Taking Care of Business Part 3: Learning Technology as an Institutional X-Ray Machine

Working on a chapter for the forthcoming handbook – here are my working notes.

The chapter uses the concept of Reification – defined as “Make (something abstract) more concrete or real”. This is what attempts to use technology to support learning do as an unintended side effect. It is a rather unused tool – perhaps because it transgressive in the ed-tech community? It exposes and makes visible hitherto ‘hidden’ i.e. things like:

  • Personal theories of learning (both good and bad!)
  • Informal networks of influence and power
  • Levels of staff skills in relation to IT
  • The quality of the institutional IT infrastructure
  • Attitudes and values – general

I first came across this ‘reification effect’ while working as a ‘techy’ at the University of Stirling and was reading a research article by James Cornford called:


It was a revelation and in places very amusing! you can read an earlier  version here So, while involved in the legal research project TRUSTDR (Trust in Digital Repositories) that examined factors affecting the legal management of learning resources. We came up with the phrase that technology and legal issues acted like a ‘lightning conductor’ that attracted this issues and made them visible. During that time I was also working at the UHI and was involved in another research project investigating Flexible Learning – something that was, and still is, big challenge to the UHI and the rest of the HE sector. In the process we formulated the idea of using the effect to help in ‘Modelling Organisational Frameworks’ to help identify and understand the interplay of these factors – using work from systems theory and the concept of mental models.

A Basic Organisational Model

As part of this process we presented a paper on this work at an IEEE conference  ICALT2006 here is a pre-print. When I started work on the current handbook this previous work felt like it would be very useful, as the hanbook is targeted at helping people identifying and solving these kind of invisible problems.

I did actually trial the modeling approach  with colleagues at the School of Art and Design at Coventry University during my time at UAL in the ONCE project we worked on – so I knew it had legs as they say. it is quite striking when you do this with people from different parts of the organisation – of course facilitation can be important! The approach corresponds to what Étienne Wenger has called boundry objects as a means of enabling communications and negotiation between different communities of practice – heres a useful description from Wikipedia:

“Boundary objects are said to allow coordination without consensus as they can allow an actor’s local understanding to be reframed in the context of a wider collective activity.[4] Similarly, Etienne Wenger describes boundary objects as entities that can link communities together as they allow different groups to collaborate on a common task.[5]

In this sense, using our adaptable organisational model would be a good starting point and because it is adaptable in can be modified to suit local conditions. It could be redeveloped over a series of discussion to model in more detail what actually goes on an an organisation and what the sticking points are. Using a paper version on large A2 sheets makes a lot of sense – rather like the Jisc Viewpoints project did, which I discussed in its early stages with Alan Masson at Ulster University, while we worked on TrustDR. The Viewpoints materials are available in editable formats for adaption. We know this approach works because it has been used and adapted elsewhere – for instance at UCL in the ABC-LD work. This all seems to confirm of the value of the boundary object approach when used like this, it is striking in these Viewpoints of workshops how the process of using the printed materials and moving them around promotes discussion and communication. Perhaps we should do something similar? But, I would be minded to use editable formats that ‘ordinary’ folk can use like PowerPoint – which should do the job. Also, instead of the Viewpoint cards, which are intended to provide a common vocabulary, we could use post-its as we will not have a common vocab for this kind of work. Used iteratively it could identify the critical points in an organisation and the mental models associated with this locations. A more tech solution and one that should be fairly easy, would be an online system that allowed a user to construct their own organisational models and alter them collaboratively as discussion flowed. Instead of post-its users could use a simple online ‘comment’ tool like you get in WORD and Acrobat to attach their ideas and experiences to different parts of the organisational model.

As part of the recent research I have been doing on organisational and cultural issues I have read this really useful research article:

Gurmak Singh, Glenn Hardaker, (2014) “Barriers and enablers to adoption and diffusion of eLearning: A systematic review of the literature – a need for an integrative approach”, Education + Training, Vol. 56 Issue: 2/3, pp.105-121, https://doi.org/10.1108/ET-11-2012-0123

This article is an extensive literature review of the enablers and blokers to implementing elearning in HE and confirmed my own experiences, but most importantly it made me realise the value of the reification and modeling ideas again as the authors observed a gap in the research literature between macro and micro approaches as well as the lack of assessment of how the role of institutional infrastructure affects uptake. Its odd, in ed-tech that we do not seem use the research techniques that are common in other disciplines like the humanities and design – perhaps that is because the answers are uncomfortable? Anyway, the idea of developing our earlier work to support this approach in the handbook makes a lot of sense.

Here is an abstract draft conference paper we are working  on:

One definition of insanity, attributed to Albert Einstien, is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. Arguably, this is the history of e-learning in institutional settings [1]. This presentation / workshop / lightning talk / poster proposes some novel tools and methods to support an escape from this learning technology GroundHog Day [2] and is taken from a forthcoming handbook the authors are editing.

It describes ways to identify factors that enable or block the effective use of technology to support learning and teaching in institutional settings, building on the author’s research sponsored by Jisc, the QAA and HEA and the EU, as well as practical experience in a wide range of institutional roles, supported by a wide range of disciplinary perspectives

Central to the authors approach is the concept of technology acting as a powerful ‘reification agent’ in institutional settings, by making hitherto invisible ‘soft’ factors potentially visible [3]. Techniques are proposed reveal the internal mental models that different actors in an organisation can have of a shared activity such as e-learning [4]. A distinguishing feature of the work is a discussion of the rather neglected topics of ideology and power in relation to the uses and abuses of learning technology in institutional settings.


[1] Gurmak Singh, Glenn Hardaker, (2014) “Barriers and enablers to adoption and diffusion of eLearning: A systematic review of the literature – a need for an integrative approach”, Education + Training, Vol. 56 Issue: 2/3, pp.105-121, https://doi.org/10.1108/ET-11-2012-0123

[2] MAYES, J.T. Learning Technology and Groundhog Day, In W. Strang, V.B. Simpson & D. Slater (Eds.) Hypermedia at Work: Practice and Theory in Higher Education. University of Kent Press: Canterbury (ISBN 0904938 57 3) 1995

[3] Pollock, N., & Cornford, J., (2000) Theory and Practice of the Virtual University: report on UK universities use of new technologies. ARIADNE issue 24, 2000 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue24/virtual-universities/

[4] Casey, J., Proven, J., Dripps, D. (2006) Modelling Organisational Frameworks for Integrated E-Learning: The Experience of the TrustDR Project. In Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies (ICALT2006) (pp.1216-1220). Los Alamitos, CA: IEEE.