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?
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.
The ability to shift from content creation mode to editing mode mirrors for me the writing advice I often give students: you can't have your foot on the accelerator and the brake at the same time. Modal editors force you to think about editing and content generation as separate steps. A lot of young writers might benefit from this simple tool. (Admittedly, this also might qualify as cruel and unusual punishment. But I'm going to run with it.)
Constraints expose the workings of technology. Errors and failures are invitations for critical assessment. Even if the technology does not work perfectly, the ways in which it failed, the exposing of invisible constraints, can prove successful.
I have a perverse love of technological constraint. Constraint can give rise to innovation, inspiration, and, in the aesthetic of minimalist computing more generally, elegant solutions. But there are plenty of times where technology has constraints that we can't see. A lot of edtech is like this, from the user side, because the marketing is almost always about automating and making things easier. Edtech marketers constantly hide the constraints of their products from users.
This is a mistake and a missed learning opportunity.
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.