The Case for ‘Edtech Minimalism’ in an Age of Distance Learning

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We live in a world where we tend to believe that “more is more.” But when it comes to education and technology, this prevailing hypothesis is proving itself to be flawed. From increased anxiety and depression related to unhealthy usage of social media, to our students’ decreased attention spans, it’s time to take a “less is more” approach.

That may seem counterintuitive. You might be wondering how this is possible—how one might actually minimize their dependence on education technology in an era of remote instruction and screen-dependent learning. But doing so is imperative if we want to re-humanize learning experiences for our students.

Far too many distance learning discussions in the spring began with identifying digital tools. School leaders asked: Which apps should we download? What are we going to use for curriculum? Less frequently asked were some more fundamental questions: How might we preserve a sense of belonging and connectedness between students? How might we preserve the humanity of learning in an environment that threatens to dehumanize it? How might we take a minimalist approach to integrating education technology, so that it is serving our teaching and learning needs, as opposed to adding undue burden and further dehumanizing learning?

No, Edtech Minimalism doesn’t necessitate a complete abandonment of digital technology. Instead I argue, if used thoughtfully, technology can preserve or even amplify the human connections that are fundamental to all learning experiences. Here’s where you can start.

Tip 1: Choose apps that work across many different subjects and needs.

Before choosing apps, I recommend taking stock of your needs. Because these vary between subject area, grade level, and situation, you’ll need to talk with your team, and record these needs so you can revisit them later.

As an elementary school teacher, my highest priorities were always the following:

  • Cultivating agency, autonomy and independence in my students
  • Preserving opportunities for socialization, dialogue and discourse
  • Ensuring my students have ample time for independent reading and writing
  • Building critical-thinking and problem-solving skills in math
  • Continuing social justice education by understanding identity, social issues and current events
  • Making documentation of learning and communication streamlined and accessible for all learners

As I analyzed my needs, it became quite clear that applications that streamlined communication between my students and me, regardless of the subject or topic, were of paramount importance. As a result, I chose a rather limited number of apps that allowed my students to easily make their learning visible, share their work, and get in contact with me for emotional support, conferences and small-group learning.

I prefer apps like Popplet that allow students to make concept maps, collaborative documents like Google Docs, and a tool for sharing photos of work, like Seesaw or Google Drive. Of course, video conferencing tools like Google Meet or Zoom round out the toolkit. You’ll notice that none of these tools are content-dependent, and instead can be used in a variety of situations.

Believe it or not, this handful of applications takes care of most of my needs when teaching from a distance, aside from the additional apps for math manipulatives or e-books for independent reading. They allow me to not only minimize the complexity of digital learning, but also help ensure that when students do use them, they are doing so as part of an active learning process.

Tip 2: Maximize active screen time—and minimize the rest

Some believe that reading content or answering questions at their “level” using web-based, adaptive applications can be categorized as active screen time. You know the apps I’m talking about: the ones that send students question after question, incentivizing them through points, badges, and “leveling up.” After all, students are interacting with content, and sure, it’s probably better than simply watching a lecture and sitting quietly. But the reality is that this type of screen time isn’t as active as it could be.

In my book “Humanizing Distance Learning,” I argue that there isn’t necessarily a black-or-white divide between active and passive screen time. Instead, there is a great deal of complexity between the two. In broad strokes, I believe screen time can be active as long as it:

  • requires students exercise independence in the form of critical thinking or problem-solving;
  • serves a clear purpose with the learning plan, removing barriers or adding value to the student experience;
  • encourages students to strike a balance between content consumption and creation, or;
  • centers human connection in the form of collaboration or interpersonal communication.

In an era of distance learning, many teachers have opted for web-based, adaptive programs. On the surface, these tools may create the illusion of active screen time, but the reality is that they are no more than glorified, adaptive worksheets that industrialize learning in our classrooms. They are, in fact, the epitome of passive screen time, causing students to focus more on mindlessly consuming academic content through videos and multiple-choice questions, as opposed to learning through critical thinking and problem solving.

We can achieve active screen time during distance learning by transitioning away from programs that promote content consumption and towards practices like complex instruction that allow students to actively use their devices for problem-solving and social connection, with academic content being a conduit for dialogue and discourse.

Tip 3: Create ample opportunities for dialogue and discourse

Just as we know, in our heart of hearts, that worksheet-based instruction is not learning, we know that teachers teach best when they are conversing with students. We know that students retain information when they’ve interacted with it—when they’ve asked questions, challenged their peers’ thinking, and otherwise made meaning through the co-construction of knowledge in a social classroom.

We especially cannot afford to lose social learning in a time where students are feeling isolated.

As it turns out, creating opportunities for dialogue and discourse also makes for a more sustainable way to teach and learn through a pandemic. Some believe that managing the complexities of dialogue and discourse is ultimately more challenging and less sustainable, but I argue the opposite. By investing in creating classroom cultures where learning is co-constructed through dialogue and discourse, teachers ultimately enter into a partnership with students, allowing them to play a critical role in the construction of knowledge and understanding. This, in turn, can take some of the pressure off teachers who otherwise feel they solely shoulder the responsibility of students’ learning.

In my experience with distance learning, open-ended tasks are especially effective for this. By providing all of my students with the same open-ended task, or as Stanford education professor Jo Boaler calls them, “low floor, high ceiling” tasks, students of varying abilities can learn through problem-solving, creating multiple pathways for solving a problem.

Open-ended exercise example that encourage students to learn through discourse and experimentation
Image Credit: © Paul Emerich France (2020), “Humanizing Distance Learning: Centering Equity and Humanity in Times of Crisis.”

In the example above, my students used Seesaw to demonstrate various solutions for this open-ended task. Some drew pictures like you can see in image, while others used the translucent brown squares to construct the area of the garden.

While students are working on a task like this one, teachers can send them into break out groups for small-group discussion. They can even articulate their thinking in paper journals, allowing them a break from the screen.

Student reflection journal
Image Credit: © Paul Emerich France (2020), “Humanizing Distance Learning: Centering Equity and Humanity in Times of Crisis.”

Best of all, though, open-ended tasks make for active screen time, with students using technology only to discuss the problem or demonstrate their method for problem-solving. This is what distance learning with a minimalist approach to education technology integration can look like

Looking Toward a Future of Education Minimalism

Maximalism has found its way into all parts of the education system through an inundation of worksheets, workbooks, and an otherwise excess of learning tools that add complexity without adding value. This isn’t sustainable, and it hasn’t been for quite some time.

We are presented with an opportunity as we look past the COVID-19 era. We must rebuild our education system with a needs-based approach and consider ways that we can remove the vestigial structures within our classrooms that limit the humanization of learning, especially when we return to school buildings.

For now, as we continue distance learning, this requires minimizing your reliance on unnecessary apps and centering your students’ needs to connect with one another. But beyond the health crisis, it entails revolutionizing the way we teach from the ground up. It will take all of us—teachers, administrators and parents—looking at ourselves and reexamining our practices and attitudes towards education.

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