Adopting Socio-technical Concepts for Eliciting Groupware Requirements in the Educational Environment


Alan Hogarth (UK)


Group working and its sister technology groupware are currently gaining favour in the manner in which organisations conduct their activities. However, organisations tend to view groupware as a technical product to solve a technical problem and pay scant regard to the social, cultural and ethical requirements of introducing groupware to their organisation or institution. Moreover, there has been minimal research into the social and cultural effects of introducing Groupware technology. Neither has there been much interest in developing a framework or approach that would take such social, cultural and ethical requirements into account. However there is in one body of research called Social Informatics whose concepts, if utilised properly, may be able to alleviate some of the aforementioned problems. This paper will consider how group computing, facilitated by groupware, can be introduced into the educational environment. The paper will also discuss whether adapting some of the concepts advocated by Social Informatics, specifically those pertaining to Socio-Technical development approaches, can alleviate some of the aforementioned problems of introducing Groupware into the educational environment. In order to enhance this process a case study survey conducted by the author will be discussed.

Initially the role of group working and groupware in business and education is discussed. Consideration will be given to the importance of social and cultural aspects as well as technological ones when introducing groupware. To this end a discussion of Social Informatics will be undertaken with a view to using aspects of this approach to aid in the implementation of a groupware system. Specifically socio-technical design approaches such as those advocated by authors in the field will be considered. Further the findings of a survey undertaken by the author with several groups of students from Glasgow Caledonian University will be discussed. Based on the findings in the literature and the results of his survey the author will propose an initial approach for introducing groupware into the educational environment.

Social Informatics is an area of study that considers the social aspects of introducing Information and Communications Technology (ICT) into an organisation. Such research includes the roles of ICT in social and organisational change and the way that the social organisation of information technologies are influenced by social forces and social practices. Social Informatics studies’ aim to ensure that technical research agendas and system designs are relevant to peoples lives. The key word is relevance, ensuring that technical work is socially driven rather than technology driven. Social informatics also refers to the interdisciplinary study of the design, uses and consequences of ICTs that takes into account their interaction with institutional and cultural contexts.

This definition of social informatics helps to emphasise that ICTs do not exist in social or technological isolation. Their cultural and institutional contexts influence the ways in which they are developed, the kinds of workable configurations that are proposed, how they are implemented and used and the range of consequences that occur for organisations and other social groupings such as universities.

The problem is that systems professionals tend to concentrate on technical aspects
when designing information systems whether it be traditional ICT applications or the introduction of Groupware technology. Good information systems are neither obvious nor effective when they are based on technological considerations alone. Early research showed that information systems were much more effectively utilised when the people who worked with them routinely had a contribution to make during the design. One approach called ‘participatory design’ built on this insight. Further, it was discovered that it was important to change work practices and systems designs together, rather than adapt work practices to ICTs that were imposed in organisations. Systems specialists and managers should not impose ICTs on people without involving them in shaping the new system and redesign of work or educational practices. Significantly, in recent years, there has been a noticeable shift in working and educational practices with both business organisations and educational institutions placing greater emphasis on team working and more participative approaches to working. This in turn has the obvious effect of altering the social and cultural structures of these organisations . Further, coupled with this increase in team-based working there has been a parallel increase in the use of ICTs and Groupware technology, particularly in the business world. Therefore, if team working has to be computerised then by its nature Groupware must necessarily be used for this collaborative type of working. Nonetheless research is showing that those organisations which introduce ICT systems while considering not only technical aspects but also the social, cultural and ethical impact are more productive than those who do not. It is apparent from the literature that, although many business organsiations now incorporate Groupware systems and have done so for many years, proportionately fewer academic institutions are availing themselves of this technology for teaching and learning purposes. Yet Groupware systems for project work in universities, if conducted in the correct manner, could prove to be a most effective learning medium. The case study referred to in this paper is the current phase of the author’s research for his PhD. The work is based on the general theme of this presentation in regard to collaborative working and the use of Groupware technologies in the educational environment. It was the author’s intention to compare the social and cultural issues that arise within the ‘manual’ group project with those that arise within the technology based group project. The study comprises of ten groups, 35 students in total. The groups have six weeks to complete the task and will be instructed to plan, control, schedule and organise the project themselves. Only in times of extreme disagreement have they to call upon the author to mediate. On completion of this first stage of the study the students will asked to complete a questionnaire. The results of this survey will also be discussed in the paper.