Software sedimentation

I came across this term from Jaron Lanier (in an essay in the book The Next Fifty Years). He writes:

"Software sedimentation is a process whereby not only protocols, but the ideas embedded in them become mandatory. An example is the idea of the file…. Files are now taught to students as a fact of life as fundamental as a photon, even though they are a human invention."

I think there is truth in this, and I like the mental image of sediment building up within the concepts built in to software and technology. To expand the idea out somewhat, the same might be true of many educational practices. The lecture for example (stop groaning at the back), is mandatory because of the physical and cultural sedimentation embodied in university campuses, so that to many academics and students, it seems natural. But like files in software, there are other ways to approach the particular problem (how to move someone from a position of not knowing to knowing in this case). InLanier’s example software is part of the problem, but for other examples, software and technology can be part of the solution – because by using new technologies it makes practitioners think about new ways of doing things. Sedimentation can be very hard, and costly, to remove, and potentially new technologies offer a means of achieving this.

This does however, argue for a more radical shift in our deployment of e-learning technologies than my succession model proposes. The danger of a slow change is that it allows sediment to build up – as an obvious example, VLEs that simply mirror the lecture practice.


  1. AJ Cann says:

    Oh goody, Martin’s back and I can pull his fatuous arguments to pieces! (only joking)
    The lecture is no longer mandatory – if you’re trendy (or work for the OU) it’s fashionable to have no lectures.
    But: maybe the lecture was mandatory for many centuries (gasp) because it worked:

  2. AJ Cann says:

    As soon as I left my previous comment I regretted it. It was intended to be jocular, but it came out wrong and the tone sounds confrontational and is horribly open to misinterpretation. Please accept my apologies and feel free to edit or delete the comment.

  3. Martin says:

    No worries AJ – I knew it was jocular, brought on no doubt by the excitement of seeing me return 😉
    To return to your posting, some points:
    i) Yes, you’re right, the lecture is quite good, and is often miscast as educational baddie. It is good at imparting information to a group, and is reasonably cost effective. It is not so good at things like engagement, differentiation, etc. And some lectures (mine included) are pretty awful because academics are not necessarily performers.
    ii) I don’t think this takes away from the initial point (maybe the lecture was a bad example), that software and other artifacts come to embody concepts, which then become difficult to alter because we don’t even recognise that there is another way of doing things (the file is an interesting example here, I still can’t imagine a different way of organising software output).
    iii) What you say about people moving away from lectures is undoubtedly true, but I think this partly reinforces my point. This has happened as a result of technology causing a change in how people approach education. Even so, the sedimentation that is embodied in say, timetabling software, makes doing things radically different awkward, so you are stuck with one hour slots often that have to be scheduled in advance.
    Please keep the comments coming, my arguments are fatuous, but I’ve gotten away with it for years:)

  4. AJ Cann says:

    The paper in the link I posted above suggests (but probably does not prove) an important point: one size does NOT fit all. In this study, high achievers performed better with student-centred delivery while the “average” students and below performed better with lecture-based teacher-centred delivery. This is inconvenient for academics, but probably just throws us back to where we’ve been for some time, employing a range of delivery mechanisms to accommodate various learning styles and even out the inequalities subsets of students would otherwise experience in an educational monoculture.

Leave a Reply