Minimalism in Technology

This was originally written for and posted to the BPSEdTech blog.


For a long time, complexity was a desired feature in life. We craved environments that were lush and full of detail and embellishment. Such complexity was the mark of a capable craftsman, or, was the needed complexity inherit to the limitations of a system. Old computers had complicated interfaces because there was no way to simplify them- and there was the assumption (a safe assumption, it should be added) that the user of that computer would be an expert in it’s use. The complexity was a necessary hurdle for the user.

Research computer.
BBN Jericho Control Panel & Boot switch

Two things have happened in the time since this: Devices have become more accessible because, in large part because the interfaces have become far more intuitive, and there can no longer be the assumption a user will be an expert. This explosion of devices and users has created an immensely powerful environment where users with little experience are able to perform complex tasks quickly. This wide array of new tools and accessibility has led to users becoming overwhelmed by the sheer quantity and magnitude of options. Humans seem pre-disposed to hold on to as many of these tools as possible. Just as it’s difficult to say “no” when offered a larger vat of popcorn at the movies for 25 cents more, we feel that because there are so many tools to use that we must use all of them.

LotsofApps This does not create freedom for the educator- instead, it becomes a crippling burden to be carried. If research indicates that humans are only capable of maintaining 150 close relationships, how can we mentally handle hundreds of apps installed on our devices? What we think creates the ability to accomplish more tasks in fact diminishes the usability of the device.

What I’m proposing is a move towards minimalism in technology- both in terms of the devices we use and the software we use on those devices.  Less becomes more, as an educator is free to stop thinking about what tool they might choose to use and rather focus on the outcome they are trying to achieve. When the tool stops being the focal point, the work can come to the front of our attention.

A few years ago, I asked some 9th grade High School English Language Arts students to give presentations about memes in the literature we were reading. I was clear about length, breadth, and tone that these presentations need to have. When asked about what app to use, I simply responded that I didn’t care. They were free to choose whatever app they wanted to achieve a result they desired. I made clear that I was judging based on the quality of the presentation, not the specific software they used.

The end result were a number of excellent projects made with maybe a half dozen different apps. But the eye-opening moment was the student that delivered a very, very impressive presentation using nothing more than a photo album in her iPad. She had literally used no software for the presentation- it was a move towards minimalism I’d not seen from a student before. I suspect, looking back at the presentation, that part of the reason that her performance was so good hinged on her not having to think about what app she was using. She freed that part of her mind and was able to focus all the more on her performance.

With the sheer quantity of free apps of decent quality in the App Store, it can be hard to resist the pull to download huge numbers. But the reward for holding back is substantial- a lightweight creation environment free from the burden of too many choices. Give it a shot. I think you’ll like it.