Minimalist EdTech


#minimalistedtech #edtechminimalism

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.


A good friend of mine admitted that he was a pretty piss-poor teacher on zoom. He is, in the classroom, an excellent teacher, in no small part due to a charismatic persona which slides from serious to amused and from hard to soft with ease. It would be easy to imagine that he's just being tough on himself, but I think he's actually kind of right. He's not great on Zoom. Something about his instincts and his habits don't translate quite right and his inability to sense the physical cues of students distracts and frustrates him.

There is some sort of mismatch there or difficulty in translating teaching persona through the screen.


Alternatives to Surveillance Edtech: Students as Publishers

The case against surveillance edtech like Proctorio isn't really about privacy; in pedagogical terms, it's about automation and agency.


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.)


above: Retired Edtech

Ah, the word processor. It's ubiquitous both in business and in schools. I was reminded of how easy it is take word processing for granted by two activities colliding: 1. reading Matthew Kirschenbaum's “literary history” of word processing and 2. finding out (again) that my students are aware of no other word processing or text-creating tools beyond MS Word or Google Docs.


Invisible Constraints in the Classroom

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.


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.


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: