Minimalist EdTech

Less is more in technology and in education

photo: students today, serious about capitalist outcomes

Interrupting my otherwise pleasant pre-New Years holiday, I made the mistake of reading this piece, headlined “More info is available about which college majors pay off, but students aren’t using it”. The gist is that data tying specific majors to earning potential is now available but (sacre bleu!) students aren't using this data in order to select majors as much as the people making said data think they should.

I have a lot of objections to this piece, including the way that it jams together quotations in ways that demolish all nuance. But the biggest problem is in the way it makes you think that it somehow makes sense for students to see education solely as a pathway to a job and, further, that that job should be measured on the singular metric of salary.

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I was intrigued by this recent post by Tim Denning where he connects minimalism and a quiet ego. I don't buy that connection, as it seems like an extrovert's misunderstanding of introversion. (I would recommend reading, as complement, Susan Cain's Quiet), but it did get me thinking about how and if “minimalism” translates to quiet. Further, it made me think about how much that metaphor of loudness translates to technology. Some technology seems to yell, other technologies just whisper urgently in your ear, and some others sit quietly until called upon.

A minimalist edtech is often a quieter edtech, both for teachers and for students. But thinking in these terms also might help articulate better how students respond to and interact with educational technologies. Just as some people are more sensitive to the external world than others, and just as some people turn outward or inward with their energies more than others, so too responses to edtech vary greatly depending on your need for or, conversely, tolerance of technological noise.

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I have used Gradescope on a number of occasions and it remains one of the best pieces of edtech I have come across. It is one of the very few tools that has saved me huge amounts of time. The auto-grading is truly revolutionary for teaching at scale, at least with the kinds of teaching I tend to do. But the best feature of Gradescope is perhaps one of the least flashy parts. It simply has a really good grading interface. Here's why:

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Amidst the signs of the season are various news pieces both reporting consumerism and, inevitably, questioning the nature of consumerism. This piece from Salon (“People didn’t used to be “consumers.” What happened?”, citing research about how simply using the word “consumer” to describe ourselves can change the way we act, made me think about the pressure on educational institutions to deliver products for their “consumers”— er, I mean “students”, and “growth” in curriculum or enrollment or other measures.

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I've been thinking recently about the concept of “friction” in technology. It's an oft-stated goal of technology. I think that phantom of frictionless technology is a problem and we should make more use of technological friction to our advantage.

I also think we should consider adding friction points in edtech. For our own good and for the benefit of our students. Here's what I mean...

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This 2017 piece about teaching computing to students in Finland without the use of ipads and other tech toys came to me from Pocket's algorithms today (they know me too well...)[^1]. The subtitle (“Students can learn the basics with a set of knitting needles”) is evocative, but the whole article is worth a read because it highlights an important principle in education and technology: “knowing how to use something isn’t the same as understanding how it works.” And, more pragmatically:

The Finns are pretty bemused by Americans’ preoccupation with whether to put iPads in every classroom. If a tablet would enhance learning, great. If it wouldn’t, skip it. Move on. The whole thing is a little tilting-at-windmills, anyway.

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Some problems of digital tools we take for granted in teaching emerge as side effects of usage; others are due to mis-using the tool. Auto-grading and quiz (in)capabilities of modern LMS-es fall into both categories: side effects and encouraging bad test design habits.

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I recently found myself reading this 2014 piece again, a good entry in the annals of dispelling the still too ubiquitous myth of young people as “digital natives.”

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These past months have been a stress test for academic technologies. Videoconferencing tools and LMS systems have had to do the maximum, especially for remote or hybrid learning, but across the board as things that might have been done face to face were offloaded to technology. Both in my own teaching and in watching my kids' experience in K-12, there are some common threads of failure.

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I came across this post again recently: https://lens.monash.edu/@education/2018/10/25/1363185/edtech-is-killing-us-all. Like issues of privacy and data surveillance, this critique seems all the more striking (while at the same time being all the more intractable) in light of the accelerated adoption of edtech and tech platforms in the past 9 months.

A key quote:

In light of all these costs and consequences, it's difficult to see how education can continue for much longer with its excessive levels of technology consumption and use. In a near-future of rising sea levels, climate mass migration and low-carbon restrictions, much of the current hype that surrounds EdTech is likely to quickly seem inappropriate if not obscene. Demands for ‘one device per student’, unlimited data storage, live streaming and the expectation for everyone to be ‘always-on’ will seem as anachronistic as 20th-century attitudes towards smoking cigarettes and burning fossil fuels

I have my doubts as to whether we will get to widespread questioning of “always-on” computing. One can hope I suppose.

Is there curriculum for this? Do lessons on ecology touch on the ecological cost of technology? Would it make sense to fold in the very technology that students are using to complete their assignments and work remotely? Is there a way to make visible the ecological footprint of a tool as it is being used? Or is it all just invisible?

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