Networked Learning Conference 2010 
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Exploring sociotechnical theories of learning technology

Symposium Organisers: Linda Creanor
Caledonian Academy, Glasgow Caledonian University, UK
Dr Steve Walker
Dept. of Communications and Systems, Open University, UK


Research into learning technology has often been criticised for being mechanistic (e.g. Laurillard, 2005), with a technological determinism implicit in many of the assumptions about the relationships between people, technology and learning. More recent research has begun to recognise the social elements of technology, as in the emphasis on the learner perspective (e.g. Hardy & Bates, 2009) which provides a highly important, though incomplete corrective to technology-centred views of the learning experience. However there are traditions of studying technology generally, and information and communications technology in particular, which view it as the outcome, rather than the instigator, of complex interactions between people and the material world (Law and Hassard, 1999). These traditions include social informatics (Kling, 2000), social shaping of technology (Mackenzie & Wacjman, 1999), soft systems (Checkland & Holwell, 1998), sociotechnical systems (Trist & Bamforth, 1951) and others. They have yielded a rich heritage of ‘mid-range’ theories and concepts which, we suggest, have been under-utilised in studies of learning technology. Further, this lack of consideration of the interaction between social agency and learning artefacts has frequently resulted in stark discrepancies between the claims made about the potential of particular technologies and the subsequent realities of their use, particularly in a learning context (e.g Selwyn, 2007). Learning theories themselves have been small in scope, looking at changes within and between individuals, whereas learning with technology is associated with changes of increasingly large scope, in organisations and in society in general, and impacting on more individuals, engaged in formal and informal learning. The increased scope makes the impact of unrealistic claims even greater.

The aim of this symposium is to highlight these theoretical traditions and to instigate discussion around their potential contribution to research and practice in learning technology and networked learning. By addressing theories for research alongside impact on practice, it draws together two of the main conference themes. The format of the symposium will be short presentations of each paper, followed by a round table discussion of the issues raised and possible ways forward in developing sociotechnical perspectives on networked learning.

The four papers, listed below, illustrate the application and significance of distinct sociotechnical perspectives to cases of learning technology and consider their potential future relevance.

  1. Creanor, L. & Walker, S., Interpreting Complexity: a case for the sociotechnical interaction framework as an analytical lens for learning technology research
  2. Bell, F., Network theories for technology-enabled learning and social change: what do Connectivism and Actor Network Theory have to say to each other?
  3. Bissell, C., The social construction of educational technology through the use of proprietary software
  4. Kear, K., Social presence in online learning communities

The first paper (Creanor & Walker) sets the scene by outlining the case for sociotechnical theories and providing an illustrative example, drawing on the social informatics literature and the concept of the sociotechnical interaction network. in the second paper (Bell) compares and critiques connectivism and actor network theory in to explore how they might help a range of stakeholders to understand change and make plans for taking action in a fluid context. Paper three (Bissell) addresses the issue of technological determinism directly by making the case for the social construction of educational technology by users and teachers. Finally, paper four (Kear) focuses on the concept of social presence and how it is influenced by the behaviour and interactions of participants, as well as by the characteristics of the communication medium

This will form the basis of a discussion organised around the following questions:

- Can, and if so how, can sociotechnical theories inform and enrich our understanding of the complexity of the relationships between ICT and both formal and informal learning?

- What are the particular strengths and weaknesses in the differing formulations the papers offer of the relationship between the technical and the social, in particular as they relate to learning technologies?

- Do such approaches help us to consider the changing scope of learning with technology?

Introduction - .pdf


Interpreting Complexity: a case for the sociotechnical interaction framework as an analytical lens for learning technology research

Linda Creanor
Caledonian Academy, Glasgow Caledonian University, UK
Dr Steve Walker
Dept. of Communications and Systems, the Open University, UK


In this paper we highlight challenging issues in current learning technology research, particularly in relation to emerging collaborative technologies and the growing body of evidence on the learner experience. The complex nature of the interplay of social, technical and environmental factors is examined along with an overview of the key theoretical models which are currently in play. Limitations are identified in the learning technology literature in which a technological determinism is often evident, despite repeated calls for an approach which takes fuller account of the technology’s pedagogical, organisational, social and technical aspects. We propose that interdisciplinary collaboration has the potential to help us address the demanding task of analysing these interconnected factors, and may also go some way towards mitigating over-charged claims of the impact and effectiveness of learning technology against the reality of its use. The focus of this paper is on sociotechnical approaches, particularly those derived from a social informatics tradition, which to date appear to have received little attention in learning technology research. We identify potential benefits in applying these approaches to today’s learning environment which encompasses fast-moving technology developments along with changing communicative behaviours among learners, whether on campus, in the workplace or in everyday life. Most importantly, sociotechnical frameworks address the issue of technological determinism by explicitly recognising that agency also resides in individual learners, social structures, the design of learning artefacts and context in which the learning takes place. In order to demonstrate the value of such approaches, we go on to outline findings from the application of one of these concepts, namely a sociotechnical interaction network (STIN), to a transnational networked learning context. The paper concludes by proposing that these approaches in general, and the sociotechnical interaction network concept in particular, are important conceptual tools in dealing with issues currently confronting contemporary learning technology research, such as the spread of web 2.0 and mobile technologies and the increasingly complex social and technological contexts of many learners. They may also provide a valuable means of exploring the increasingly blurred distinction between abstract and formal learning, and situated informal learning, particularly in relation to the workplace.


Full Paper - .pdf


Network theories for technology-enabled learning and social change: Connectivism and Actor Network theory

Frances Bell
Information Systems, Organisation and Society Research Centre, Salford Business School


Learning never was confined to classrooms. We all learn in, out of, before, during and after episodes of formal education. The changing sociotechnical context offers a promise of new opportunities, and the sense that somehow things may be different. Use of the Internet and other emerging technologies is spreading in frequency, time and space. People and organizations wish to use technology to support learning seek theories to frame their understanding and their innovations. In this article we explore Connectivism, that is positioned as a theory for the digital age, in use on a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, in 2008. We then compare Connectivism with another network theory, Actor Network Theory, to explore possible synergies. We found that Connectivism enables educators and learners to legitimise their use of technology to support teaching and learning. Connectivism, a relatively new theory, can benefit from a richer empirical base as it develops. Since the scope of educational change can vary from a specific learning setting through organisational and societal settings, we can develop theories through empirical exploration of cases across the range of settings to support our understanding and actions.


Full Paper - .pdf


The social construction of educational technology through
the use of proprietary software

Chris Bissell
Department of Communication and Systems, The Open University, UK


Major strands of science and technology studies (STS) in recent decades have been the ‘social shaping of technology’ (SST) and ‘social construction of technology’ (SCOT) movements, whose adherents maintain that technological systems are determined just as much by social forces as by technological ones. Taking this ‘co-construction’ notion as a starting point, and putting a focus on the user, I look at some examples of the use of proprietary software in which the learner, instead of being constrained by a rather deterministic pedagogy of educational technology, can exploit the functionality of the software in ways far removed from the original design. For example, spreadsheets can be used to incorporate modelling assumptions directly to simulate digital signal transmission, or the workings of the binomial function. Audio editing software can be used to teach about the technology of music by allowing the student to explore waveform characteristics. The manipulation of images, if combined with a teaching of the principles behind data compression, can engender a deep understanding of the processes involved. And translation software can be used for language learning in a way very different from what was envisaged by the designers. Educational technology has tended to suffer from an emphasis on, and excessive claims for, technological innovation and novelty. Film, radio, television, programmed learning, interactive video discs, CD-ROMs, a ‘computer in every classroom’, ‘one laptop per child’, the web, computer-mediated communication, smartboards; and now mashups, Second Life, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – all have all been seen as radical new technologies that would revolutionize learning. Here I make the case for the social construction of educational technology by users and teachers, based on exploiting to far better effect the possibilities of mature, often proprietary, software not originally designed for pedagogical purposes. The approach outlined here not only helps students gain experience with the sort of software they are likely to encounter in their professional life, but also fosters and sustains a healthy spirit of enquiry that too often is lacking in much educational software. Although the examples presented have been situated in the context of the individual learner, similar principles can be applied to a whole range of networked educational technologies.


Full Paper - .pdf

Social presence in online learning communities

Karen Kear
Department of Communication and Systems, The Open University, UK


Tools for online communication are increasingly used in education, but they are not without problems. One significant difficulty is a lack of social presence. Social presence relates to the need for users to feel connected with each other and to perceive each other as real people. Low social presence can be a particular problem in text-based asynchronous systems such as discussion forums. These do not offer visual or auditory cues to communication, and there can be long delays between messages. This can lead to feelings of impersonality, and hence disengagement from online learning.
The more recent literature on social presence suggests that it is influenced by the behaviour and interactions of participants, as well as by the characteristics of the communication medium. Learners in an online community can therefore increase social presence by communicating in ways which are perceived as ‘warm’ or ‘sociable’, and can compensate for the lack of richness of the medium. Moreover, features of communication systems can be used to encourage these types of interactions, and to ease communication. For example: use of member profiles can help participants feel that they know each other better; and use of synchronous communication can avoid frustrating delays between messages and responses.
These possibilities, which are advocated in the research literature, also emerged from interviews carried out with students at the UK Open University. These interviews aimed to explore students’ experiences of using online communication in a distance learning course, and their ideas for improvements to online communication systems for learning. The interviews revealed problems, such as poor communication and misunderstandings, associated with a lack of social presence. Students highlighted system features that they found useful, or would like to have available, which would help to address these issues. In particular, they suggested that increased use of member profiles would help them get to know each other better, and that synchronous communication tools such as instant messaging would be of practical and social value.
It is concluded that social presence in online learning communities can be enhanced by changes to the design and use of communication systems, together with attention to styles of communication within these environments.

Full Paper - .pdf




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