Less is more in technology and in education

Minimalism and abundance in thinking about edtech

It is an important criticism of minimalism in general to point out that abundance is a prerequisite. That is, one can't choose to minimize “stuff” without in fact having continuing access to stuff. There's privilege in that and it is right too to point to the classicism inherent in minimalism.

On the other hand, movements to abstain from something are widespread over time and culture, whether it is religious asceticism, ecological restraint, or fasting in a variety of contexts. The key feature is choice. For something like minimalism, in education as well as more generally, choice depends on not being starved to begin with, on not being without resources.

It may seem paradoxical at first that a minimalist EdTech might require us to foster abundance. But the kind of abundance that I'm suggesting is not that of waste or excess. I'm suggesting an abundance or richness in opportunity and possibility, a richness of options and choices. And while we might think at first that the overwhelming waves of technological tools thrown our way represent such richness, focusing on the nature of this abundance helps us see that, in fact, what we are offered can be severely limited in some areas while being overabundant in others. For example, the move to online and remote modes of instruction in Spring and Fall has embedded video conferencing technology into daily routines. There are many options for video conferencing, despite the way Zoom has become the default terminology for the practice itself. Teams, Jitsi, BigBlueButton (embedded in Canvas), GoToMeeting, Google classrooms, etc etc. These are the big players and there are many variations for special uses (e.g. rockoutloud.live for music lessons, Skype for one on one). These are, in general, high bandwidth and high availability tools. Using them requires good internet connections and decent hardware. Those are our technical concerns; we have not yet even broached the user experience or how this works as a classroom environment.

The approach of tech companies is predictably going to be about more tech. (To a hammer everything looks like a nail and all that.) To mention just two recent developments, Nvidia has demonstrated how to use AI to minimize the large bandwidth required for these sorts of video meeting applications:
And ClassEDU promises to put a better UI layer on top of Zoom: (https://www.edsurge.com/news/2020-09-24-former-blackboard-ceo-raises-16m-to-bring-lms-features-to-zoom-classrooms). Both really cool. Great stuff. These are potentially valuable solutions, but not the only solutions.

The rush to more tech misses two other avenues. First, what can we do with the tech we already have? How can we use that more effectively within the constraints that exist? The particular challenge of real-time video conferencing should make us start by thinking about how we can offload everything that doesn't need an always-on connection. What do we want to do by being online in real-time? For me at least, one answer is usually something like “engagement”; starting from that goal means that a lot of real-time video becomes less important than the fact that all the students are asked to be responsive in real time.

Second, where are the low bandwidth or no bandwidth solutions? What can we do with voice and text chat to make that work better, make it cleaner for classroom use? Tools like voicethread or commenting tools on video provide one potential avenue of engagement. But even something simpler, like a document edited together in real time, with text chat, can be a form of real-time and low bandwidth engagement.

Put another way, when working with current video technologies it's easy to have a sense of deprivation. We are deprived of interactions with students in real space, deprived of faces and reactions (through students whose video is off or not working), deprived of the security that everyone is really there (or not one step from going outside good wifi range and dropping the connection). Teaching should be (emphasis on the idealization here, not always the reality) rooted in abundance, in the richness of knowing, in the richness of learning, and in the potential for the future. Can our tools embody that richness as well? If so, I don't think that would look like the unicorn-like perfectly functioning tech product of the future. I suspect it might look more like careful and intentional re-purposing of existing tools.