Who’s In Control? Minimalism in the Modern Learning Classroom



“Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure in this world;
it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius.”

–George Sand

A couple of years ago my 10th Grade advisees asked my help in conveying to the rest of the faculty how overwhelming their technology demands were becoming.  Just in terms of note-taking, for me and my partner teacher they were required to use Evernote, for another teacher they were expected to use Google Drive, in another class they were asked to use Dropbox and in another—with a more traditional teacher—they were tasked with organizing a three-ring binder. (With real paper!)

And this was a just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to the school’s homegrown website, all students were required to use Jupitergrades and either Edmodo (6-10) or Managebac(11-12) even before adding on the requirements of individual teachers. The situation created not only a chaotic and confusing online environment for the kids, it fostered negative attitudes toward technological innovations that were meant to ease their burden, not increase it.

This prompted my partner (the schools’ Instructional Technology Coordinator) and I to reflect on our practice with the goal of reducing the burden on our students, our teachers and us. We reviewed the professional development schedule for the previous eighteen months, and we realized that almost two-thirds of the training was devoted to new apps and technologies, while none was devoted to follow-up or reflection sessions on the technology already in use. Furthermore, many of our other sessions were spent on exchange-based meetings like “Appy Hours” and unconferences intended to get teachers teaching teachers how to use even more apps than could be introduced in a traditional PD setting.

Unwittingly, between our enthusiasm and anxiety—and what we witnessed whiz by in our Twitter feeds—we had created a culture of accumulation: our teachers believed that more was better, that everyone else out there had more, and that we had to catch up! –We had become app-a-holics.

Therefore, the two of us challenged each other to narrow down our technology use to no more than seven applications or key software items (not including basic word processing and school mandated technology). This rule held both for our students AND ourselves.

We established a set of five parameters for the applications we were allowed to adopt:

  1. Relevance. All chosen apps must pertain directly to class goals. No bells and whistles for the heck of it.
  2. Not redundant. (I.e., if you require iAnnotate, you can’t also choose Notability.)
  3. Flexibility. Whenever possible, apps must be cross-platform and cross-device. (I.e., work on both Mac and Windows; on desktops, tablets and mobile phones, etc.)
  4. Authentically useful. We use Evernote, Dropbox and Twitter in our daily lives and careers for both personal and professional purposes. Why ask our students to use apps that are useless outside the school environment?
  5. Longevity. Too many apps are here today, gone tomorrow. We only want apps that are going to at least span the course of a student’s high school, and ideally, college career.

After devising this set of rules, I sat to reflect on our essential needs and came up with this final list for all my high school social studies classes:

  1. Google Apps –A bit of a cheat here as Google Apps offers so much. But because the platform makes it easy for students and teachers to move from one application to the other without burdensome new learning, we allowed it. We also teach of all our students how to use Google Sites, but allow them to use other site creators and media platform of their choosing. Their favorites areWordPress, Wix, Cargo Collective & Tumblr.
  2. Turnitin –Editing and originality checks
  3. Evernote – Note-taking and sharing. Always synchronized, never lost.
  4. Zotero  –Research organization and citation.
  5. Dropbox –File storage and back up.
  6. Memrise –Formative assessment (self-quizzing). This choice had dramatic, and amazing, repercussions for my teaching).
  7. Twitter –PLN-building and knowledge-sharing.

Our commitment to less also had a brilliant ripple effect (it was a paradigm shift, really) on the way that we taught as well. But that will be the subject of my next Mindsets post on Minimalism in Instruction. In the meantime, what have been your experiences with app-addiction and the scramble to “stay relevant”? How have you dealt with/are you dealing with the issue? Are you riding the tiger by the tail, or have you let it run free in the wild where it belongs? Boil your practice down: what are your seven essential apps?

Originally published at the Center for Teaching Quality on 1/29/15.

Author: williamjtolley

IB Coordinator, IBEN Workshop Leader, Examiner, and DP/MYP Teacher | Inquiry, Mastery & Culturally Responsive-Learning Advocate

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