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Social Informatics Experience

Learning and teaching sociological basics in a technical context

On November 29th, 2016 I got an e-mail from a professor at Furtwangen University (of applied sciences). They were looking for a visiting lecturer in social informatics.

Social informatics started new at this university. He found my blog section on social informatics and decided to ask me whether I was interested in teaching the two modules "Informatik im sozialen Kontext" (information technology and its social context) und "Soziale Netze" (social nets)  during the summer term 2017. Of course I was interested and during our phone conversation one day later he also asked me to take part in the staffing procedure of a professorship in social informatics in January 2017. I accepted both. Although I wanted to stay a freelance lecturer I knew that this procedure would be a good opportunity to become acquainted with the university and some colleagues, students and members of the administration two month ahead the semester.

Social Informatics?

When I answer the question "what is your professional focus?" with "organization development and social informatics", people from the United states, UK, Scandinavia, India and Slovenia just nod and start a conversation focusing on the question "How do people handle technology? And how does technology deal with people?" and "what does this mean for our societies?"


Alas, in Germany the term social informatics is not widely known. In Germany computer scientists speak about "Informatik und Gesellschaft", information technology and society. Since decades this topic is part of curricula in computer sciences. The 2000 and 2001 lecture topics of Professor Wolfgang Coy at the Humboldt University Berlin are a fine example. In my view the headlines are with minor adaptations still applicable in a today seminar on social informatics.


Only a few universities in Germany offer a particular degree course in social informatics, for instance the University of Kaiserlautern. Another approach is to focus in a study path on social informatics, for instance this was the case at the University of Applied Sciences Furtwangen in the bachelor course IT product management.


Interesting education programs and materials stem from Norway, South Africa, Slovenia, the United States and Germany. The University of Lubljana offers since 1984 a master degree on social informatics [Sm2016]. Research Institutes in Scotland, Germany, Russia, Italy and the Middle East focus on social informatics [see the references below].

 

The grounding

Rob Kling, who founded the Center for Social Informatics at Indiana University, defined social informatics as "the body of research that examines the design, uses, and consequences of information and communication technologies in ways that take into account their interaction with institutional and cultural contexts." [Kl2000]


Social informatics is multi-disciplinary and uses theories, concepts and findings of several disciplines, for instance

  • sociology: social coexistence
  • psychology: behaviour, learning, identity
  • ethnology and (cultural) anthropology: networks, way of life
  • philosophy, especially ethics: values and norms
  • history: methodologically sound research of the past
  • economics: business administration and political economics
  • law: self determination, privacy, intellectual property
  • informatics: math, linguistics, engineering science

Social Informatics !

I propose the following definition: 

 

Social Informatics deals with the interrelationship of information- and communication technology and social change. This affects individuals, groups, (international) organizations (companies, public authorities, associations et cetera) plus local communities, states and international communities of states.


The task of social informatics is to support by research and development the design, implementation and maintenance of information systems for the benefit of individuals, groups and society, so that those, who develop, build, sell and maintain these systems, tailor technology to people and not inverse. To afford this social informatics builds upon disciplines like sociology, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, historical sciences, economics, law and - of course - computer sciences.


Especially the world wide web and the internet have a lasting effect on our daily life: Web 1.0 (static data presentation), Web 2.0 (the reader turns into player, for instance in social media), Web 3.0 (semantic) and the internet of things, internet 4.0.


To be able to play an active role in the design, creation and development of a networked society students, scholars and practitioners need basic knowledge in social informatics.

Two special approaches

Since more than thirty years several research groups examine how technology and sociology stick together. Two domains in science work with a special approach on the questions of social informatics: Social Shaping of Technology (SST) and Area Network Theory (ANT).


MacKenzie und Wajcman [MW1999] und Williams and Edge [WE1996] and their teams developed Social Shaping of Technology (SST), which represented a paradigm shift from technological determinism to technology as a social construction. [WE1996] offers a comprehensive introduction to and overview on the topic. The core statement in my view is:


"Central to SST is the concept that there are 'choices' (though not necessarily conscious choices) inherent in both the design of individual artefacts and systems, and in the direction or trajectory of innovation programmes. If technology does not emerge from the unfolding of a predetermined logic or a single determinant, then innovation is a 'garden of forking paths'." [WE1996 - page 2 in the online version]


Bruno Latour, philosopher and sociologist, coined during the 1980ies the term Area Network Theory. He proposes to understand technical artefacts and knowledge (technology) and the social coexistence (sociology) as a net, in which people and artefacts build the knots. The relationships are represented by the edges [La1998]. Technology is an expression of human life and coexistence.

 

Of course also animals are technicians with a social life: beavers, spiders, ants, bees, termites … 

 

Learn and teach the basics …

As mentioned above: To be able to play an active role in the design, creation and development of a networked society students, scholars and practitioners need basic knowledge in social informatics.


To teach the two modules "Informatik im sozialen Kontext" (information technology and its social context) und "Soziale Netze" (social nets) with overall 120 teaching units (each 45 minutes) afforded to implement a setting with 8 workshops (each two days) and 2 proofs of performance at Furtwangen University. This took place for two series: summer term 2017 and winter term 2017/2018. Meanwhile HFU decided to change the modules and offer "Digitalisierung" (digitalization) and "IT-Produktdesign" (IT product design) [HFU2019]. In my view this is a step away from social informatics.


In 2017 and 2018 the objective was to empower students to use theories, concepts and methods from social informatics for their work as IT product managers. They shall be able to take social, political and technical preconditions into account and to be aware of the social and ecological responsibility of IT product managers.


As the technical aspects are objects of other modules the workshops focused on the following topics:

  1. Getting started: Social net and electronic media
  2. Exploration and evaluation: What do the users need?
  3. Internationalization and globalization: Life is a net
  4. Product management and ethics: The art of balance between the technically feasible and social consequences
  5. Life world and work world:  In fact I live while I work
  6. Hackathon: Let's work … and have fun
  7. Digital Dexterity and Internet of Things: About handling the new
  8. Synopsis: It's all about communication

Of course the students learned definitions in informatics, sociology, economy et cetera and also for instance

  • group dynamics and team work
  • network analysis, organization analysis, stakeholder analysis
  • innovation
  • digital dexterity
  • agile management
  • appreciative inquiry

The complete curriculum is available in German via [We2018].

 

… Learner-centered

Case-based, competency-oriented learning is a profound access to accomplish a high degree of social informatics dexterity [WS2009]. Thus the students worked on two proofs of performance from the first workshop on. In "social networks" they built teams of two or three students and wrote a paper concerning a small students' research project on topics such as smart city or digital dexterity. In "information technology and its social context" they created a portfolio that contained several reflexions on topics like "ethics and IT product management" and a description of the tasks the students worked on during the workshops. The students presented their progress in each workshop and got feedback from their peers and from the teacher.


Overall sixteen students attended the workshop series during the summer term 2017 and the winter term 2017/2018. All but one succeeded. As the evaluation questionnaires and the reflexions of the students in their portfolios showed their satisfaction with this learning approach was high. For instance one student wrote:


"The workshop approach introduced me to a new way of learning. So far they are well-structured and more fun than a dry lecture. Time passed remarkable faster, because we always were in motion and had a task to perform. […] Beside this I reflected more on my study program "IT-Produktmanagement" (IT product management) and its components and segments. Furthermore I appreciated the linkup of social informatics with problems, questions and tasks stemming from other modules, the students attended during this term, as excellent." [NN17]

Social Informatics is a net

Social informatics does more than just "examine" like Rob Kling described it. Social informatics is a net built by the sciences it uses and the people who do research and development, who teach, learn and use the theories, models and methods of social informatics to foster the well-being of (digital) societies.

Why do I write this blog entry now, one and half year after I finished the second iteration of two modules "Informatik im sozialen Kontext" (information technology and its social context) und "Soziale Netze" (social nets)? Last year I sketched a research on "Education in Social Informatics" (Blog 21 May 2018). The work on the book "Aal … andere arbeiten lassen - Lernen und Lehren an Hochschulen" (Eel … engage everyone in learning - Work in Progress) obtained priority. This blog entry is intended to preserve my findings so far as a starting point for future research and writing.


Christa Weßel - Thursday, 20 Jun 2019

 

References

On https://www.christa-wessel.de/resources/for-social-informatics/ these and other references are collected and sorted by the sections

  • Basics
  • Education
  • Research Institutes 
  • Associations 
  • Conferences and Workshops 
  • People 
  • Network Analysis
  • Inspirations (films et cetera)