The reality of working with soft and hard technologies

Jon Dron’s presentation to ChangeMOOC this week is very timely. I am working on a University funded project to develop training materials which will be used around the country to deliver school training on a given topic. The materials will be in hard copy, on DVD and online.

This is an ideal opportunity for me to consider the use of hard and soft technologies.

The project is basically working with hard technologies, although it is making some concessions to ‘softness’, in that it is writing the training materials in such a way that users can add their own materials and to a very limited extent remix and repurpose them.

The technologies will be hard in that they will be branded and have copyright limitations. Interestingly there were only two of us on the team who had ever heard of Creative Commons before the project began!

But the major constraining factor in getting an appropriate balance between hard and soft technologies is cost. So – we have been told that we cannot use powerpoint for our presentations because these cost more to produce than PDFs. PDFs ensure that the presentation won’t shift when viewed from different systems, but a PDF means that if animations are included, each will need it own page and each page costs! So I see this as an example of a hard technology where the pedagogy is being bent to match the technology, which is being determined by cost.

It is also very apparent in this project that those who hold the purse strings call the tune – a disheartening process to be involved in.

So in this case, constraints are not enabling creativity, but definitely stifling it – not because its not possible to creatively overcome the constraints, but because those in power – those who hold the purse strings, don’t want to overcome the constraints.

I can’t tell you how many times I have seen technologists and budget holders constrain creativity!

6 thoughts on “The reality of working with soft and hard technologies

  1. Jon Dron (@jondron) November 24, 2011 / 11:21 pm

    I share your pain Jenny! I am always most concerned when I see hardness preventing the ‘teacher’ (a role, not a person, can be a team, an author, a director, etc) from doing the best thing because the teacher, especially in this pre-prepared learning context where there is no room for learner negotiation, is the large and slow moving part of the system that has a much bigger effect on the small and fast moving than vice versa – basic systems theory kicks in here.

    I think it’s great that you are allowing learners to remix and add stuff, that can be all that’s needed to make things as soft or hard as they need them to be, especially if they can share that with others.

  2. jaapsoft2 November 25, 2011 / 9:36 am

    Hi Jenny, Cost is always a boundary.
    Powerpoint is expensive, Openoffice and Libreoffice and others do have free presentation software. Open Source could be a creative solution.
    Technical constraints are fun for technical people and they find solutions you could use in your courses. It is a pity most course building projects must do without technical experts. I do not know if this is a soft or a hard constraint 🙂
    wish you succes with the course
    Jaap

  3. jennymackness November 25, 2011 / 2:05 pm

    Jon and Jaap – thanks for your comments.

    Yes – we all know that costs and ‘controllers’ mean that we have to make compromises all the time – but I do find the notion of a continuum between hard and soft technologies and the idea of being able to soften and harden technologies according to the context and learner needs, a very helpful way of thinking about it and possibly of managing these difficulties.

    But I also find that many people are even less tech saavy than me (which is saying something) and are often afraid of the soft options which could make things cheaper, but also appear out of control. So, for example, I could see the same content that we are developing on our project being delivered using the open source technologies that you mention Jaap – but of course then it couldn’t have the branding on it required by the funders and would no doubt appear a bit messy compared to the tightly designed (controlled?) resources they have in mind 🙂

  4. brainysmurf1234 December 1, 2011 / 1:59 pm

    Jenny, I share your disheartening feelings about budgets stifling creativity and I completely resonate with “those in power – those who hold the purse strings, don’t want to overcome the constraints.” Every day, I am astounded by how little some of my colleagues and clients are willing to expand their awareness of possibilities in learning design and delivery. They appear to me as risk-phobic, even if the possibilities could be better, faster, cheaper in the long run. Many have said to me ‘oh, I’m not much of a tech person’. Well get over it, neither am I in the traditional techie sense but I’ve made it my busisiness to learn about it. In fact, it should be every learning designers’ business to learn about this stuff! And not just leave it to a few of us brave souls to do the figuring out for them! 🙂

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