Sociotechnical analysis, room layout, and education

By Gordon Rugg

The core ideas behind sociotechnical theory look very simple:

  • Technology influences society
  • Society influences technology

Although they look very simple, they have surprisingly far-reaching implications, usually in conjunction with the Law of Unintended Consequences and with systems theory. Often, a trivial-looking decision has consequences that are unwelcome and unexpected. Early sociotechnical work by researchers at the Tavistock Institute included a classic study showing why introducing a new and apparently more efficient technology into coal mining had serious negative effects on the social structures involved in how the miners worked. This had huge practical implications, which was why the Tavistock Institute became involved.

A more recent example, examined in this article, is that the form of technology being used in education has major sociotechnical implications. These implications are easily missed, because they are so familiar that they are usually taken for granted as being inevitable parts of the education process.

I’ll start with a classic example. The image below shows two technologies whose social consequences were far reaching and unexpected.

bike and typewriter

Images from wikimedia and wikipedia

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