Landing : Athabascau University

Quick overview of the main ideas: Revision

The nature of technologies

All technologies are assemblies that orchestrate phenomena to some purpose (Arthur, 2009). They may consist of, use or embody tools that may be physical or conceptual or both.  There are as much technologies of prayer as there are of steam locomotion (Franklin, 1999).

Soft and hard technologies

For some (e.g. (Bessant & Francis, 2005)) hard technologies are physical while soft technologies are human-mediated processes.  For others (e.g. (Norman, 1993)), hardness or softness concerns technologies’ effects upon us. For others  (e.g. (Zhouying, 2004)) soft technologies are the human factors that are necessary adjuncts of hard tools. 

I offer a consolidated definition:  what makes a technology softer or harder is the degree to which the orchestration of phenomena is actively performed by a human or humans. 

Harder technologies involve fewer human mediated processes because they embody them in tools and toolsets. Harder technologies tend to be more constraining and authoritarian while softer technologies tend towards creativity and flexibility.  Thus, softness and hardness lies both in the effects of technologies and in their constitution..

Soft technologies are flexible and needy

Soft technologies are flexible, supporting creativity and change, because the gaps inside them have to be filled with processes constructed by people.  They are needy and incomplete until people fill the holes.

Hard technologies are rigid and complete

Hard technologies contain within them the processes and methods to achieve the ends for which they were designed. This brings efficiencyscalabilityreplicabilityfreedom from error and speed

Human processes can be hard too

People enact some hard technologies, such as legal systems or machine operating procedures. The orchestration of phenomena is enshrined in rules and processes that may not be overridden.

Expanding the adjacent possible softens the overall system

As complex systems evolve they expand the adjacent possible (Kauffman, 2000). This is equally true of technological systems (Johnson, 2010). Because old technologies are seldom if ever fully replaced (Kelly, 2010),new technologies expand  the adjacent possible within an entire system even though a particular new technology may be hard. This will be little consolation to those forced to use that hard technology, however.

Aggregation makes technologies softer

When one technology is assembled with another, the adjacent possible that the first technology provides remains but is augmented with further adjacent possibilities. Aggregation, even of hard technologies, is a means of softening a technology. Consequently, automation does not necessarily make a technology harder: automated parts, when assembled, make a technology softer. Oddly, the more we assemble our technologies, the more needy and incomplete they become.

Replacement makes technologies harder

When we replace part of a technology with something harder that technology will become harder. Adjacent possibilities are taken away and replaced by something that offers fewer of them.  Softer technologies can in principle replace harder ones, thus softening the whole assembly, but this rarely happens.

Soft is hard, hard is easy

Harder technologies make what they automate easier for humans using them, because no additional orchestration is needed, whereas softer technologies, demanding human orchestration, make things harder.

Hardness and softness is a continuum

Purely hard or soft technologies are rare.  Technologies tend to be assembled from both soft and hard parts. leading to a soft-hard continuum

It depends on your point of view

Hardness and softness are not innate characteristics of objects and processes. The same objects and processes are different technologies when they are used for different purposes and orchestrate different phenomena. A sales terminal is soft to its programmer, hard to a sales assistant.

Unequal mutual influence

Hard technologies tend to influence soft technologies more than vice versa because soft technologies can adapt  more quickly and easily than hard technologies.  However, through assembly, soft technologies can bind together different hard technologies to make an overall system softer. 

No innate preference

Pedagogies are technologies (Dron, 2009). Harder learning technologies may harmfully constrain the softer pedagogies with which they are assembled or harden a conflicting pedagogy. Softer technologies increase opportunities for failure, inefficiency and sluggishness, and may be difficult for learners who must not only learn the subject of study but must also become part of the technology through which they learn. Neither is ideal for all occasions.

Learning technology design

Structural constraints of hard technologies and inefficiencies of soft technologies deeply affect learning. We should therefore build systems that can be as soft or hard as needed. The most effective way to do this is to enable easy assembly of hard technology componentsThe challenge is how to do that effectively.

The elephant in the room

Soft technologies need skill and artistry. It ain’t just what you do, it’s the way that you do it.  A bad technology, used well, can work brilliantly, while a good technology, used badly, can be useless. Most learning technology research concentrates on technology (including methods and pedagogies) not the talent and skill with which it is applied that is frequently more significant. The challenge is to devise research methods that capture this usefully




Arthur, W. B. (2009). The Nature of Technology: what it is and how it evolves. New York, USA: Free Press.

Bessant, J., & Francis, D. (2005). Transferring soft technologies: exploring adaptive theory. International Journal of Technology Management & Sustainable Development, 4(2), 93-112.

Dron, J. (2009). Pedagogies as Educational technologies. Paper presented at E-Learn 2009, Vancouver, Canada. 

Franklin, U. M. (1999). The Real World of Technology. Concord ON: House of Anansi Press.

Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from: the natural history of innovation. New York: Penguin.

Kauffman, S. (2000). Investigations. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kelly, K. (2010). What Technology Wants. New York: Viking.

Norman, D. A. (1993). Things that make us smart: defending human attributes in the age of the machine. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.

Zhouying, J. (2004). Technological progress in history: a survey of evolution and shift of research emphasis from 'hard-tech' to 'soft-tech' development.. International Journal of Technology Management & Sustainable Development, 3(2), 133-148. 



Want to learn more about how to apply these ideas? Go to the page describing this week's recommended learning activities