Assembling the heterogeneous elements for digital learning
Japanese store front - dog and boy

What are the symbols in digital education/design for learning?

Benbya et al (2020, p. 3) argue that digitial technologies do make a difference, including this point (among others)

Digital technologies not only give rise to complex sociotechnical systems; they also distinguish sociotechnical systems from other complex physical or social systems. While complexity in physical or social system is predominantly driven by either material operations or human agency, complexity in sociotechnical systems arises from the continuing and evolving entanglement of the social (human agency), the symbolic (symbol-based computation in digital technologies), and the material (physical artifacts that house or interact with computing machines).

An argument that resonates with my (overly) digital background and predilictions, but I wonder how valid/valuable this point is, whether the socio-material/post-digital folk have written about this, and what if any value it might generate for pondering (post-)digital education?

This resonates because my expeience in L&T in higher education suggests two shortcomings of most individual and organisational practices of “digital” education (aka online learning etc.):

  1. Few have actually grokked digital technologies, and;
  2. Even less recognise, let alone respond, the importance of “the continuing and evolving entanglement” of the social, symbolic, and material of sociotechnical systems that Benbya et al (2020) identify.

Returning to symbol-based computation, Benbya et al (2020) quote Ada Lovelace

Symbol-based computation provides a generalizable and applicable mechanism to unite the operations of matter and the abstract mental processes (`Lovelace 1842).
They explain that symbol-based computation – i.e. “provide a standard form of symbols to encode, input, process, and output a wide variety of tasks” – is at the heart of digital technologies.

Which seem to beg questions like

  1. What are the variety of L&T tasks that digital technologies support?
  2. What are the symbols that those digital technologies encode, input, process and output?
  3. How do those symbols and tasks evolve over time and contribute to the “continuing and evolving entanglement” of the L&T sociotechnical system?

Symbol systems in L&T – focus on management

It’s not hard to find literature talking about the traditional, one-ring-to-rule-them-all Learning Management System as being focused largely on “management” i.e. administration. Indeed, the one universal set of tasks supported by digital technology in higher education appears to be focused on student enrolment, grade management, and timetabling. Perhaps because courses, programs, grades, and timetables are the only symbols that are consistent across the institution.

When you enter the nitty, gritty of learning and teaching in specific disiplines you leave consistency behind and enter a diverse world of competing traditions, pedagogies, and ways of seeing the world. A world where perhaps the most commonly accepted symbols are lectures, tutorials, assignments, exams, grades. Again somewhat removed from the actual practice of learning and teaching.


To deal with this diversity institutions are moving to Tech Ecoysystems aka Next-Generation Digital Learning Environments (NGDLE). The NGDLE rationale is that no one digital technology (e.g. the LMS) can provide it all. You’ll need an ecosystem that will “allow individuals and institutions the opportunity to construct learning environments tailored to their requirements and goals” (Brown et al., 2015, p. 1).

Recent personal experience suggests, however, that what currently passes for such an ecosystem is a collection of disaparte tools. Where each tool has its own set of symbols to represent what it does. Symbols that typically aren’t those assumed by other tools in the ecosystem, or commonly in use by the individuals and organisations using the tools. The main current solution to this symbolic tower of babel is the LTI standard, which defines a standard way for these disparate tools to share information. Information that is pretty much the same standard symbols identified above. i.e. student identity, perhaps membership, and marks/grades.

Consquently, the act of constructing a learning environment tailored to the requirements of an individual or a course is achieved by somehow understanding and cobbling together these disaparate symbol systems and the technologies that embody them. Not surprisingly, a pretty difficult task.

Constructing learning environments

At the other end, there are projects like ABC Learning Design that provide symbols and increasingly digitial technologies for manipulating those symbols for design for learning that could be integrated into sociotechnical systems. For example, work at University of Sydney or ways of using digital technology to harness these symbols to marry curriculum design with project management. Which appears to finally provide digital technology that is supporting symbol computation that is directly related to learning and teaching and can be used across a variety of tasks and contexts.

But I do wonder how to bridge the final gap. While this approach promises a way to bridge curriculum design and project managing the implementation of that design. It doesn’t yet actively help with the implementation of that design. If and how might you bridge the standard symbols used by ABC Learning Design and the disparate collection of different symbol systems embedded in the tech ecosystem provided to implement it?

Learning Design tools like LAMS used something like the “one-ring-to-rule-them-all”/LMS approach and then engaged with something like the LTI approach. So either there was a single system that could define its own symbol system and ignore the rest of the world. Or, it could communicate with the rest of the world by the common universal symbols: student identity, membership, marks/grades etc and add one more disparate system to understand and try to integrate when constructing a learning environment.

Is there a different way?

What about a sociotechnical system that focused on actively helping with the task of cobbling together disparate symbol systems embedded in a tech ecosystem into learning environments? A method that actively engaged with developing a “continuing and evolving entanglement” of the social, symbolic, and material? A sociotechnical system that actively enabled relevant symbol-based computation?

What would that look like?


Benbya, H., Ning Nan, Tanriverdi, H., & Youngjin Yoo. (2020). Complexity and Information Systems Research in the Emerging Digital World. MIS Quarterly, 44(1), 1–17.

Brown, M., Dehoney, J., & Millichap, N. (2015). The Next Generation Digital Learning Environment: A Report on Research (A Report on Research, p. 11). EDUCAUSE.

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