.g. (Zhouying, 2004)) soft technologies are the human factors that are necessary adjuncts of hard tools.
I offer a consolidated definition: what makes a technology softer or harder is the degree to which the orchestration of phenomena is actively performed by a human or humans.
Harder technologies involve fewer human mediated processes because they embody them in tools and toolsets. Harder technologies tend to be more constraining and authoritarian while softer technologies tend towards creativity and flexibility. Thus, softness and hardness lies both in the effects of technologies and in their constitution..
Soft technologies are flexible and needy
Soft technologies are flexible, supporting creativity and change, because the gaps inside them have to be filled with processes constructed by people. They are needy and incomplete until people fill the holes.
Hard technologies are rigid and complete
Hard technologies contain within them the processes and methods to achieve the ends for which they were designed. This brings efficiency, scalability, replicability, freedom from error and speed.
Human processes can be hard too
People enact some hard technologies, such as legal systems or machine operating procedures. The orchestration of phenomena is enshrined in rules and processes that may not be overridden.
Expanding the adjacent possible softens the overall system
As complex systems evolve they expand the adjacent possible (Kauffman, 2000). This is equally true of technological systems (Johnson, 2010). Because old technologies are seldom if ever fully replaced (Kelly, 2010), new technologies expand the adjacent possible within an entire system even though a particular new technology may be hard. This will be little consolation to those forced to use that hard technology, however.
Aggregation makes technologies softer
When one technology is assembled with another, the adjacent possible that the first technology provides remains but is augmented with further adjacent possibilities. Aggregation, even of hard technologies, is a means of softening a technology. Consequently, automation does not necessarily make a technology harder: automated parts, when assembled, make a technology softer. Oddly, the more we assemble our technologies, the more needy and incomplete they become.
Replacement makes technologies harder
When we replace part of a technology with something harder that technology will become harder. Adjacent possibilities are taken away and replaced by something that offers fewer of them. Softer technologies can in principle replace harder ones, thus softening the whole assembly, but this rarely happens.
Soft is hard, hard is easy
Harder technologies make what they automate easier for humans using them, because no additional orchestration is needed, whereas softer technologies, demanding human orchestration, make things harder.
Hardness and softness is a continuum
Purely hard or soft technologies are rare. Technologies tend to be assembled from both soft and hard parts. leading to a soft-hard continuum
It depends on your point of view
Hardness and softness are not innate characteristics of objects and processes. The same objects and processes are different technologies when they are used for different purposes and orchestrate different phenomena. A sales terminal is soft to its programmer, hard to a sales assistant.
Unequal mutual influence
Hard technologies tend to influence soft technologies more than vice versa because soft technologies can adapt more quickly and easily than hard technologies. However, through assembly, soft technologies can bind together different hard technologies to make an overall system softer.
No innate preference
Pedagogies are technologies (Dron, 2009). Harder learning technologies may harmfully constrain the softer pedagogies with which they are assembled or harden a conflicting pedagogy. Softer technologies increase opportunities for failure, inefficiency and sluggishness, and may be difficult for learners who must not only learn the subject of study but must also become part of the technology through which they learn. Neither is ideal for all occasions.
Learning technology design
Structural constraints of hard technologies and inefficiencies of soft technologies deeply affect learning. We should therefore build systems that can be as soft or hard as needed. The most effective way to do this is to enable easy assembly of hard technology components. The challenge is how to do that effectively.
The elephant in the room
Soft technologies need skill and artistry. It ain’t just what you do, it’s the way that you do it. A bad technology, used well, can work brilliantly, while a good technology, used badly, can be useless. Most learning technology research concentrates on technology (including methods and pedagogies) not the talent and skill with which it is applied that is frequently more significant. The challenge is to devise research methods that capture this usefully.
Arthur, W. B. (2009). The Nature of Technology: what it is and how it evolves. New York, USA: Free Press.
Bessant, J., & Francis, D. (2005). Transferring soft technologies: exploring adaptive theory. International Journal of Technology Management & Sustainable Development, 4(2), 93-112.
Dron, J. (2009). Pedagogies as Educational technologies. Paper presented at E-Learn 2009, Vancouver, Canada.
Franklin, U. M. (1999). The Real World of Technology. Concord ON: House of Anansi Press.
Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from: the natural history of innovation. New York: Penguin.
Kauffman, S. (2000). Investigations. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kelly, K. (2010). What Technology Wants. New York: Viking.
Norman, D. A. (1993). Things that make us smart: defending human attributes in the age of the machine. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.
Zhouying, J. (2004). Technological progress in history: a survey of evolution and shift of research emphasis from 'hard-tech' to 'soft-tech' development.. International Journal of Technology Management & Sustainable Development, 3(2), 133-148.
Top 5 Reading for the time-poor
The neediness of soft technologies:
Orchestrating soft and hard technologies:
Learning analytics, soft and hard
Why the impossible happens more often:
Activity: Designing a soft technology
Provide at least one possible educational use for an unenhanced standard email client such as Thunderbird or Outlook Express that requires nothing more than that email client and its usual supporting infrastructure (network connection, operating system etc are fine, but no other distinct applications like web browsers, word processors, shared storage, listservs, schedulers or calendars). Provide this in a form that may be aggregated with grsshopper and shared with others on the MOOC.
The intention here is to focus on what phenomena are being orchestrated to what purpose in each case and (most importantly) how that orchestration occurs. The more complex, bizarre, interesting and ingenious the ways of using these better.
Here are two simple examples of the kind of thing I have in mind and an appropriate format. Neither is particularly good and both could definitely be improved or refined:
A scheduling system, e.g. for class meetings
The email client's capability of sending messages to multiple people and for it to be used to reply to all, the ability to show a subject line, the ability to identify individuals to which it has been sent, the ability to find, store, sort and organise messages
Participants should explicitly or tacitly agree on information that must be included - at least date and subject and perhaps type of meeting, and that may be included - time, place, details, agenda, RSVP etc. The cc list will be used to identify others invited. If a response is requested, invitees should respond. The subject line should contain the key information for ease of filing. Those attending should use their email folders and/or use the client's search facilities to maintain a record to identify when meetings will occur. The organiser should keep replies in a folder or use search/ordering to keep tabs on who is and is not attending. A recognisable form of regrets/apologies for non attendance should be used and/or confirmation of attendance - ideally, wording like 'accept' or 'regrets' will be added within the subject line itself, perhaps appended to the end of the subject line, so that the organiser can manage the attendee list more easily. The organiser should ideally explain all of this in the invitation.
(more sophisticated email clients could use vcal or ical attachments, integrate with built in calendars and so on, but that is outside scope, as is the use of a listserv)
An assignment submission and marking system.
The email client's capability of sending and receiving messages, the ability to send to multiple individuals, the ability to show a subject line, the ability to identify individuals to whom mail has been sent and from whom mail has been sent, the ability to find, store, sort and organise messages, the ability to add MIME attachments, the ability to time-stamp a message.
Students are sent an email explaining the assignment requirements, giving a final hand-in date/time, expected format, and other information relating to that assignment, as well as a description of the process (as follows). The message is cc'd to the tutor who moves it to a folder that will record the complete assignment process from start to finish, including any related correspondence.
Students are required to send a reply to the tutor to confirm that the message has been received (the tutor uses search and/or folders to match sent items with received responses and re-sends if none is received). At the hand-in date or before, students send their work (they may attach images or other files that can be displayed within the tutor's email client, as specified), and provide a subject line according to a specified format that includes their student number and the name of the assignment.
They send the work to the tutor, who sends a reply to confirm that it has been received. If students do not receive the reply then they resend, forwarding the original from their sent mail, thus providing some proof that it was sent when they claimed it was sent. The tutor stores the emails in a subfolder for unmarked work in the folder for that assignment and/or flags or stars the emails (or simply marks as unread) to track whether or not they have been marked. He or she opens a new email message, which will be used to store the aggregated marks and saves it to the drafts folder.
As he or she opens the emails and marks the work, he or she sends a response to the student providing feedback and a mark for the assignment. If work is sent after the hand-in date (discovered from the time stamp of the email), the tutor applies whatever penalty is required. The tutor moves marked email to a 'marked email' subfolder and/or unflags, unstars or just leaves the email to be automatically marked as read. Once the marking is finished, the tutor sends it as a self-addressed email with a subject line of 'marks for nnn assignment' which is then stored in the same folder as the student work itself.
@scott - it's a continuum, with very few technologies being purely hard or purely soft - the more we impose unbreakable processes, either within human organisations or physical/virtual machines, the harder they become so, yes, those prescriptive methods are harder than those that are less prescriptive!
I think that, by recognising that all of those repeatable processes and methods form parts of technologies, not just the shiny scary things with flashing lights and binary code, we can have more sensible conversations about them. It helps to direct dialogue away from the very highly loaded beliefs and emotions we have about industrial machines or spooky technocracies getting in the way. We are all doing technology, even the face-to-face Socratic facilitator. We need to be asking why, how, what and whether, and we need to be making our technologies work together to do the very human thing of helping people to learn.
@Barry - excellent! I find the framework a useful way to think about what we are really doing and what things we should make harder (and therefore usually easier) or softer (and therefore usually more difficult) [Comment] [Permalink] [Next]
Hard and soft seem like great ways to distinguish the characteristics of technology. A while back I was tasked with researching professional development programs directed towards transitioning staff from 100% F2F delivery to to blended and eventually to fully online coursework. As expected there were thousands of best-practice out there to "tell" the instructor how to succeed but nothing (ironically) that spoke to the long time teacher as if they were a student learning a new skill. Prior to my completing the research, a PD strategy was implemented that had all the hard-edge, decided-in-advance, best-practice presentation model that hasn't worked for years and doesn't work now.
Is it correct to label PD presentations made by others in the form of a generalized set of skills as "hard"? The presentations are offered with good intentions and, having voluntary attendance, are certainly not being forced on anyone. Yet they go unattended as if they were top-down edicts forced on staff. Is there a way to soften these things (they aren't all useless)? I can see allowing instructors into the decision making to soften the process but how is that done without looking like just one more phoney "we appreciate your input" exercise? The only thought that comes to mind at this end is to stop attaching the word "technology" to every teaching moment as if no one dare enter a classroom (real or virtual) without some sort of electronic enhancement. Is it only the use of technology that creates hard situations? [Comment] [Permalink] [Next]
Jon Don - #Change11
Enjoying doing some of the background reading before your presentation.
Your activity of developing a phenomena relates to what I have been doing with two of my classes during the last week. Assignement to be produced on-line and details to me by e-mail for assessment. marking and reporting back via e-mail.
Your ideas formed a check list as to how I built my own assessment - submission - marking - feedback - reporting -reminders - storage system
. I was able to critique my present system and see that it had one flaw and move to fill this gap.
The outcome for me is confirmation that hard technology is the conduit and the students and I are grappling with 'the hard part' of the soft technology and that by combining the two technologies our learning, our proccesses and communications meld together hard and soft technologies on this continuim.
I have been energised by your readings and look forward to your presentation.
Cheers - Barry Munro.
[Comment] [Permalink] [Next]
Up-to-date version of this, with other recommended activities, ideas and links at https://landing.athabascau.ca/pg/groups/89415/soft-things-hard-things-and-invisible-elephants/
Jon [Comment] [Permalink] [Next]