Soft educational technologies in the age of networked intelligence #change11

Using the definition of technology as “orchestration of phenomena to our use”, Jon Dron in this presentation, distinguishes between soft and hard technologies. Soft technologies are more “needy”and require active orchestration of phenomena by humans; hard technologies, on the other hand, do not require much human intervention, given that the act of manipulating the technology is already built into the technology itself. For instance, orchestrating the technology is already contained in the technology. For instance, a fridge is a hard technology that is easy to use; on the other hand, Facebook is a soft technology that is incomplete if there are no users.

These definitions, I think, are illuminating for teachers or instructional designers when it comes to choosing a technology to support learning. For example, having language learners to use a hard technology, i.e., completing self-contained online lessons, in a classroom are unlikely to promote discussion among students; thus, negating the benefits of being with other students in the classroom. Likewise, using soft technology for distance education, i.e., blogs and discussion forums, often requires the support from the facilitators or other learners, without who learners may feel isolated and unmotivated.On the other hand, hard technologies, like giving podcasts to mobile learners to listen to can be useful; while using a soft technology that have many students vote for a particular issue in a big lecture hall can help to encourage participation.

Come to think of it, a tool, like YouTube, for instance can be both hard and soft. YouTube videos are themselves a hard technology. Teachers provide the YouTube link and students watch it. On the other hand, YouTube can also be soft, if students are encouraged to upload their own videos or do a voice over for a video.

The following technologies are those that I use ranked from hard to soft technologies

  • Self-contained online lessons and quizzes; most iphone games
  • Textbooks and videos (sometimes requires the teacher to contextualize the ideas for the students.
  • YouTube videos (can be very hard or very soft)
  • Moodle: a learning management system used for displaying course information; has a forum that allows for facilitated discussions
  • Wiki:hard if it’s solely used as for displaying information; soft if users are encouraged to edit the pages
  • Twitter: used for sharing links
  • Diigo: used for sharing bookmarks
  • MSN, Skype, or QQ

As Jon Dron pointed out, the selection of hard vs soft technologies depends on what our needs are.

Yet, there may be the needs for educators to incorporate more soft technologies in teaching. According to Don Tapscott, we are entering a new age, (not the information age) but the age of networked intelligence, marked by increased connectedness, collaboration,and people tapping into the intelligence of one another to fuel innovation. And for that, soft technologies may be better in promoting the ability to collaborate and innovate.


One thought on “Soft educational technologies in the age of networked intelligence #change11

  1. Great reflections!

    Interesting to unpick what makes those technologies harder or softer. A lot of that depends upon your point of view: a quiz is very hard for the learner, but sometimes very soft for its designer. I’ve had students producing quizzes as part of their learning activities and, used that way, the result is a very different and far more creative technology, orchestrating different phenomena for different purposes than when you use a quiz to force learners to learn in a rigid way.

    This leads to a more generic point. I think that it all depends upon the whole technology assembly that has to be seen in context in order to be understood. A video on YouTube is like a painting – the tools for creating and displaying it are technologies (mostly quite soft, though it depends a bit on the tools you use), but the video itself is not, in and of itself, even a technology, let alone a soft or hard one. Only when we assemble the medium with other technologies and phenomena, notably pedagogies but also things like assessment systems, schedules, language, signals, enrolment systems and so on, might it become a technology. For example, a ‘follow the instructions’ or a ‘critique and discuss this’ or a ‘watch and repeat’, or a ‘build a video yourself’ pedagogy might turn it into a learning technology. The hardness or softness is thus in how the video is assembled with the other technologies, not in the medium itself. And, again, the phenomena and orchestration and purposes are likely going to be very different for the creator than for the watcher, meaning that the same tools running on the same machine and bearing the same name are very different technologies depending on whether you are the teacher or the learner, even though they share most of the same tangible technology pieces.


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