Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2020

Degree Type


Degree Name



Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering

First Advisor

Ratna B. Chinnam

Second Advisor

Leslie Monplaisir


In the context of its external environment, sociotechnical systems (STS) are tools for restructuring an organization’s components into inter-related and interdependent social and technical subsystems for improving the organization’s performance and the well-being of its actors. The theory of STS states that the optimal performance and effectiveness of an organization lies in the joint optimization of the social (all human-based elements) and the technical (the tools and technology for doing work) subsystems. Many technical industries know the benefits of STS, however the concept has a minimal presence in education, in spite of education’s many challenges such as improving the graduation rates of college students, especially adult learners.

Many educational theories and practices have been propounded, and though there have been some improvements, the graduation rate of adult learners remains low. Literature reveals the highly complex, multi-dimensional nature of the every-day life of financially independent adults learners pursuing a college science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees, but the approach to providing solutions may not have commensurate.

An STS view of the problem in this mixed-methods research pointed to several concepts that promise a better solution than the traditional educational approach. In crystallizing the internal structure of a college STEM program for adults into social and technical subsystems, nine components emerged as key to understanding, designing, and achieving effectiveness for this demography. These nine components include 1) People, 2) Policies, 3) Customer Service, 4) Work Flow, 5) Goal Clarification, Measurement and Monitoring, 6) Service Offerings, 7) Infrastructure, 8) Socioeconomic Factors, and the 9) External Environmental Factors.

Of the nine components, 1-4 belong to the social subsystem and 5-8 belong to the technical subsystem. In this study, the social and technical subsystems act as facilitators while the pressures and demands from external environmental factors act as inhibitors. All nine components must be managed to improve student success. The multiple perspectives study highlighted the complex systemic nature of the problem and some key elements that relate to educating nontraditional adult learners for college STEM degrees.

The qualitative study of 43 program directors, faculty members, students and student family members, produced a conceptual educational service systems design (ESSD) with the nine components as a framework that ensures a holistic and comprehensive detailed pre-design analyses for a STEM program for adults. Among other things, the study found that systematized holistic strategies promise higher impact than isolated piece-meal solutions. The study conceptualized the sociotechnical education service system (STESS) as a viable holistic STS approach to the problem, as opposed to the social and technical subsystems working separately towards the same goal. The quantitative study of 512 adult college students empirically confirmed the adequacy of the conceptualized nine components of the ESSD that together with the social and the technical subsystems form STESS.

The findings suggest that an STS view of a program’s operational level processes promises improved retention of adult learners, leading to improved graduation rates. The STESS approach showed a more significant positive relationship with retention and learning outcome than the combined individual effects of social and technical on retention and learning outcome. Students’ goal commitment showed more significant effects on retention and learning outcome than students’ satisfaction. However, STESS can do relatively more to strengthen retention and learning outcomes through the students’ goal commitment and satisfaction than directly improving them. In other words, adult learners are more likely to positively influence their own learning outcomes, but without STESS this is less likely to happen. The cluster analysis shows that the findings are also comparable to community college and university adult learners.

In conclusion, the sociotechnical systems-based approach seems viable for the analysis and operation of a college program, and the ESSD and STESS are tools likely to lead to better insights and outcomes.