Getting the balance right between soft and hard technologies..

… this was the subject of Jon Dron’s fascinating talk to ChangeMOOC this week –

Why was it fascinating? Well – not being a learning technologist, nor any other type of technologist and in many ways somewhat technophobic, it made me rethink how I work with technologies and in particular the relationship between different technologies and pedagogy. Here are some of the key ideas that I picked up:

Technologies can be soft or hard and everything in between. Soft technologies are those enacted by people, e.g. knitting needles are a soft technology – they need people to be of any use. Hard technologies are the ‘physical stuff’. A fridge is a hard technology – it can function without being enacted on by people.

Many things can become a learning technology by the way in which they are used, e.g. a screwdriver and a stick – See

Technologies don’t have to be embodied in machines and things. It is the ways in which we use it that makes the screwdriver a technology and these processes are in our heads, not in the screwdriver. The legal system is a hard technology, used by humans. It is very rigid.

Pedagogies are technologies in the sense that they are the orchestration of beliefs and understandings of how people learn; the processes that bring about learning; the ways in which we orchestrate ideas to help people learn. Learning designs are pedagogies that have been hardened into technologies.

All technologies are assemblies, e.g. a screwdriver.

There is a continuum between hard and soft technologies. Neither is good or bad in itself. The degree of hardness or softness will depend on the situation. Some people will find an LMS over hard, but others will find a MOOC over soft.

We use hard technologies to make things easier and faster, by reducing the number of choices for users. Hard technologies are brittle and stifle creativity. They prevent us from doing things and that is why we use them.  They are complete. Hard technologies act as filters – they structure our spaces and limit what we can do. Pedagogies are bent to match hard technologies, rather than the other way round, as anyone who has used an LMS such as Blackboard will know. Soft processes can get filtered through hard technologies, so that we end up taking the path that the designers want us to take. Hard technologies take time and are hard to produce.

Soft technologies promote flexibility and creativity. The user has to orchestrate processes, which is more difficult. Soft technologies are incomplete and needy. Soft technologies are simple to produce but hard to use.

How do we get the right balance between hard and soft technologies, i.e. find something that is not too hard, or not too soft for any occasion? The easiest way is to assemble technologies – to make technologies softer add something or aggregate – to make technologies harder, replace the soft technologies with hard technologies.

Web 2.0 is soft but we need to find easier ways to assemble things. The design of MOOCs could further consider the balance between hard and soft technologies, to enable people to assemble things as they want to, but also to provide a guided path for those who want it.

Interesting ideas 🙂

Postscript – added 26-11-11

See Paul Prinsloo’s blog post Adjacent chaos/anarchy/growth/domination/futures #change11


Jon Dron’s powerpoint slides

8 thoughts on “Getting the balance right between soft and hard technologies..

  1. jaapsoft2 November 24, 2011 / 10:03 pm

    Hi Jenny, very clear sight on soft and hard tech.
    The influence of tech. on people is bigger than we think. Having a fridge does influence what we eat, how we cook and when we do shopping.
    Having a computer does make us sit and read from a screen, having a TV (television) does make couch potatoes, and what does the tech of internet with our learning? People make technology, but technologie does make people act different.
    Question is, do we know this influence, and do we want it?

  2. jennymackness November 25, 2011 / 2:07 pm

    Jaap – I agree – it’s worth stopping once in a while to reflect on the influence that technology is having on us – it’s not all good all the time 🙂

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