Less is more in technology and in education

Banish the phrase “more engaging” from edtech marketers

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.

The “more engaging” bit is a caricature of enginerdom, a doubling down through market-speak on the idea that innovation emerges from laziness. It reminds me of so many conversations with computer-ing friends who would preach automation as the highest good. It's the silicon valley habit, so easily parodied, about computerizing the most pointless of things. It's also a version of the edtech habit to use junk quantification as a proxy for student engagement. The market pitch for “more” is usually backed up by some numberified sleight of hand to make sure to demonstrate the need and efficacy of their product. That those numbers might be meaningless is left for us to grapple with after the fact.

The Freudian id of most edtech companies is a teenager who is annoyed that he's got too much homework to do and fantasizes about a magical device that will turn the homework into a video game instead. Sure, we can applaud that as innovation. But can't we also point out that there was value in just doing the damn work in the first place.

It's a fairly common conceit: what teachers do is as recognizable today as it was 100, 500, even 2000 years ago. That makes it ripe for “disruption” and a clear problem in need of a technological solution.
Pause for a second: humans talking to other humans is pretty old too. Does that make it inherently problematic or worth replacing? Are there not technologies, arts, methods, and skills that are so basic that they can stand the test of time? Are humans talking to other humans not the baseline of deeply engaging?

On the other hand, instructional technologists and education researchers might rightly ask that teachers pay even more attention to educational research and outcomes measurements and the like— pay attention to the data! There is again an important selection here, that that data can be more meaningful than the connoisseurship of experience and the immediacy of presence.

I don't disagree that teachers can make use at all times of more data (and they do this already, though too often framed as the educational theory that happens to be hot at a particular moment). I also don't disagree that it's always possible to be more engaging.

The damage of accepting that teaching needs to be “more engaging”, a key plank many an edtech pitch, comes from locating our agency as teachers in external tools. Damage comes from providing only a consumer's view of a process that he/she didn't like much to begin with. Are there teachers who are boring, lessons that are snoozers? Of course. Everyone's had that experience and because that experience is so universal it's easy to imagine that this is something that has to be avoided.

What about the alternative? What makes consistently engaging teaching? I think we sometimes get caught up in the cult of personality and assume that there are simply engaging teachers and everyone else. While it's true that great teachers often have a mix of natural disposition tempered and shaped by experience, knowledge, and reflection, that doesn't mean that anything short of that is not engaging. It also doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of ways of talking about engagement well before we get to various tech miracles that will lift us from our otherwise dreary and boring classrooms.

As an off-the-cuff list, engagement requires:
1. Responsiveness to students, both individually and in groups.
2. A balance between what's expected and what's a surprise. (Put another way: the practice of mixing clearly defined and predictable structure with memorable newness.)
3. The ability to change tone, pace, and mode in response to students' energy, needs, and learning; the discipline to commit to something even if students don't get it at first and the confidence to switch gears when needed.
4. Honest reflection on what went well, what can be improved, and what might be dropped.

I'm sure others would have other things they might highlight about engaged teaching. There's nothing inherent in engaging students which requires technology or necessarily gains from technology. Teaching naked is a viable strategy; but so too there is nothing that precludes using technology to better engage with students.

Just don't let the marketing dictate that we divide the world pre-tech as “un-engaged” and mistake tech toys for “engagement.” Don't let them use appeals to “engagement” when they really mean “scalability.” Don't let them swap out value for cost.

Put another way, in the lingo of the edtech marketers and solutioneers, engagement is not a teacher “pain point.” It's a teacher super power. It's been the strength of teaching, learning, and education across cultures and across thousands of years. It's why we do this nonsense in the first place.