MegaTech and MiniTech
This is the first of three posts which introduce the conceptual framework, MegaTech and MiniTech, that has become a cornerstone of my PhD thesis. The development of MegaTech and MiniTech grew from my research engagement with certain learning technologies and also from previous work experience gained supporting ICT in schools, with the latter influencing my reflections on the former. Although, chronologically, MegaTech and MiniTech emerged last in the context of three posts there are good reasons to introduce it first. One motivation is so that the discussion does not bog down in the specifics of two technologies (and there is an awful lot of scope for bogging down) which will be referred to here only as The Big Thing and The Smaller Thing. But the more important motivation is to reflect on those technologies through the lens of MegaTech and MiniTech and so by necessity the lens needs to be made before it can be looked through.
Functional Evaluations of Technology
A considerable amount of time was spent with The Big Thing: learning how it worked; trying out some of the tools that supported its use; and investigating existing research and discussion around the technology. In 2010 The Big Thing had already been around for a number of years and had generated a considerable amount of research activity. But there was no obvious evidence that significant numbers of teachers were using it. There were suggestions that The Big Thing was too complicated. Other studies showed that The Big Thing was fit for purpose and that teachers could understand the concepts that underpinned it. But there was often an assumption that the problem lay in the technical realm and might be addressed by tackling a perceived deficit in either the technology (eg by improving software) or its users (eg by training).
Before introducing MegaTech and MiniTech I need to hold my hand up and say that I fell into the same mindset. It would be dishonest of me to claim that working with The Big Thing led to a sudden moment of insight where the clouds parted and I was bathed in sunlight (accompanied by a heavenly chorus, of course). I looked at The Big Thing and reflected on how unsuitable it would be in a particularly demanding school that I had worked in. My solution was a technical one. I stripped away the elements of The Big Thing that felt unnecessary or problematic in the context of that school and created The Smaller Thing. Based on my experience of the school I felt convinced that this would work. I took The Smaller Thing to the school and showed it to the teachers. They clearly understood how it worked and had lots of positive sounding ideas about how they might use it in their classes. I initially left them to use the technology as they saw fit and went back some time later to see how they had gone on. Nobody had used it. Not once. It was this very personal failure, in the context of a setting which I knew intimately, that led to something of a crisis and a prolonged period of reflection.
A More Human-Centered Approach
The results of interview-based research involving The Big Thing, plus the unexpected results of introducing The Smaller Thing to school teachers, suggested that a non-technical explanation might be needed. These two strands of research suggested that, in both cases, it was each technology’s impact on people’s way of being (Winograd and Flores, 1986) and their interpersonal relationships that presented the more significant barriers to adoption. In other words the problem lay in the human realm.
Arriving at MegaTech and MiniTech
Three theories contribute to MegaTech and MiniTech: Positioning Theory (van Langenhove and Harré); Readiness to Hand (Heidegger); and Piecemeal and Utopian Social Engineering (Popper).
Van Langenhove and Harré (1999) state that people attempt to position themselves and others in the conversations that constitute their interactions. Johnson, Griffiths and Wang (2011) discuss Positioning Theory in relation to the design of learning technology but, in the context of MegaTech and MiniTech, van Langenhove and Harré’s (1999) notion of rhetorical repositioning is particularly interesting. Rhetorical repositioning takes place when a third party interprets a conversation in which they did not directly take part. Linking this to the creation of technology, it could be seen that a technology embodies the understanding and goals of those involved in its creation. But these technology creators might not have been involved in the same conversations as the technology’s intended users. This seems especially likely since each user’s conversations are unique and it would not be possible to take every potentially relevant conversation into account. Therefore the creators of a technology have a detached understanding of all the possible users’ conversations (rhetorical repositioning). If this understanding is somehow inaccurate or incomplete then the technology risks being inappropriate in the context of a potential user’s conversations. To accommodate the technology in their practice the user must accept any impact it might have on their positioning. If a technology fits with a user’s position, or repositions them in an acceptable way, then the user might be willing to use the technology. This is a feature of MiniTech. If the technology attempts to reposition the user unwillingly then they are likely, if possible (more about this later), to reject the technology. This is a feature of MegaTech. Thinking of the positioning of a teacher in the classroom conversation, there are certain aspects of what it is to be a teacher that are so deeply ingrained that they could be seen as what van Langenhove and Harré (ibid.) refer to as ritual. Any attempts to unwillingly reposition a teacher in this context can be seen as breaking the ritual and will be rejected. Therefore any technology that seeks to break the ritual of the teacher, and especially attempts to reposition the teacher in the the teacher-pupil conversation, would seem destined for rejection.
Readiness to Hand
Heidegger (1978) introduces the concept of readiness-to-hand in relation to technology. A technology can be seen as ready to hand if it is intuitive to use and serves an obvious purpose. This is a feature of MiniTech and such a technology is more likely to appeal to the user. Heidegger also presents three modes of unreadiness that a technology might exhibit. Two of these modes of unreadiness, conspicuous (something is damaged) and obtrusive (something is missing), lend themselves to a more functional evaluation of technology because they offer the potential to fix the problem. Of more interest, in the context of MegaTech and MiniTech, is the notion of obstinate unreadiness where the technology gets in the way of what its user is trying to do. In this case there is nothing about the technology which is broken or missing and so there is nothing to fix from a technical point of view. Yet despite the technology being apparently well formed it is inappropriate in the context of the user. This is a feature of MegaTech and is less likely to appeal to the user.
Piecemeal/Utopian Social Engineering
Popper (1966) makes the distinction between Piecemeal and Utopian social engineering in the context of influencing society on a large scale. These concepts are not directly used in MegaTech and MiniTech but have informed, at a far more modest level than that of societal change, the view of what a technology is designed to achieve and who benefits from its use. A technology which solves a specific problem for a user and benefits that user directly is likely to appeal to them. This might be very loosely compared with a piecemeal intervention and is seen as a feature of MiniTech. A technology which attempts to enact more systemic change, beyond the scope of an individual user of that technology, might be seen as a utopian intervention. Since at least some of the benefits of such a utopian intervention are also likely to be felt beyond the scope of the user, as might the decision to use the technology, the attraction to the user is less obvious. This is a feature of MegaTech.
Presenting MegaTech and MiniTech
There was a need to incorporate the above theories into a conceptual framework. All three played an important role in my reflections on The Big Thing and The Smaller Thing and I wanted to present the theories using more immediate metaphors. The most important motivation for this was a desire to revisit the school and discuss the relevance of van Langenhove and Harré, Heidegger and Popper to their personal evaluation of learning technologies such as The Smaller Thing. But it felt important to disguise the complexity of the underlying theories, so that the main features of the framework could be focussed on in discussions with teachers. Not because the teachers couldn’t understand these things, but because they are busy people and I couldn’t think of a good reason why they would want to learn about them (or why it would benefit them to know). Here are MegaTech and MiniTech represented visually, in that order.
MegaTech exhibits obstinate unreadiness, attempts to reposition the user in ways they find unacceptable and, at its most extreme benefits only others and not the user. The arrows emanating from the circle in the middle of the MegaTech triangle show the extent to which each traits is exhibited. So in the unnamed example above the technology in question presents a strong tendency to unacceptably reposition the user and to benefit only others. The obstinate unreadiness of the technology is less apparent, but is apparent nonetheless.
Compare this to an example of MiniTech, where the technology is clearly ready to hand, repositions the user in ways they find acceptable (if it repositions them at all) and, to a lesser extent than the other two factors in this case, benefits the user.
There is no magic formula behind the length of the arrows since these are intended to provide an easily accessible visual representation of the main theories behind MegaTech and MiniTech. What these diagrams do provide is a way to visually map responses to relevant questions about a technology which can be used to judge whether a user views a technology as MegaTech or MiniTech. This was the case in my discussions with the teachers about The Smaller Thing.
A Matter of Perspective
It is crucial that a technology is not labelled as MegaTech or MiniTech in absolute terms. The traits of MegaTech and MiniTech displayed by a technology exist only in the context of a given user. A single technology may have a range of users, or other interested parties, who have different roles and therefore different perspectives and priorities. The same technology might be seen as MegaTech by one person and MiniTech by another, or as MegaTech or MiniTech to a different extent.
Consider, for example, a monitoring tool implemented by the headteacher at a school who needs to collect certain information about pupils for the local authority. The class teachers must regularly input data into the system to generate the statistics needed by the headteacher but do not see the results and do not gain any useful information from the exercise. To the headteacher this technology is seen as MiniTech: it helps them to achieve their goal of collecting the data, serves a specific purpose, benefits them directly and does not involve any negative repositioning. But the individual class teacher might have a completely different view of the technology. Entering data into the system takes up valuable time that they could use for what they see as more important tasks, it serves an unclear purpose, benefits someone else (the headteacher) and repositions them as a data entry clerk. From the teacher’s perspective the technology is MegaTech.
Enforced Use of Technology
The example of the headteacher and the teacher highlights a potential complication for the user of a technology. A person’s normal reaction when faced with a technology that they see as MegaTech might be to reject it. But if a person is obliged to use a technology because its use has been mandated, for example by the headteacher in the above scenario, then they are trapped in a double-bind (Bateson, 2000, pp. 206-207). To use the system means that they accept being repositioned in their school conversations and the other unpalatable implications of engaging with the technology. But to refuse to use the system puts them in conflict with the headteacher who is in a position of authority and has instructed the teachers to use the technology. The teacher is placed in a no-win situation where either choice has an unsatisfactory outcome.
Why Mega and Mini?
I have recently been challenged about my use Mega and Mini in MegaTech and MiniTech. The comment was made that Mega and Mini carried implications about the size of the technology, that a technology does not have to be large in size to exhibit the traits of MegaTech and that not all small technologies will be seen as MiniTech.
My response is that MegaTech and MiniTech are not concerned with the functional aspects of technology, that is the extent of its features or the size of its codebase. Focussing on these issues, as discussed above, risks missing the human aspects of a technology’s impact as framed by the theories of van Langenhove and Harré, Heidegger and Popper. Mega and Mini relate more to how the user feels in relation to a technology. If a technology helps the user to achieve their goals, solves a specific problem and benefits them directly then I would argue that they are empowered by that technology. They feel in control of it. This is MiniTech: the user is bigger than the technology. If a technology obstructs the user’s activities, has implications that extend beyond the scope of that user and benefits others more than it does the user then I would argue that they are belittled by that technology. This is MegaTech: the technology is bigger than the user.
Examples of MegaTech and MiniTech
I intend to analyse The Big Thing and The Smaller Thing through the lens of MegaTech and MiniTech and will update this post with the links once they are available.
Bateson, G., 2000. Steps to an ecology of mind, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Heidegger, M., 1978. Being and Time, Wiley-Blackwell.
Johnson, M., Griffiths, D. & Wang, M., 2011. Positioning Theory, Roles and the Design and Implementation of Learning Technology. Journal of Universal Computer Science, 17(9), pp.1329–1346. Available at: http://www.jucs.org/jucs_17_9/positioning_theory_roles_and.
Van Langenhove, L. & Harré, R., 1999. Introducing Positioning Theory. In L. van Langenhove & R. Harré, eds. Positioning Theory. Blackwell Publishers Ltd, pp. 14–31.
Popper, K.R., 1966. The open society and its enemies, Vol.1, The spell of Plato 5th ed. (r., Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Winograd, T. & Flores, F., 1986. Understanding Computers and Cognition, Addison Wesley.