Minimalist EdTech

Less is more in technology and in education

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?

Replaces: Classroom response systems; class attendance sheet Advantages: cheap, portable, tangible, paper trail, semi-computational Disadvantages: requires writing instruments, must decipher student handwriting, potential germ substrate

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One of the things that annoys me most about edtech companies is the way they pitch their products as “more engaging” or “more fun” or “more” anything. I get it, that's marketing. But the implication that what teachers have been doing in the past is somehow archaic, arcane, or plain old boring is one of edtechs biggest canards and the source of so many edtech debacles. It's also hubristic as hell.

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As time passes, more tech. Sometimes it feels like edtech is inevitable. I strongly suspect that major players in edtech think this way. I'm not so sure.

And I think there's something we can do about it.

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