A wet & soggy account of ANT

Wits has decided that if they are going to prepare students for a 21st century world, then they will have to equip their students with connected digital devices that enable 21st century thinking and work. Accordingly, they have embarked on a number of projects to wirelessly connect the campus and improve the ratio of students who have access to computing devices. In understanding how this project is going to play out, I propose that I use ANT as a lens to understand the process, identify the actors that play a role in ICT diffusion at Wits and investigate the relationship between them.

Two weeks of dipping in and out of Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT) has left my mind drenched with a new thought framework. Instead of looking for another article, I’ve decided to articulate what I have (and haven’t) grasped about material-semiotics. By straining my synapses through a textual sieve, I’m going to attempt to apply ANT to my area of study, and see what I’ve absorbed and what I need to clarify.

ANT is a reasonably established theory that has been used for understanding information systems. It avoids some of the common technology cliches; “ICT as an enabler” or “bridging the digital divide” . It supports thinking about the sociotechnical networks that incorporate people, computers, institutions, policies etc into ICT.

What is ANT
A repeated theme in the literature is that ANT refuses to be labeled as a theory or a methodology. ANT asks that the person to look at all “actants” (be they people or objects) and describe what they see. In this project at Wits, there are a range of different actants. Do I need to list all of them? Is it possible to list them all? No. I anticipate that what will emerge will be complicated, complex or chaotic. But the ANT lens says that we should resist the temptation to reduce what we see into natural, social, or discursive categories. Rather than reduce the various entities or see them as separate objects that can be manipulated, ANT asks the observer to note the actants and their relationship to each other.

How does ANT work?
The relationship between the heterogeneous actants interests is called a network. The formation of this network occurs by translation, not transmission. The stability of the network depends on the ability of the different actants to translate that is, re-interpret, re-present or appropriate, others’ interests to one’s own. There are four moments in translation; Problematisation, Intressement, Enrolment, Mobilisation of allies. In order to bring clarity – the focus on the process of translation is usually taken from the point of view of a single actor

What will the ANT framework accomplish?
Who shapes, enables and constrains change in an organisation? People or technology? The debate as to has agency swings between technology and society. ANT would argue that the relationship between technology and humans are interwoven. Although technology is changing rapidly, technology does not drive the development of an organizations’s values. But neither can an organization behaviors be entirely explained by social interactions and constructs. Rather, ANT argues that human and non human actors have agency and create a network that influences how things get done. ANT ask that we acknowledge the reciprocal and dynamic interaction between technology and humans.
This is by no means intended as accurate or authoritative account of ANT. It’s me squeezing my brain against words (much like a sponge against the palm of my hand), waiting to see if anything useful emerges. Please feel free to comment. Hopefully my mind will feel less soggy soon.

Digital Slates

Digital slates

Digital slates

So, you want to move from OHP transparencies, where you portably project the process of working through a problem to a class on a transparency, to a more modern device that should allow you to do the same…and more.

Projecting and recording the process of obtaining a solution on a data projector should be simple, portable and cost effective. Yes? Sadly no. This is technology. Things are not always easy to master or easy on the back pocket.

The OHP allows the process to be demonstrated in small or big steps in front of the class. A PowerPoint presentation is great for presenting a prepared show, but it does not really allow the teacher to modify the presentation on the fly and decide what size steps they will take as he/she presents the sums up in front of the classroom. So what other options are there.

Option 1 – Interactive Whiteboard
Go ahead, blow your budget and install a interactive whiteboard, and give your class a large monitor on which you can write, show and record. But whiteboards are costly, they re-enforce student passivity and carrying a white board around to your different lecture venue is fairly tricky.

Option 2 – A tablet computer
Be trendy and purchase a tablet computer (preferably an iPad 2) and a stylus and wirelessly connect with the data projector. Then demonstrate your working process on screen and walk around the class and show solutions to specific problems that students are facing. But tablets are expensive, the stylus may not be as precise (and using your finger to write does not work). Hooking up to the data projector wirelessly is not as straightforward as it sounds.

Option 3 – Plug in your pen and pad
Before you ditch those transparencies, scan them and convert them to a PDF. Now project the scanned transparencies on the data projector, and then write on the transparencies with a digital drawing device. Want to show and image or video. Then hyperlink to the resource. Digital drawing devices are cheap, but they do require new skills and an extra layer of technology to be plugged into the laptop

Option 4 – Get a Smartpen
Or get out some paper and a special pen and press record. The pen has a small camera installed and your handwriting and audio is recorded and then can be downloaded to a PC. The working process can be projected on the data projector – but if you want the process to be visible in real time, you need to forgo the pens recording ability.

None of the solutions are perfect, they never are. Option 3 is the cheapest, option 4, the most portable and option 2, once you’ve installed the bits, may be the simplest.