Ideas while travelling on the way….

Setup for the Live Presentation:

The live session in Elluminate with Jon Dron had some initial sound problems, but these were quickly corrected.  The technology is not transparent as yet, but things do seem to be getting better.

Content:

The humble screwdriver serves as Dron’s opening example.  It is a single tool that can have many technologies (uses).  What but exactly is a technology?  According to W. Brian Arthur, it is the “orchestration or phenomena for some use.”  Pedagogies are also technologies.

Central to Dron’s discussion is the distinction between soft and hard technologies.  An example of a soft technology is a pair of knitting needles.  The user has to actively provide all the “orchestration.”  This requires a lot of skill to produce a particular outcome, but many outcomes are possible.  An example of a hard technology is a knitting machine.  It has the advantage of being faster and easier to use, but the disadvantage of being less versatile and more brittle.  Designating a technology as soft or hard depends to a certain extent on the user and is never entirely one or the other, but a continuum.  The tendency is for technology to add more features.

What does hard and soft technology have to do with learning?  Using technology in learning is inevitable.  Some kind of technology will be used.  The choice of technology should be based on the Goldilocks principle: not too hard or too soft.  It must be easy enough to use, without putting too many restraints on users.

What about the invisible elephants mentioned in the topic title?  Technology will only be as good as the people using it.  A well-implemented soft technology is much better than a poorly implemented hard technology.  It is far too easy to concentrate on the technology itself rather than the skills and talents needed to use it well.

Reaction:

Defining terms may not be the most interesting of activities, but is vital to avoid misunderstanding.  Dron used Arthur’s definition of technology (“orchestration of phenomena for some use”) and also claimed that pedagogies are technologies.  I need to reflect more on Arthur’s definition, but I have difficulties with the second claim.  There is a difference between a technology, which requires some kind of object, (perhaps even designed for a specific purpose), from a technique which is a process.  While the line may occasionally get fuzzy, it is important to try to keep a distinction between the two.

After quibbling over such definitions, I found the hard and soft designations very intriguing: Hard emphasizing the ease of use, at the cost of confining and brittle; while soft being harder to use, but very flexible.

Can a technology be both hard and soft?  I think the answer is yes.  Take for example the software I am using to write this, Microsoft Word.  Word 2007 adopted the Ribbon bar, a huge shift from the previous drop down menu system.  Yes, I did complain loudly then and still do on some occasions about some of the changes, but I have to admit that for the average use (especially the beginner) the program is easier to use.   Most common features are easier to see and change.  In Dron’s sense it is hard technology.  The Ribbon bar itself is not at all flexible for the end user. If you do not like it, too bad.  On the other hand, more obscure but still useful things are now softer and require more skill to access.  For example, the ability to work with templates is much softer in Dron’s sense.  The nitty, gritty of applying a template requires more skill.  Instead of a couple of clicks it now may take half a dozen and that is when you know where is look!  Because this is not something the average user does frequently, it now takes much more time and effort to use them.  The philosophy seems to be something like this: make the common tasks more visible (hard in Dron’s sense), while delegating the less common to being less visible (soft in Dron’s sense).  Does this mean Goldilocks is happy?  You will have to ask her, because I am not Goldilocks.

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