So much edtech marketing tries to sell the idea of “engagement”; I've written before about why I find that phrase so pernicious. While I'm still bothered by the way that selling “engagement” through technology makes it seem like what teachers do is inherently not engaging (e.g. “boring” lecture, plain old non-technologized classrooms), the more damaging part of buying into the marketer's story, that technology's goal is “engagement”, comes from the way such framing distracts from the more valuable — and undervalued — part of teaching and learning: reflection. I would put it starkly: knowledge and the act of knowing comes not from engagement but from reflection percolating and punctuated over time.
This is only the second time in nearly 20 years that I have not been teaching classes at this point of the year. The last time was for a full-year sabbatical, something temporary but wholly part of the business of academia; this Fall absence is likely to be more permanent. Others have asked whether it is strange to come to this point in the year, where I am typically polishing up course sites or digging into assignment scheduling for the term. But it's not. The rhythm of the academic year is out of mind, and I feel free (free!) as I have not felt in years.
We need more forgetful educational technologies. The default mode is always record and preserve first, deal with data issues after that. Privacy policies are not sufficient. We need intentional forgetting in edtech. Here's why.
I started writing this blog, about 6+ months ago, when I was headed in a professional direction that was a bit different than it is now. Let's say that my worldview was a bit more open source-ish and not particularly commercial or profit-minded. Since then I've moved into greater contact with the business of edtech, so to speak. One useful feature of writing in the current format and under the current heading of “minimalist” edtech is that it's given me a chance to think through the tension between my teacher brain, which tends to want to serve students and teachers, and the reality of various edtech business models and trends. I don't mean to imply that edtech companies are bad actors in relation to some sort of pedagogical purity that only teachers possess; it's not that at all. But there is a tension there, a difference in what stakeholders may value or may find compelling.
More specifically, if asked, “what's the value prop for x edtech product or y technology”, how far apart would teacher brain and business brain be?
In a physical classroom, some students are shouters, others are reserved, and all gradations in between. As teachers, we respond to that difference and the uniqueness of students in a variety of ways, ideally such that everyone has a voice and can join into the whole in a way that feels both comfortable and authentic.
Technology encodes values and edtech is no different. In too many ways, edtech today tends to encode and promote the particular ideals of extroversion, demanding that students act publicly, visibly, and loudly, as if this is the only way of doing things in the world.
I was working with someone else's computer code the other day. It was good code: clean, lean, and efficient. At the same time, because of the combination of a particular language (in this case typescript) with particular methods and clear logic, it was highly legible code. It was easy to parse and grasp what was going on.
This is common with computer code, that some languages are more easily legible than others, and would be even to developers without much experience in that specific language, or that some code has cleaner logic than other code. But it got me thinking about how this translates to the manifestations of code that we see in things like educational technologies. Not so much the question of whether code legibility translates, but rather, what might “legibility” mean in terms of interacting with edtech. Are some technologies more legible than others? Do some require you to be an expert or work with them multiple times over before you can figure out what the logic and structure is? Is legibility ever a value that is promoted in edtech?
It is an irony, not lost on me, that on many days I teach with a setup at home that is, here in our zoom-y times, by no measure minimalist. Little and lot are in the eye of the beholder I might protest; but really, it's a fair amount of “stuff.”
A frequent pain point with technology in the classroom, for me at least, is not being able to see clearly what students see when they use an edtech tool. It's fairly standard that there is a teacher or control interface and then a student interface. Where I might, if I were in control of a server or most other services, be able to create/manipulate/pose as a user of another type, that functionality to masquerade as a student seems always curtailed and limited in edtech products.
There are technical reasons why there are two views and often two divergent interfaces, but I wonder how much of this is driven by design assumptions as well and, more crucially, how much those design assumptions from outside the classroom are at odds with good pedagogical practices. Whether it is in exposing a minimal amount of control directly to teachers or in the seemingly innocuous (but actually quite mistaken and problematic) assumption that students need a different user experience than teachers, the dichotomy between what teachers see and what students causes all manner of grief.