Skip to main content

Technological minimalism (#1096)

Topics/tags: Rants

I lost it today. Not a physical it. My cool. My temper. My good nature. My calm demeanor [1]. That mental state that lets me get through the day.

What happened? I saw the standard ITS signature line one too many times [2].

Shifting to online teaching? Technological simplicity is a key tenet in this unprecedented time: the fewer platforms and software titles that students need to learn and use concurrently, the better.

I find that statement problematic in so many ways.

It’s not that I don’t think students face technological challenges; they do. Low bandwidth makes software hard to use. Older equipment and limited access that equipment are challenges. Family circumstances can lead to all sorts of challenges. But (almost) none of those relate to the number of platforms or software titles students use.

Having watched this generation, I know that they can handle technological complexity; many run multiple social media apps simultaneously while also browsing the Web, watching a video, and talking to friends. I won’t say that such multitasking is good, but there’s evidence that students can manage it.

The real issue we should be paying attention to is the cognitive load that software puts on students. Well-designed user interfaces, familiar platforms and metaphors, and appropriate feature sets reduce cognitive load. If our priority were primarily student cognitive load, then we should have considered the software the students use. And I see my students’ desire to reduce their cognitive load all the time. I tell my research students to use Word online to write something; they switch to Google Docs. I tell my research students to make their presentations in Powerpoint; they switch to Google sheets. I tell my students to set up their surveys using Microsoft Forms; they tell me I can’t find the Other option and it only allows six options; I switched to Google forms.

I think of Dean Harris’s [3] comment of 14 April 2020.

WebEx and Blackboard Collaborate arе College-supported platforms that offer options for initiating online meetings, are currently the most used, and therefore most familiar to students.

I accept that Webex and BBC are College-supported and that they offer options for initiating online meetings, but I would question the most used and most familiar to students. Most of our students were familiar with Zoom (and not Webex or BBC) before the pandemic started. Most remained more comfortable with Zoom throughout spring semester. So please don’t use these as arguments to choose Webex and BBC. Our students also can’t initiate their own Webex or BBC meetings [4].

It’s not that I disagree with the policies [5]. I understand that we should make privacy and data security priorities. I understand that we want to have appropriate contracts in place for the software we use; such contracts protect the instution and protect us as individuals. I know that software costs something, if not money, then privacy. So I can understand someone saying Use the Microsoft suite rather than the Google suite because it protects student data or Use Webex, rather than Zoom—even though Webex lacks many important features—because our analysis shows security concerns in Zoom.

Accessibility is also a reason to pick certain pieces of software rather than others. It’s a reason I would prioritize. Once again, I’d like to see that be our clear motivating factor.

Be honest. Don’t pin our choices and approaches on a claim that what we are doing is what is best for our students’ learning experiences.

Shifting to online teaching? Technological simplicity is a key tenet in this unprecedented time: by relying on a few core platforms that we have carefully vetted, we ensure that our students’ data and our own are well protected. We also ensure that the software is appropriately accessible.


WebEx and Blackboard Collaborate arе College-supported platforms for initiating online meetings, are currently vetted and contracted. While they provide fewer features than other platforms, using other platforms adds data risks we are unwilling to accept.

That wasn’t too hard, was it?

Postscript: I also find technological minimalism a troublesome slippery slope. Students have inconsistent connections. We should prioritize asynchronous communication over synchronous. Students have limited bandwidth. We should avoid video, and perhaps audio. I have colleagues who firmly believe that the call for technological minimalism suggests that they should use only email, text chat, and Web pages for their teaching. And they’re spending a lot of time making the best possible resources for their classes, something close to writing a supplemental textbook for each class.

As a learner, I would not want to participate in that kind of class. Once you take away the few-to-one interactions with faculty and the community that builds up around a class, I’d rather just seek out resources on my own. As a parent, I would not want to pay Grinnell’s prices for technologically minimal education. But as a faculty member, I know that it’s just as expensive to provide this kind of education as a more technologically expansive approach.

[1] Yes, I’ve been known to have a calm demeanor.

[2] In reality seeing it more than once represents one too many times.

[3] Now President Harris’s.

[4] A colleague has suggested a hack that allows students to initiate meetings.

[5] Well, I have some issues, but these aren’t them.

Version 1.0 of 2020-07-17.