Minimal Edtech tool: Write.as
How much of what we feed into an LMS consists of just text and links?
If you're at all like me, you've tried a lot of different ways to deliver content to students online: all the major LMS-es, shared text files (google docs, overleaf, draftin, etc.), github repositories, shared folders, my own server, static sites with hugo and jekyll. The list goes on. But right now I'm really growing fond of write.as. It's clean, quick, and offers a lot of advantages for teachers, particularly in higher ed.
a minimalist writing tool
One of the reasons I chose to do minimalistEdTech on this platform was that it seemed a great match of medium and message. The design of write.as is all about fostering freedom, flexibility and respecting privacy: https://write.as/principles
In practice, write.as becomes a tool which is easy to get started with, easy to customize in just the right amount, and flexible to extend if you want to.
Particularly in higher ed, an LMS can be a very noisy classroom assistant. It is constantly sending out notifications, scolding if an assignment is late, or rearranging content as deadlines pass. I have found that students often tune a lot of this out, even when my own class is relatively light on announcements. The combined volume of notifications and busyness from their mass of classes is simply too much. Some students ignore the LMS, others become overly dependent on the LMS to tell them what to do. In both cases, the push notifications (and often a certain learned helplessness around being able to adjust those modifications in the wealth of tweakable options on the platform) leads to exhaustion.
But if we step back and ask what we really need to communicate, often what we need is a much smaller set of things than what the platform, by default, forces us to send out into the world. I tend to document quite a lot in my classes, but ultimately these are just words. And words are, relatively speaking, low bandwidth.
A minimalist writing platform lets the words become the focus by stripping away all the other stuff. It is simply information in an organized space.
write.as is great for quickly banging out a document with markdown and getting it posted. No complicated clicks. I also really like the fact that students can submit work without having to sign up for a third party service by using the free write.as/new page. They can simply submit a document and then you can share it or read it or turn it into something else. (Note that of course there are issues with authenticating that student work is in fact from the student here.)
The developers of write.as lay out some possible ways to use write.as here: https://write.as/teachers
To state the obvious, this is not an LMS; you aren't going to be using it as a gradebook or something like that. But for getting information online in a quick and easy way, it does a great job. In many ways it's like using a really clean static site template but without the extra steps of deploying it or keeping it on github. The ability to edit documents quickly and publish them is a much cleaner version of any sort of Wordpress or LMS, where you spend half your life clicking and toggling things (and then waiting for changes to be saved and processed).
For announcements, you can simply use the federated feature already built-in to create a mastodon channel for the site. If you want to cross-post to twitter, that's fairly easy too. You can also have an email sign-up. In short, students can have multiple ways to see information that you push out.
Finally, for feedback, it is possible to use anonymous documents and email (very old school) to send comments on work. (Note that write.as is not going to be FERPA compliant the way the official school LMS will be, so that should be taken into account here; it is ironic of course, given that write.as is probably more committed to making sure that personal data is not retained and that privacy is respected than that university tracking application embedded in the LMS or in that app that the university has already deployed to track students around campus.)
As with hosting class information on github or on a static site, it is important that you are not sharing anything confidential. This is a tool for publishing outward facing information only. That said, you can keep your site unlisted and so it exists largely for those with the link already.
As with any minimal tool, the key is to make the most of the features provided. For classes that need sophisticated feedback tools or to design assignments that are much more than just texts, pictures, and links, then this probably isn't the best solution. I tend to use iframes and embed my semi-public videos hosted elsewhere (e.g. vimeo, peertube, but of course you can use youtube as well).
There are also two idiosyncrasies that might trip people up initially. First, drafts are simply posts that are started and not published or, more often, published to “Anonymous”. One easy way to think of it is that you can store work in progress and draft posts in anonymous until you need them. Second, to make a menu item, you take an existing post and “pin” it. At first these seem like strange ways to do things, like you're losing out on some customization options. But as I've used these features more, I really like it this way. It is a brilliant illustration of how design choices that seem constraining can end up being liberating. By making the menu simply pins of particular posts, it means that the workflow is always the same. Just write posts and then sort them out either into a feed (which you can of course tag) or, for the important stuff or top-level stuff, pin it to make it a menu item. It reminds me a bit of zettlekasten method in the sense that you need to create indexes periodically to keep things organized. Once you get this idea straight though, it off-loads a whole lot of distraction. Just start with a document. You can decide later whether it's a menu item or a blog post (i.e. whether you pin it or not), whether it's ready to go now or needs more work (i.e. whether you publish it to anonymous or to your main blog). Similarly with where you publish it to, you can set it up to head to the fediverse automatically or send it to twitter (or have people sign up via email— another good option for a class.)
Finally, on cost, it is fairly minimal ($5 per month). The ability to connect to your own domain is also a plus.
Have you used write.as for your class?
This is a relatively new tool, but I'm curious if anyone else has been using write.as for class. Drop me a line at https://write.as/minimalistedtech/contact