Less is more in technology and in education

Is Your EdTech Yelling at You?

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 talk to students quite a bit who fall more on that highly sensitive end of the spectrum. They are often overwhelmed by the push notifications coming their way. Even turning those off and minimizing what they can, they still are usually required to use an LMS and other tools (not least of all the university's own overstuffed class and student management portal) that are visually busy and “noisy.” At a certain point, for their own sanity, they feel like shutting it out. It is not simply distracting but also distressing, simply to open up the tools they are required to use for “managing” their learning.

This isn't just a problem for highly sensitive people. Other students, particularly those who tend to need a lot more input and reminders and notices to gain their attention, tune out because they have to do too much work to sift out what might be actionable from what is routine or redundant or irrelevant to them. They tend to get stressed about missing things precisely because, in the wash of push notices and menu items, they do in fact miss things in real time and have to scramble after the fact to fix it.

This is a specific case of our more general technological saturation, where we marinate in a steady stream of email, social media, refreshing web pages, texts, and anything else simmering in our feeds, phones, and inboxes. To that general problem there are domain specific solutions: email clients that slice and dice your incoming mail, AI-ed feeds, quiet mode or digital diets on the low tech side.

Are there edtech solutions that similarly don't yell at you all the time?

Almost every edtech tool I've used over the past 15 years feels like it is yelling at me.

Too many menus or settings or checkboxes that need to be clicked. Default settings which push notification after notification to my email. Interfaces that foreground sending out constant notifications about things. At scale, with hundreds of students, it's just a never-ending mess of noise.

The only tools I've seen that attempt to cut through this noise do so with a simpler interface. I haven't in general seen a lot of tools that are functionally minimalist for education in the way that there exist minimalist tools for writing or coding, note-taking or project management (like the platform I'm using here, write.as, for example). Those tools aim, as a goal, to get out of the way of a task. There's a lot of work that goes into achieving that to be sure, but I don't see that as an aim in edtech. How often do tools get out of the way of grading rather than imposing themselves in your view, adding layers of complexity? How often do tools get out of the way of course design vs. inserting their structure upon whatever it syou are trying to do? Quite the contrary, more often in educational technologies it's an aesthetic of more. More notifications, more analytics, more AI, more noise.

Perhaps this is what turns some teachers off?

After all, having to divide one's focus to dozens if not hundreds of students all the time is distraction and noise enough. What I need is less noise in my technology, not amplifying the classroom noise further.

It is easy to assume that teachers who are slow to adopt new technologies do so because of technological discomfort or not having training or being old-fashioned. But are they also just not interested in the noise?

On the other hand, how many students don't have the option to say that the constant noise of technology distracts and bothers them? How many can't quite articulate it in those terms, even though they know that something doesn't feel quite right, a general sense of unease that they are missing things, that they don't really want to be checking on this machine all the time?

Children of the '90s (and their parents) may well remember the Tamagotchi fad. The Tamagotchi was a “digital pet” that would beep at you and demand attention if you didn't click the right button and “feed it” or otherwise tend it. It is still around, but in modified form.

In dark moments, as I feed the LMS assignments that will post to students' feeds automatically, as I tend the grading notifications as students submit their assignments back to me, I wonder whether I'm stuck with the toy which I would never have had, because it was in fact a Sisyphean torture device, yelling at me for my attention every minute of every day.

#minimalism #quiet #minimalistedtech #introversion