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Sociotechnical co-evolution of an e-learning innovation network

Nancy Law Leming Liang

Many policy initiatives around the world related to technology in education (or ‘e-learning’) share the vision that e-learning will improve student learning and foster their development of 21st-century skills. The success of e-learning is predicated upon deep changes in teachers’ pedagogical practice. The way to facilitate such change is to provide teachers with learning opportunities to acquire requisite technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPCK) (Koehler & Mishra, 2008), and engage them in a teacher network in which they design e-learning curricula, activities and resources collaboratively (Voogt et al., 2015).

‘The success of e-learning innovations depends on environmental conditions at the school, project network and system levels, as well as individual teachers’ efforts.’

Nevertheless, the success of e-learning innovations depends not only on individual teachers’ efforts but also on the environmental conditions at different levels of the education system (that is, at the school, project network and system levels) (Law, Niederhauser, Christensen, & Shear, 2016). In fact, the ways in which conditions at different levels influence the success of e-learning innovations remain to be explored, even though the existent literature has acknowledged the complexity manifested in the process of innovation implementations. The aim of our new paper, published in the British Journal of Educational Technology (Law & Liang, 2019), is to go beyond the focus at the teacher level and adopt a sociotechnical change perspective to explore broader conditions at the school, network and system levels contributing to the scalability of innovation.

What is sociotechnical change?

Many sectors in society, such as transportation, hygiene and waste disposal, have undergone technological transitions. These transitions involve changes beyond simple technological substitutions, and must be accompanied by a host of other changes at the societal level – such as user practices, organisational structures and roles, regulations and so on – that co-evolve with technological transitions. Geels (2002) puts forward a framework to reveal the interactions between elements in the sociotechnical co-evolution process, which comprises three hierarchically nested levels.

  1. Landscape that describes a broad range of external factors (for example, economic, political, cultural).
  2. Regimes that refers to the sets of rules that guide the activities of different actors and social groups.
  3. Niches that provide the protection for experimentation in the early phases of innovation.

According to the sociotechnical change model (Geels, 2002), social practices brought about by technological innovations take place at the niche level, but it requires concomitant changes at the regime and landscape levels for these innovations to be sustained and scaled.

How does the sociotechnical change model help to understand e-learning innovations?

Our new article (Law & Liang, 2019) paper studies the evolution of a joint school network of special education needs schools (Network S) over a span of 11 years. Our analysis shows that there is a consistent pattern of interaction dynamics across the different levels of the sociotechnical system in the developmental trajectory of Network S.

  • Network actors had to sensitively leverage the landscape-level factors to secure the niches needed for their work.
  • While Network S was pragmatic and opportunistic in crafting innovation projects for funding from government sources to realise their vision, such an approach is precarious in its outcome, and the continuity of the niches for continued innovation is lacking.
  • Significant efforts are needed to establish new sociotechnical regimes (rules) to guide changes in practice.
  • An organisational structure comprising top and relevant middle-management actors is needed to develop the necessary sociotechnical regimes.
  • An important but under-explored role of e-learning technologies is to institutionalise regulatory rules to bring about desired changes in practice.


In summary, this study shows that the sociotechnical change model helps us to gain a deeper understanding of the factors influencing the scalability of e-learning innovations from a broader societal level and the long-term impact of technology on learning and teaching as a social practice.

This blog post is based on the article ‘Sociotechnical co‐evolution of an e‐Learning innovation network’ by Nancy Law and Leming Liang, which is published in the British Journal of Educational Technology and is free-to-view for a time-limited period, courtesy of the journal’s publisher, Wiley.


Geels, F. W. (2002). Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: a multi-level perspective and a case-study. Research policy, 31(8–9), 1257–1274.

Koehler, M., & Mishra, P. (2008). Introducing TPCK. In K. A. Clark, S. Guan, & A. D. Thompson (Eds.), Handbook of Technological.~ Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPCK) for Educators (pp. 3–29). New York: Routledge.

Law, N., & Liang, L. (2019). Sociotechnical Co-evolution of an e-Learning Innovation Network. British Journal of Educational Technology. Advance online publication.

Law, N., Niederhauser, D. S., Christensen, R., & Shear, L. (2016). A Multilevel System of Quality Technology-Enhanced Learning and Teaching Indicators. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 19(3), 72–83.

Voogt, J., Laferrière, T., Breuleux, A., Itow, R. C., Hickey, D. T., & McKenney, S. (2015). Collaborative design as a form of professional development. Instructional science, 43(2), 259–282.