The generative “AI” hype cycle has been at peak hype for the past month or so and it follows completely predictable tech patterns. Hypers tout all the amazing miraculous things that will be possible; doubters wonder aloud whether these things will fail to deliver on their utopian promises (because these things always fall short of their utopian promises), and most of the obvious consequences and outcomes get overlooked.
This BBC piece about the origins of the de-cluttered household caught my eye: https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20230103-the-historical-origins-of-the-de-cluttered-home
It's a swift and effective overview of architectural minimalism and the cyclical waxing and waning of fashion for de-cluttered interiors. The pendulum has swung towards maximalism and eclecticism for a bit now and perhaps there are hints that is starting to swing back. I suspect the article presents too linear a summary, as there seem always holdouts that can linger on until suddenly becoming “in” again as the pendulum swings back. But this piece got me thinking about how much minimalism is cyclical in other areas outside its home base of architecture and design.
A recent opinion piece in WaPo by journalist Markham Heid tackles the ChatGPT teacher freakout by proposing handwritten essays as a way to blunt the inauthenticity threat posed by our emerging AI super-lords. I've seen the requisite pushback on this piece around accessibility, but I think the bulk of criticism (at least what I've seen) still misses the most important point. If we treat writing assignments as transactional, then tools like ChatGPT (or the emerging assisted writing players, whether SudoWrite or Lex, etc.) may seem like an existential threat. Generative AI may well kill off most transactional writing (not just in education. I suspect boilerplate longform writing will increasingly be a matter of text completion). I have no problem with that. But writing as part of pedagogy doesn't have to be and probably shouldn't be solely transactional. It should be dialogic, and as such, should always involve deep engagement with the medium along with the message. ChatGPT just makes urgent what might have otherwise been too easy to ignore.
Recently I was leading a meeting with a group of very young designers presenting a low-fi version of an idea for part of our product. It was gamified. It had delightful animations and heavy lift technological fixes for the problem at hand. It was a version of an app and interactions that one sees over and over. Make it competitive, make students award each other likes or fires or hot streaks (or whatever you want to call it), and that will overcome the problem (perceived problem) of no one actually wanting to do that whole learning thing.
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.
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.