THE IMPORTANCE OF PERSONAL LEARNING
BY NIC FAIR – PHD RESEARCHER, WEB SCIENTIST AND DIGITAL
SOCIO-TECHNICAL SYSTEMS THEORY
Socio-technical systems focus “on the
interdependencies between and
among people, technology and the
environment” (Cummings, 1978)
Technology is “socially embedded
– i.e. seamlessly intertwined with
the expectations and skills of
technology users, with institutional
structures and with broader
infrastructures” (Borri & Grassini, 2014)
- Physical and external
context = slow
- Semi-coherent ‘rules’ within a
community = moderately slow
- Space for individual
innovation = rapid,
The learner can not be separated from the
technology used for learning
HE learnER + technology
= fully integrated
HE learnING + technology =
partially integrated (at best)
HE students sit at the centre of their
own Personal Learning Network (PLN)
Wide range of
Learning Theory may benefit from
reformulation through a socio-technical lens
Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) can
provide an outlet for High Impact HE
PedagogiesPLNs are autonomously created
PLNs are a space for identity and
social capital creation
PLNs are networks of people,
institutions and services
PLNs are self-maintained
PLNs are activated at times, places
and ways of choosing
Peer learning & Collaboration
HEIs must embed the development of Digital
Literacies and Networking Skills in all teaching &
(Both images from JISC 2015)
CONCLUSION – THE 5 STHEPS
The centrality of
can not be
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• Borri, D. and Grassini, L., 2014. Dilemmas in the Analysis of Technological Change. A Cognitive Approach to
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• Cummings, T.G., 1978. Self-regulating work groups: A socio-technical synthesis. Academy of management
Review, 3(3), pp.625-634.
• Downes, S (2007). What Connectivism is. Available on : http://halfanhour.blogspot.co.uk/2007/02/what-
• Fenwick, T., Edwards, R., & Sawchuk, P. (2015). Emerging approaches to educational research: Tracing the
• Geels, F.W., 2002. Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: a multi-level
perspective and a case-study. Research policy, 31(8), pp.1257-1274.
• Law, J. (2009). Actor network theory and material semiotics. The new Blackwell companion to social theory, p.
• Siemens, G. (2014). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. Available on
Hello everyone, thank you for being here. My name is Nic Fair, I’m a PhD researcher, web scientist and digital educator at the university of Southampton. Please feel free to connect with me through any of the methods you can see on the screen now, and if you would like to follow the presentation slides close up you will find them on my blog – nicfair.co.uk.
I’d like to begin by thanking Carol and Kirstin for all their hard work in organising this World Summit of the IFNTF and for providing me with the honour of addressing such a knowledgeable and distinguished audience. I am truly delighted, if not a little nervous, to be talking today.
Today I’d like to explore with you a socio-technical perspective on Higher Education.
I’ll begin by discussing what a socio-technical perspective is, before applying it to 5 key areas of HE – known as the 5 STHEPS.
Originating from the 1950’s, but really developing from Science & Technology Studies during the 1970’s and 80’s, and with roots in Actor Network Theory, socio-technical theory recognises the EQUAL importance and INSEPARABILITY of:
-socio-cultural, political and economic norms
-standards & regulations
in the mutual development of societies and their technologies.
Take as a simple example the socio-cultural and economic need to transport goods efficiently form A to B – witness the invention of the wheel. The wheel then enabled societies to develop in particular ways that would not have been possible without it. In turn that affected the generation of further technological inventions. And so on…
In other words, socio-technical theory suggests that societies and technologies mutually co-evolve and the development of each can not be separated from the development of the other.
However, this co-evolution and mutual development of technology and society does not occur at a uniform pace. Rather, there is a dynamic interplay between the macro, meso and micro levels of society.
Individuals at the Niche level tend to introduce new technologies into their personal practices rapidly and dynamically, and in a way which suits them specifically.
However, communities, institutions and societies tend to suffer from SYSTEMIC INERTIA as wider or deeper reconfigurations of norms, practices and regulations are required at the Regime and Landscape levels.
Socio-technical theory argues that this can create significant tensions between the actions and practices of individuals and their experiences of interacting with wider society.
In summary, people, societies and technologies develop hand-in-glove, inseparably – they co-evolve. However, this development is not uniform, but happens at different speeds for different people, different societies, different levels and different technologies.
Tensions or disconnects between and among individuals, communities and societies can result, although as a catalyst for change this may not always be a bad thing.
This is all well and good, BUT you may be wondering what all this means for HE teaching & Learning? I will now explore the answer to this in 5 specific HE areas.
The first application of socio-technical theory to HE is in the realisation that, just as society and technology can not be separated, so too the learner and the technologies they use for learning are inseparable – we can not consider one without the inclusion of the other.
Many students, from highly-digitised societies at least, have seamlessly integrated technology into their learning practices (at the Niche level).
With specific and generally exceptional instances, and accepting that there are different practices, pressures and requirements in different disciplines, on the whole, at the Regime level, mainstream university teaching and learning has not integrated technology to the same degree and remains largely Instructionist.
Furthermore, and again with exceptions, within the wider educational Landscape, particularly rules and regulations, technology has also not been fully integrated – for example limitations imposed by module and programme design frameworks and assessment requirements which can often default to lectures and written paper-based exams. Carol’s current research into Assessment Practices may be of help here.
Importantly, socio-technical theory also warns us that a failure to properly understand and integrate this co-dependency between student and technology into HE teaching, learning and assessment is likely to result in tensions between the individual learner experience and the normal university learning experience.
Is it a surprise then that we may already be seeing those tensions playing out in NSS results and issues around student engagement and student satisfaction – which in the UK at least have lead to potentially misguided attempts to address these concerns through the introduction of the TEF.
The second area in which a socio-technical perspective is informative is that technologies – specifically the Web, the Internet and mobile smart devices - are no longer just a ‘tool’ to be picked up and put down for learning purposes.
Rather, they have become a ‘space’ in which individuals create and express aspects of their identity and build social and digital capital.
Technologies have become an extension of the self, to the extent that the modern HE student may best be characterised as a Networked Individual living, learning, socialising and working in a Network Society.
In practice this means that a typical HE student sits at the heart of their own Personal Learning Network and can not be separated from it.
This PLN consists of online AND offline connections to people, institutions, devices, services and information sources which individuals have autonomously created as a result of seamlessly integrating new technologies into their everyday lives in both formal and informal contexts.
Understanding what these PLNs look like and how and why they are used may provide one route to reducing the tensions we have previously explored and enable HEIs to more easily integrate technologies into the university experience. This is the focus of my current research and I’d be happy to discuss this more over lunch or dinner!
The third aspect of HE impacted by a socio-technical and PLN focus concerns Learning Theory.
As I understand it, although viewing learning as a network resonates with Connectivism, which Downes (2007) has suggested “consists of the ability to construct and traverse” networks of distributed knowledge and which Seimens sees as a new Learning Theory for the digital age, there remains questions over whether Connectivism is actually a new Learning Theory or, along with (for example) Situated Learning, Activity Theory and Communities of Practice, an extension of Vygotskian Social Constructivism. Connectivism also needs more extensive testing.
Nevertheless, there is a growing theoretical acceptance that humans, technologies, actions, activities and social relationships intertwine and coalesce into learning networks which, as Fenwick et al (2015) state, “continuously act upon each other to bring forth and distribute knowledge”.
Rather than creating new learning theories, under a socio-technical lens, the co-creation of knowledge may be said to consist of meaningful interactions, situated in the context of Personal Learning Networks, between both people AND technology.
Socio-technical Constructivism, as an extension of Social Constructivism for the digital age, if you like.
This is an area which I am still exploring and would therefore greatly value any input you might choose to give me.
The fourth impact of a socio-technical perspective is that – assuming we accept the inseparability of the learner from their learning network, and the mediating role of PLNs in Socio-technical Constructivism - it becomes apparent that there are certain features of a PLN which lend themselves nicely to current HE pedagogical approaches.
Firstly, PLNs are autonomously created according to individual’s preferences…which clearly links to Learner Autonomy
They also provide an outlet for identity and social capital creation…which provides an outlet for Creativity
By definition, they consist of networks of people, institutions and services…which can empower Peer Learning and Collaboration
Furthermore, PLNs are self-maintained and configured by individuals to fit their lifestyle and learning preferences…which links to ideas around the Self-regulating Student
And finally, PLNs are activated at times and in places and ways, that the individual chooses...which can facilitate Self-directed Learning
As an additional benefit, PLNs can also have a role to play beyond university as a valuable resource for Lifelong Learning and Employability – an increasingly important consideration in this rapidly changing world typified by the need for flexibility and adaptability.
Finally, having just sung the praises of PLNs, it is crucial to remember that a socio-technical perspective also tells us that differences in the adoption, integration and use of technologies occur between individuals as well as between Niche, Regime and Landscape levels.
For example, research by Huw Davies found that A-level students at a public FE college in the UK were significantly MORE digitally literate than counterparts at a private secondary school when it came to using their PLN for their personal and social lives, but noticeably LESS so when it came to using it for formal academic purposes.
This indicates that learners make active decisions about how to create and interact with their PLN based on social, cultural, educational, economic, and personal contexts.
Therefore, in no way can all HE students be considered as having an equally well developed PLN.
These differences manifest themselves in a range of big issues, including Digital Access, Digital Inclusion, and Digital Inequalities.
But also in individual differences in digital behaviours and attitudes to technology – for example, different HE students will fall at different points on the Resident – Visitor spectrum proposed by White & Le Cornu.
It therefore becomes incumbent upon HEIs to mitigate against these digital differences by embedding the development of digital literacies and networking skills at all stages of the educational journey.
So, to summarise, a socio-technical higher education perspective suggests that for teaching & learning purposes the learner and their learning technologies are equally important and can not be separated.
This is expressed through the learner’s position at the centre of their autonomously created Personal Learning Network – the online AND offline network of people, devices, services and information they use for formal and informal learning purposes.
PLNs are the medium through which meaningful interactions with people AND technologies occur for the purposes of the co-creation of knowledge.
And PLNs themselves also have pedagogical advantages directly related to their inherent features.
However, all PLNs are unique and their users differently skilled and literate, therefore digital, as well as traditional, literacies, and online, as well as offline, networking skills need to be embedded in all aspects of HE teaching & learning.
For these reasons, the study of PLNs and their role in HE may be an important undertaking as one possible route to effectively address tensions between individual student experience and the university learning journey.
Thank you very much for listening, I’d be delighted to take any questions now. Thank you.