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Exploring sociotechnical theories of learning technology
7th International Networked Learning Conference
Symposium Organisers: Linda Creanor & Steve Walker Glasgow Caledonian University, The Open University, United Kingdom
4 papers (abstracts)
- Interpreting Complexity: a case for the sociotechnical interaction framework as an analytical lens for learning technology research Linda Creanor & Steve Walker
- Network theories for technology-enabled learning and social change: Connectivism and Actor Network theory
- The social construction of educational technology through the use of proprietary software Chris Bissell
- Social presence in online learning communities Karen Kear
Initial reaction: the very existence of this symposium, and its framing, suggests that people in learning technologies research and development may not, in their community of practice, have an explicit and reflexive discourse which understands technologies in society.
Claims that technological determinism is starting to dominate discussions of education and technology, especially under the guise of Web 2.0 and evangelism for the uses of these new technologies. Intrested in the new contexts of co-created content and knowledge, but have some questions about the emerging trendy theories (such as connectivism). Asks us to “make a problem of what technology is” – outlines the standard four – ANT, SCOT, SST, and social informatics and discusses some similar features (eg they are all relatively negative towards determism; they are attentive to context)
Is it the case that ANT is sometimes too narrowly defined as a theory of technology? While grounded in investigations of technologies, ANT does rather seem to be a broader theory of social structure; the ‘network’ and ‘node’ approach perhaps fits too easily into people’s desires to apply it to technology
The focus for this first paper is on social informatics: Sociotechnological interaction network (STIN) – uses Rob Kling (see the Rob Kling Center for SI). (claims STIN is a simple alternative to the ‘baggage’ of ANT – [hm! see my point above). Gives examples of how users (better termed social actors) interact with and shape the technology; how structures within which technology operates has similar influence. Conclusion? technology is not a thing but a network between people, rules, data, and so on.
Network theories for technology-enabled learning and social change
Paper is a story of Bell's attempts to critique Siemens' work) on connectivism; (see also Downes. Starts with context - growth in internet usage; informal v formal learning; social v individual learning; scheduled v responsive. Connectivism, to Bell, looks like ANT, somewhat. Siemens is not the same as Downes, but they are 'connected'.
One of the interesting things about connectivism is that it has become popular, and gained mindshare, principally because of its publication and development through the Internet; one wonders had it been located in more traditional print publishing (or even online, but scholarly journals) whether it would have activated its catchiness? And, synergy! - Bell just presents excellent evidence of how connectivism exists in the blogosphere, not scholarverse
Identifies a key weakness of Connectivism - it is normative, prescribing what is good - (networks) and what is bad (groups) - see Bell's animated visualisation of this normativity. Asks, interestingly - is connectivism itself a knowledge network (will it learn and develop?), perhaps it is more of a personal statement of theory (theory as aspect of practice), not a research agenda. Does point to the fact that connectivism might er-socialise theories of learning technologies.
Excellent critique and analysis; perhaps suggests that, while we need explicit theorisation of technologies as social processes, we cannot cleave to them too strongly or closely: remain agile or sceptical of any determining theory
The social construction of educational technology through the use of proprietary software
Begins by listing the many varieties of academic theoretical engagement with technologies and society (scientific knowledge, science, etc). Emphasises the deprecation in these theories of determinism; importance of co-creation of systems between humans and technology, though variations within that. Notes that some of these investigations tended to be too concerned with innovation, and not enough with use.
Gives examples of uses of technology in teaching - first, is a simple example of using spreadsheet to get students exploring digital telecommunications - spreadsheet "becomes a graphic device" -used in a way spreadsheet was not meant to be. Gives other examples of software used in T&L for 'odd' outcomes. Students turn these applications into something from which they can learn. "don't get ed tech people to write software - let students invent their own uses". Now switches to clever web 2.0 uses - e.g. Google translate. Emphasis too on students learning that technology is malleable and they must become 'tinkerers'.
Very cleverly demonstrates the fluid, malleable nature of digital artefacts and how they can be turned against their original purpose, or reused on other ways. Digital media is much more open to reinvention against the cultural expectations of its purpose: like a double game - culture+technology = 1 dominant approach which then, read through culture for alternative technology gives a different approach
Social presence in online learning communities
Describes social presence as a concept - basic definition "the degree to which a person is perceived as 'real' in mediated communication" (Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997) - history back into the 1970s (eg telephone research). Claims that online communication can be problematic when people don't seem to act and speak as if they are dealing with real people; it is negative, cold, potentially full of dangers unless there is 'social presence'. Cites Garrison and Anderson (2003) on social presence - social presence as 'supportive and encouraging' of students to communicate genuinely.
immediate concern - sure, this is a good working definition and has definitely dominated our thinking in educational technology for many years - at least since the 1990s - but it first of all assumes there is unmediated conversation (always tricky - language and presence are themselves mediators) and second that 'real' is a definable quality 'absent' from networked communications. The definition is more useful as a marker of where we started thinking about presence in the 1990s and perhaps where we have come from. It probably works well for students outside of the net, coming into online learning channels and spaces without little other online contact or activity.
Cites some of her own research into students' lack of knowledge or sensibility of 'being with other people' when doing online discussion. Also emphasises the value of real-time interaction. (this is research from students using First Class - [dated?]).
Asks is social presence a technical or a social phenomenon. Looks at technical features – follows the fairly simplistic media richness theory to claim that (eg) discussion boards are not rich enough to generate social presence. Suggests profiles, IM, etc might be ‘better’ for social presence – these technologies might ‘help’. [Paper doesn't say when, what cohort, what was the cultural relationship with face to face learning - were they imagining online learning as a 'deficit'?']
The paper does present some challenges for me: I wonder if it misses the fact that the lack of social presence in online learning might have a lot more to do with the fact that learning is not something in which it is easy to have social presence, even in a classroom! In other words, the question of ‘presence’ has been assumed; in fact, presence might be something which is found more easily in some social settings than in others. ‘Education’ might not be a very easy place for presence? But, also got a key point from this paper – real-time interaction is more significant than we might think for the affective and sense-making elements of presence. Very useful.
Discussion came and went; battery died. Brief summary? Lots of positive feedback to panellists – comments re institutionalisation of technologies; value of social thinking for educational designers.