Less is more in technology and in education

I am not our users

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.

I hated it. I found it abhorrent.

It struck me as everything that was misguided about technological approaches to education, turning what should, in a learning experience, be a welcoming and open space for learning into a competitive reward system based on junk metrics of who participates the most. I immediately knew why I reacted this way. Besides the fact that I'm old and cranky and have seen this too many times before, it felt antithetical to my values as a teacher. Competition has its place, but this was just a system for imposing judgement and extracting coerced “engagement”.

What confused me was whether this was something that the designers and the users they had researched this with actually wanted or, at the least, thought they wanted. So that's what I asked, about the user research and then directly of the designers as members of that demographic. As part of the target users for this sort of experience, do they really want to be measured in this way? The answer was a little surprising. First they said that both they and the people they talked to seemed to say that they could just ignore the features I found objectionable. That is, they just wouldn't take the competitive part that seriously if they didn't want to. That struck me as self-defeating for pitching a design idea, but so be it. On the other hand, they just took it for granted that the only way to get “engagement” was punitive. To put the charitable spin on it, I am a geezer who gets turned off by the way that apps and social platforms are constantly compelling judgement. But under 30s live in that world of constant peer judgement, both as young people and as gen-z, so it's not a big deal to them that they get marked up, for better or worse, by their peers. I'm willing to concede that they're used to a social media environment which I find foreign and overwhelming. I'm an odd duck in my own peer group in that respect. But — and this was the thrust of my objection and criticism — why should we create that environment? Why should we perpetuate it? Can't we do better?

There is a constant danger, both in education and in the technological apparatus of learning, that we perpetuate the biases and damaging expectations of our own training. I've seen teachers starting out who were doing more or less what they saw their own teachers do. And it has been bad, not because of the teacher just starting out, but because they inherited as normal and acceptable practices from a less than stellar model. It feels like this is what I was seeing in those designs, a form of echoing back, with minor modifications, what these young designers had been taught to accept as an educational app. This is what educational platforms look like to them, full of cheap interactions that delight and drive up meaningless metrics for engagement straight from the social media playbook of time on platform, number of clicks, and volume of response.

But what about deep thought? What about meaningful interactions? What about the time between a thought and the click of learning? We could optimize for that. We could make our metrics about that. Engagement is itself a proxy metric that purports to be about learning but is, was, and always will be a hack. The assumption — the article of faith — is that amounts of clicks or amounts of views or time on platform bears some linear-like relationship to learning. But let's step back. That's one particular scenario where learning may happen. It's the type of learning that can happen with maximum visibility. But it's by far not the norm and maybe not even the most efficient mechanism. Some learning might happen by rote. Some by interaction. And some — a lot I think — happens in the time in between. The effects and indicators of that kind of deep learning aren't clicks or steady eyeballs or — god help us — staring at a zoom screen. They might be things like sharing what you've learned. or perhaps you take what you've learned to another domain. Or you improve your speed at applying what you've learned.

We could optimize for meaningful, deep learning in educational technologies. We must choose to do so and we must choose carefully the goals which we set as indicators for that learning.

If we aren't intentional about that, then we end up with designs that double down on the status quo, not because it is efficacious or valuable, but because it is the pattern of accepted behaviors. After all, as these young designers told me, they were used to the idea of others commenting on them. They saw it as normal and ok. So of course they would deliver something that played to patterns of current edtech, something that comfortably fit in, that was in line with what everyone else was doing.

There's a generational divide there. It's been more than a few years since I was a student. I grew up in that generation that is at home with technology but remembers the time before it was ubiquitous in personal life. I was struck that they drew comfort from knowing where they stood in relation to others. That seemed profoundly depressing to me, but also perhaps an indicator of what I might naively hope is the wisdom of age, as people tend to shed those vanities as they get older. So it may be that the fault is mine, that I'm not able to inhabit the minds of our users. For them judgement matters. They expect it and may even crave it.

But the teacher in me interjects at this point. Young people always think they know what they want. And sometimes they are wrong. We don't have to build a system of constant judgment and performance. We can build something different.

#minimalistedtech #teaching #edtech

note: Despite language of “geezer” and “old” above, I am in fact only of moderately non-young years. Long exposure to college students of unchanging age has, perhaps, made the perception of age difference hit home harder than it might otherwise.