Less is more in technology and in education

Less Mousing Is Good (aka Gradescope's Best Feature isn't the AI)

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:

  1. Sensible Keyboard Shortcuts: I am a big fan of the keyboard, the command line, etc. Vimium is a plug-in of choice (qutebrowser is also excellent). I love keyboard shortcuts. I love sensible keyboard shortcuts even more. Gradescope's killer feature isn't it's AI; it's the fact that you can keep your hands on the keyboard and zip through submissions at record speed. Set up a few standard responses tied to numbers and you're all set. You can also layer the responses (i.e. give multiple preset responses) for a submission. Click “n” and you're on to the next submission.

  2. Image optimization of some sort: I don't actually know what magic they use to get things to load fast, but in my experience the speed with which you get an image of a submission to review is noticeably better than any LMS I use or have used. I suspect that because they have to process the images anyway what you get is an image preview that is optimized for speed and can load more quickly. Whatever the reason, the fact that you don't have to wait for a clunky pdf reader or word preview to load (I'm looking at you Canvas) or wait for the bloated original document to load means that I can focus on the content and simply sail through grading.

  3. Sensible defaults: The default behavior of Gradescope just make sense. It doesn't require you to click on five million options to do simple things. Whoever (individual or team) did the UI/UX for this is my hero.

There are some lessons, I think, from a quality edtech product and a quality user experience. They all boil down to something that I encounter quite a bit.

I'm talking about clicking.

Non-stop clicking. For every. single. stupid. thing.

First, a caveat: I know that it is difficult to build something that just works or is seamless or simple. There's a lot of complexity underneath simple interfaces. It's a lot easier to expose all the options directly to a user and let them toggle the boxes.

But I always get the sense that a lot of edtech products are selling complexity and providing far too many options as a design feature. LMS-es are the biggest offenders, in part because (to be fair) they have multiple audiences and many constituencies and stakeholders to serve. The frustration with these products (as reflected in my critical “minimalist” stance in these posts) comes from a fairly visceral aversion to the edtech design aesthetic which seems ok with letting that messiness proliferate. The consequences are wasted time for me — hours upon hours of wasted time clicking away, setting all the toggles where they need to go. That's a form of technological friction which I tend to find less than useful. (It is also the case that it creates more opportunities to mess something up, thus annoying students— another reason I hate all the clicking.)

So the lesson from gradescope's success, for me at least, boils down to a request, nay a plea for the design of better edtech.

Make whatever you are building click less. Less mousing around. Anything that can be done to minimize the amount I need to reach for the mouse and check boxes or toggle dates or pick times from a calendar is time saved. It means sensible defaults, templates, settings that can be globally applied to all assignments.

At the beginning of a new academic term, as I click around in the LMS even for assignments directly copied from a previous iteration of the class (and scream “Why! Why!”), wondering whether it would have been easier simply to keep everything on an external webpage and iframe it into the LMS (yes, it would have been easier, more stable, and less time-consuming), I can only think that all I really wanted for Christmas was less clicking.

#minimalistedtech #keyboard #grading