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Technological Literacy in the Workplace

Situating Technological Literacy in the Workplace

Jamie Wallace and Cathrine Hasse

The developing discourse centered around the definition of technological literacy has been taken up from many quarters and between conflicting perspectives (Kahn & Kellner, 2006; Keirl, 2006). While the array of different technologies and applications that might be considered gives rise to differing disciplinary viewpoints (Liddament, 1994), there remains a lack of an adequate framework from which to view technology and its use within a particular context of practice. Seeing this as central to the development of professional disciplines immediately places technology literacy not simply as something useful for ensuring that certain technologically mediated tasks can be adequately satisfied but rather, because of technology’s pervasive quality, as something that encompasses the nature of working life itself.

Arguments as to what technological literacy should be have primarily turned toward the educational system (e.g., Garmire &Pearson, 2006). Beyond this, there has been considerable consideration of how the results of education can enable a meaningful engagement with the progressively technological world (see Ingerman & Collier-Reed, 2011). There has, however, been little direct, empirically informed understanding of technologies’ consequences for the various wide-ranging concerns of working practitioners. In this sense, notions of technological literacy have remained abstracted from situated everyday working experiences beyond the scope of the isolated operation of technologies themselves.

Considering technological literacy as something being realized within work situations, among other things, provokes the question of how it can be identified and studied. As no single body of attributes or characteristics is as yet able to successfully point to what it means to be technologically literate in

J.R. Dakers (ed.), New Frontiers in Technological Literacy © John R. Dakers 2014

everyday practices, then, if the term is to move beyond a merely aspirational endeavor, the narratives of those engaging purposely with technology can be seen as a way of understanding how it plays a part in situated practice. This approach relates to the ways workers express their own understandings of technology as they engage with it in their everyday practices.

The understanding of technology’s position within the workplace has been studied widely from different quarters, such as those of STS (science and technology studies) and CSCW (computer-supported cooperative work). Although these unearth much that can inform us of the situated role of technology, there has been little in this direction specifically related to technological literacy within professional work contexts. This is clearly demonstrated in the fields of both nursing and teaching. There are many studies that tackle issues related to the influence of “electronic patient journals” in hospitals or consider, for example, the didactic improvements to “interactive whiteboards” within schools, but there is little focus on the broader needs of practitioners to integrate and align these with the wider concerns of their everyday lives. In this respect, we consider technologies not as isolated tools freely adopted and discarded at will but rather as materials and systems of understanding variously embedded within working life and mediating the progressive reconfiguration of procedures, processes, and structures. Technologies are therefore continually being realized within work situations, raising important questions as to how they are best understood in relation to their multiple consequences.

In the following, we draw on empirical work aimed specifically at considering the need to develop technological literacy among the professions of nursing and teaching (Wallace, 2012; Tafdrup & Hasse, 2012). Central to this is the study of how technology has been reconfigured within the everyday workplaces of Danish hospitals and schools coincident with the changing practices they influence. Technological literacy is understood not as an ability or competence derived solely through prior educational means but as something continuously developed in the workplace through practice-based learning in the face of the constant mutual reconfigurations of technology and practice. It becomes an important aspect of professional expertise to handle and negotiate these reconfigurations without losing sight of the motive for the practice itself.

What we propose here is a shift of focus from technology as something defined in disciplinary, educational, corporate, organizational, design, or even social terms. Alternatively, the attempt is to grasp technology as continually playing shifting and emergent roles within ongoing and recurrent interactions across a sphere of professional workplace influence. In this respect, we align with those scholars who see technological literacy as a way of acting and, as expressed by Ingerman and Collier-Reed (2011 p. 141), as “something that is realised in particular settings and situations-over and over again.” Technological literacy doesn’t result from an understanding of what technology is, whether from a historical viewpoint (Feenberg, 2006) or that of technological knowledge (De Vries, 2006), or that it is socially constituted. Rather, it exists in relation to the unfolding consequences of processes and ways of thinking and organizing mutually constituted between social and technological worlds.

This temporal aspect underlines the learning that springs from having to reapproach the position of “technologies-in-practice” (Dourish, 2006, p. 6). During the course of practice-based learning, working life emerges as a collective learning space where people find ways to learn from each other in the face of technologies influencing particular work-related situations. What becomes of interest here is whether there are overarching situations to which we can address the focus of “in-practice” technological literacy. In other words, are there central types of reconfigurations that would allow practitioners to pinpoint particular needs or characteristics of their mutual learning?

Difficulty immediately arises here in attempting to identify the general from the particular. Understanding technological literacy in general terms removes the very dependence on the situatedness necessary for actually engaging with technology. Although we can refer to notions such as “the ability of a person to use, manage, assess, and understand technology” (Dug- gar, 2001, p. 515), these remain detached from the in-practice engagements involving explicit and implicit forms of knowing that include deviating ways of experiencing and acting. Disciplinary boundaries are drawn between workers that give rise to “figured worlds” (Holland et al., 1998), and they inhabit different “ecologies of practice” populated with different technologies (Wallace, 2010). This leads to collaborative technological uses amid various forms of knowing and the multiple ontologies of working life. In order to make sense of technological literacy in these complex contexts, we look for the existence of patterns across situational encounters within which practitioners and technologies undergo transformations of becoming. These are recurring occurrences within everyday work experiences that can be identified as concurrent reconfigurations of technology and practice. Therefore, examples can shed light on the ways humans and technologies become distinctively coupled under certain workplace circumstances.

Yawson considers the principal ambition of technological literacy as providing people with the “tools to engage intelligently and conscientiously in the word around them” (Yawson, 2010, p. 5). What we want to set in focus here is not just something of the nature of these tools but how they apply differently as the world around them changes. Being neither static nor generalized, they place complications on how to develop meaningful ways of engaging. What may appear intelligent and conscientious at one juncture might seem very different at another. Exploring the distinctive impact these situated worlds have on ways of learning together with technologies provides a move toward situated approaches to technological literacy.

This type of practice-based learning stands in a close relationship with the concept of situated learning through which, as noted by Stephen Bil- lett, occupational expertise develops in practice. It takes time and experience, as well as critical insight, to develop occupational skills, which are “shaped through particular episodes of experiences that comprise situated instances of practice” (Billett, 2009, p. 833). Learning here is situated as an integral part of generative social practice in the lived-in world (Lave & Wenger, 1991). It is in this situated activity that staff attempt to make sense of the technologies often imposed by politicians and managers and tied to dreams of increased efficiency and innovation.

This kind of response to change can be understood through theories of situated learning (e.g., Lave & Wenger, 1991; Brown & Duguid, 1991; Orr, 1996), as well as the acknowledgement of the discrepancy between explicit plans and situated actions (Suchman, 2007) that can be exposed following ethnographic studies. All these practice-based approaches underline the importance of ongoing situated changes and learning when work takes place. We see technological literacy as an integrated aspect of this process of change. Theories of practice-based learning, however, generally lack a perspective on how both technology and work life reconfigure each other in these learning processes—in other words, the understanding that accompanies the mutual reconfigurations and their dissipating consequences identified and contemplated through reflections in practice and on practice.

Michael sees this move toward the substantive as a part of technological literacy beyond that of technical knowledge and the mastery of technique (Michael, 2006). What becomes interesting, however, is how such things as, for example, “a commitment to discrimination, to improvement of the world, to criticism, creativity, and autonomy” (ibid, 56) are not separate from the understanding of the technologies but able to be conceived of as a mutual part of the technosocial landscape that unfolds with the changing forms and usage of technological artefacts, systems, and knowledges. Within the world of work and professional expertise, there are frameworks for acting that pose challenges to how we can understand the emergent and repetitive character of acting with technology that relates the intentions of technological use on the one hand to an understanding of the consequences on the other.

The fields of teaching and nursing offer two diverse examples of how broad changes to the technologies deployed within workplace settings lead to consequential adjustments of both working practices and the wider notions of the professions themselves. Technology can influence not simply practice but also ideas of what it is to be a practitioner (Barnard, 2006). As well as being socially dominant professional disciplines, they reflect a central dimension of technology’s place within the workplace. Although increasingly influenced by technological use, both professions have as their underlying aspiration to fulfill what might be termed basic human pursuits and goals. What becomes challenging in this regard is the use of technology within a developing technological context without overtly or at least detrimentally influencing the attention to human aspects, be it from an operational viewpoint or related to the developing professional knowledge and skill sets. Significant to this is whether technologies are considered to have dehumanizing or disorienting effects detracting from the ultimate caring or learning aspiration of practice.

The working lives of teachers and nurses and the technologies they adopt exist within organizational and institutional contexts. They are subject not simply to the day-to-day concerns of the tasks to which they are set but to the wider workings of the organization. The use of technologies includes, in some measure, aspects beyond the functions for which they are deployed, such as economic, political, or ethical functions. Having a bearing on the responsibility of multiple stakeholders, technologies become boundary objects (Star, 1989; Carlile, 1997) whose influence spills over to forms of administration, accountability, communication, knowledge sharing, security, investment, and maintenance, as well as the very means of employment and its bearing on liabilities (Barnard, 2006). Given such complex interrelations and traditions, differing professions, institutions, and departments are subject to very different forms of organization and organizational culture. Considering, for example, the degree to which practices are subject to tight procedural control draws a divide between nursing and teaching. Nursing operates within strict guidelines and documented procedures. This isn’t to say nurses aren’t able to change the manner in which they operate and adopt technologies, but nursing has very different disciplinary circumstances than teaching. It is a profession that relies on what, on the face of it, we might call wide autonomy of practice. Therefore, we see differences in the approach to vocational and workplace learning and consequently how people learn to understand technologies “inpractice.”

What the professions have in common is the pervasive influence of technological development, whether this is seen through the paradigm of innovation or not (Edgerton, 2007). Nurses find and update their patients’ records through a specifically tailored computer system; they use electronic infusion drips, dynamic beds, electronic blood pressure measurement apparatuses, and small handheld computers. In schools, we see computer systems and the Internet connecting parents, pupils, and teachers; there are interactive whiteboards with increasingly new software features, copying machines, movie cameras, and most prominent of all, students’ cell phones being included within teaching.

The progressive nature of technology isn’t just visible in the changing styles adopted by designers and through the advanced capabilities of new technologies, but it becomes prominent in the narratives that practitioners give about their working lives. Given the opportunity to refer to all sorts of tools relevant to their work that might include books, pencils, and paper, it remained electronic artefacts and the very latest digital technologies that were considered as “technology.” Asked to name the three most important technologies in their working lives, they pointed to things needing electrical power, such as computers, software systems, interactive whiteboards, or electronic defibrillators, while making associations with the practicalities of use (Tafdrup & Hasse, 2012). One nurse noted, “Well, I would answer ‘the computer’ because you use it all the time.” In the words of a teacher, “Technologies? There is of course the computer, right? It is a working tool as well as a planning tool.” Although different technologies are referred to in the different professions, it is more often than not the archetypical computer that is first to be referred to. On further reflection, it becomes particular programs and systems that are discussed or the use of specific artefacts overshadowing ideas of the generic computer.

Considering technological literacy as the mastery of computer skill, for example (see Waks, 2006), discounts not simply any contextual notion of the uses to which the computer is put but also the changing technological context of the artefact itself. It takes an artefact-centric approach in which the computer is considered a static artefact influenced by neither progressive innovative developments nor changing perceptions about its use, function, or wider consequence. In other words, we see a view of technology as removed from the significance it has to, for example, the ways people work, the time they use, how they relate to each other, how they perceive their working environment, and how they organize their daily routines, not to mention the demands for learning new competencies alongside fulfilling work obligations.

Aspects such as this show how professional judgments are multidimensional; people are able to see technologies as having multiple influences beyond those responsible for their capital investment. They develop in-practice relations through which they undergo a transition from the designed products to tools imbued with local sense and meaning. What we may generally call “the computer” can therefore demand different or multiple technological literacies (Kahn & Kellner, 2006) in different local situated contexts—even within the same profession.

In addition to the progressive or at least changing nature of technology, practitioners must learn to approach their influence at particular times as being uncertain. This may call for a marked reconfiguration of practice as the technology’s response or consequence begins to deviate from what was expected. In these situations, complexity and uncertainty become different sides of the same coin as workers explore new opportunities to fulfill the unfolding demands of the situation. There are differences here between the familiar and the unfamiliar, between the imposed and the preferred (Wallace, 2012), or between the functioning and the broken. The locus here is the experience of engagement supported through cycles of learning that point to reasonable forms of reconfiguration.

For the worker unable to attempt his own repair, the notion of the “breakdown” becomes the severance of technology and practice. For those familiar enough with the technology’s workings, a breakdown becomes another reconfiguration aimed at returning the technology to its working state. In some cases, a breakdown calls for a complete reevaluation of the intended procedure that can lead to the exercise of innovative solutions to ensure that the primary goal of practice can be maintained. If such things can be considered before the event of a breakdown, they might lead to the preparation of contingencies, of having a “plan B,” or at least the awareness of having to “think on one’s feet.”

Both nurses and teachers refer to commonly experienced types of breakdowns (more than 80 percent mention breakdowns as a major problem for working life when asked about the biggest hurdle with using technologies; Tafdrup & Hasse, 2012), such as the failure of computer systems. Handling these becomes an integral part of their acting with technology and, as such, relies centrally on their situated technological literacy. Without appropriate action, breakdowns can influence multiple consequences. As a boundary object, a technology’s failure is seen from different quarters in different ways. It might be a question of reduced efficiency, security, safety, loss of time and resources, or communication, or it might be seen as an opportunity to teach others how to act when failures occur. The resulting need for a fluency in navigating consequences involves learning “knowing how to know how” as it has been phrased by Anne Edwards (2010). Practitioners without this aspect of technological literacy risk ending up as passive users in the face of breakdowns, struggling to find alternatives to their suspended actions. For some, it might be an opportunity to draw management’s attention to the need for improvement or to make a case for alternative technologies. For the practitioner, the breakdown of technology remains first and foremost a hindrance to the completion of the task for which the technology was being employed. The need for a reflective response places these situations at the forefront of the pragmatic ambitions of a situated technological literacy. It is no use repeatedly pressing the same keyboard button or computer screen command if there is no response! But does the answer lie in further engagements with the computer or in turning attention toward human activity?

This dilemma of attention between the human and the technological becomes another central theme within a situated technological literacy. For example, are the particular, rational demands of computer interfaces and the step-by-step logic of systemic procedures altering our ways of perceiving other nontechnological tasks? This may be difficult to say, but calling into question of the appropriate use of technological involvement must surely be relevant during all practices for which there are nontechnology alternatives. As expressed by several nurses, “There are times where clinically I think ‘you can’t always rely on technical equipment.’” Teachers, too, are increasingly aware of the consequences technologies are having on the ways they relate to their classes through, for example, the expectations pupils have regarding the use of new media. As more and more practices rely on technological mediation, yet we remain largely human and have practices with very human ambitions, we must consider whether valuable skilled practices may become lost or impaired as a result of the introduction of new technologies. Technologies are demanding in multiple ways, tied to both the affordances they are able to display for being successfully adopted into practice and the learning processes users must go through to become familiar with them. Although formal learning strategies are applied to counter such things, these are in the minority, and it remains primarily through practice-based learning that staff become familiar with the technological tools.

Lastly, the other major impact on responses to changing technologies in practice stems from the collaborative and collective nature of organizational life. During the unfolding actions of practice, people need to work together, negotiating with technologies on the one hand and interacting with colleagues and wider organizational concerns on the other. Technologies become a part of the organizational fabric of schools and hospitals through which collectively held notions and ways of doing emerge. This does not mean that we can easily separate the collective aspect form the individual engagement. Just as with the themes outlined earlier, they become entangled in complex confrontations and negotiations to arrive at adequate ways of aligning learning, actions, technologies, and their organization. Recollecting his own process of becoming familiar with a certain technology, a teacher explained,

I’m self-taught on the computer, but here at work I needed more help and have read manuals by going on YouTube. We only went on a brief introductory course about how to use the interactive whiteboards (we did get that at least), but it was enough so that we could move on because we could talk to each other about it. “Hey, I have a problem here—do you know how to deal with that?” This was especially about technicalities . . . “my computer can’t access the Internet . . . how can that be?” and then you learn three, four, or five possibilities, which may be wrong, but you try them. So it is going back and forth between trying what is possible, talking to others, and in the end a bit of formal education. But in this workplace we try to teach each other.

Through these practice-based learning experiences, the development of expertise in handling technologies relies on being able to understand the needs and motivations of others, or what could be termed “relational agencies” (Edwards, 2010). Such negotiations are necessary as technologies become meaningful phenomena linking tangible tools with thoughts, actions, and culture. Associated with the everyday routines of our local life- worlds, they help define our relationships and generate opportunities (Kim &Roth, 2008). Being not just helpful but mutually constituted in practice, they “bite back” and have “unintended consequences” (Tenner, 1996) that need addressing through collective understanding. Simply put, practitioners need to learn from each other how to successfully handle and communicate unpredictable consequences within and across disciplinary boundaries.

Edwards’s notion of “relational agency” is pertinent here, involving a capacity for working together and giving support across boundaries. A nurse may learn about the electronic patient system from a doctor or a secretary. A schoolteacher may learn about the new “interactive whiteboard” from a friend who happens to be an IT consultant, and teachers with different backgrounds may learn from each other. We can see that a situated technological literacy involves forms of practice-based learning that include “relational agency.” This isn’t simply a capacity to work with technology or with colleagues but “the capacity to ‘know how to know who’ (can collaborate)” (Edwards, 2010, p. 31).

Seen in such terms, the reconfiguration of technology becomes interwoven between local individual and collective concerns and with the ever-widening aspects of organization and even beyond. There have been, in relative terms, huge investments in schools, for example, aimed at providing teachers with opportunities for creating multimedia presentations through the deployment of “interactive whiteboards.” Presented to the schools as progressive and innovative, their repeated breakdown because of poor network connections results in them being considered as unreliable. In response, teachers reconfigure their approach to class preparation by ensuring they also have a contingency “plan B,” adopting physical media such as books and printouts. The motivation for learning from each other dwindles and the opportunities for using the “interactive whiteboards” are inadequately explored, with the result that expensive and sophisticated technologies become adopted simply as a substitution for the blackboards they replaced.

In an attempt to draw together what we have seen as the primary strands or common experiences of sociomaterial interactions found from the study of the working professions of nursing and teaching, we can begin to propose how technological literacy is manifested within everyday working practices. Involving the ability to engage meaningfully with differing reconfigurations of technology within a context of professional culture that is inextricably linked with workplace learning, it can be approached from four interrelated dimensions. These relational dimensions provide a view of particular intersections of the mutual fashioning of technology and human activity. Two of these can be seen as disposed toward an initial technological consequence and the other two toward the social, although they all depend on the reciprocation between technological and social influence. These can be simply summarized as involving technologically biased constituents of “technological change” and “technological uncertainty” and socially biased constituents of “reflexivity” and “organization.”

“Technological change” here refers to the learning consequences of deploying and implementing new technologies within the workplace. This involves becoming familiar with and adjusting to ways of doing things together with the affordances that technologies and their successive alterations provide toward the aims of practice. These are emergent technopractice realizations that demand an understanding and experience of the technology from the aspect of its direct use and its interrelations with the objectives for which it is adopted. This is the learning “how to use” dimension.

“Technological uncertainty” is the field of reconfiguration that results from unintended and unexpected technological consequences. This involves the indeterminate mismatch between technology and practice exemplified by the idea of “the breakdown” that prevents the unhampered completion of procedures and plans. Learning how to contend with the resulting uncertainty either in a response or analysis “in the moment” or through a broader understanding of technology is characteristic of this aspect. This is the learning “through events” dimension.

“Reflexivity” is the aspect of technological literacy able to situate technological demands within the social and human aspects of practice. It is where technologies can be understood as operating through ontologies and systems of logic that are different from those found elsewhere and that, without the reflexive ability to see beyond purely technological concern, can effectually

“blind” the user from its consequences on a human level. This is the learning “between influence” dimension

“Organization” refers to reconfigurations that are situated within organizational concerns and those relating to the profession. These involve a metaperspective that goes beyond the immediate concerns of practice to incorporate collective consequences such as structuring, management, and policies that influence the longer-term impact of acting together with technology. This is the learning “together” dimension.

Technological literacy is the capacity for learning from everyday entanglements within the constant reconfigurations of both practice and technology without losing sight of the motive for the practice itself. A technologically literate practitioner therefore acts reflectively and actively among the continually shifting ecologies of practice (Wallace, 2010). Similarly, being passive to such changing conditions, one risks losing sight of the fundamental aims of practice and the learning through which this is maintained. This view of the interrelated intersections of technology and activity offers a particular perspective of the engagement in negotiating and learning together across the organization. It follows, then, that the capability of collectively keeping professional motives in mind during practice-based learning amid the shifting reconfigurations of practice and technology, astride the four dimensions of influence, defines the technologically literate person.

This attempt to free technological literacy from the confines of purely educational contexts has enabled it to be considered alongside the complexities of situated ways of acting. As such, this has reflected back the multiple dimensions of technologies’ influence on our everyday lives, not least those found within education itself. The aspiration has been to provide a framework through which vocational and practice-based learning can view the inevitable intersections with progressive technological influence on professional life. This is perhaps a step toward empowering practitioners to develop relevant incentives (see Dow, 2006) for learning inpractice as well as about practice and to find ways to take charge of the opportunities technologies offer for the meaningful development of practice.


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