What to Read When You’re (Not) Teaching: September Edition

Earlier this month, I stumbled across a handful of new books focused on digital learning at Tech.edu: A Hopkins Series on Education and Technology. The series began in 2014 and currently features nine books covering topics as varied as gamification, teaching with new media, screen learning, developing knowledge and authority in online environments, and diversity in digital environments. With titles such as Sage on the Screen, The Textbook and the Lecture, Teaching Machines, and Wikipedia U, the series looks to be aimed at engaging with a multitude of tech-ed topics from a variety of perspectives. I’m looking forward to following this series and seeing how it evolves and expands.

In a future blog, I’ll be featuring the latest book from the list—Diversifying Digital Learning.

This month, I’m considering three books that address web and mobile usability, digital sociality, values in online education.

Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web and Mobile Usability by Steve Krug, New Riders/Pearson 2014.

Nothing tops usability testing: early, often, and ongoing. Krug first published this book in 2000, after working as an Internet usability consultant for decades. Now in its third edition, Don’t Make Me Think continues to be one of the best guides to basic page design and perhaps the best guide to usability testing—something everyone involved in digital education should be doing early, often, and throughout the process.

From the start, Krug discusses the limitations of advice—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and emphasizes his one iron-clad law: no matter what should work, based on best practices, the only thing that matters is usability. What happens when an actual user (student) opens your page (course) is all that counts.

Krug does give plenty of concise, concrete advice, though, coupled with an abundance of clear examples. He discusses how users don’t read but scan, “satisfice,” and muddle—so don’t count on your directions. He explains why users look for street signs and breadcrumbs rather than extensive step-by-step explanations (and why the back button is the most used link on the Internet.) He talks about how to design your home page and why most if it is beyond your control because it just has to do what it just has to do.

Then, he explores the true grist of the book: usability testing. (If you’re not doing it, you’re building without a parachute, a net, or a safety line.) Do it! he emphasizes. Ask a friend to navigate a page; send a colleague on a scavenger hunt to find your syllabus and submit a quiz; ask a neighbor to discuss your attendance policy. Krug gives you advice on guided and unguided usability testing, on testing large and small sections of your course, and why usability testing is simply a “common courtesy” you should extend to your users (students). Don’t just build your course, test your course.

In the introduction, Krug says he designed the book to be read in about two hours. Since I first discovered it in 2016, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been through its 200 or so pages in one sitting. It is a must read for anyone in digital learning.

Human No More: Digital Subjectivities, Unhuman Subjects, and the End of Anthropology edited by Neil L. Whitehead and Michael Wesch, University Press of Colorado 2012.

Are we human no more? Questions of what makes us human, post-human, or “human no more” with regard to online sociality are central to this collection of esoteric essays on identity, embodiment, and digital interaction.

The basic premise of the volume is that “the endless interplay between offline and online subjectivity,” such as our students (and we ourselves) experience in and between online and onground classes, is altering how we think about and interact with one another. And, this evolution in subjectivity calls on us to recognize and redesign our lessons for new forms of sociality and diversity that “may involve unhuman actors and agencies.” In other words, our ever-increasing interactions with, between, and among bots and algorithms demands we, especially we teachers and builders, rethink what we allow, inhibit, and encourage with regard to our research and pedagogy.

While the essays in this volume don’t directly address teaching in depth, they do caution readers about the increasing irrelevance of “traditional notions of human identity,” about educational hierarchies, and about when and where we now interact socially on a daily basis. Evermore, the evolution of digital learning asks us to reconsider the situation of learning.

Digital platforms, mobility, situated sociality, transient time and place, altering location, motion, on/off participation, dynamic human interaction, a reordering of differences and inequalities—How do all these aspects of the digital environment affect my thinking and planning as a teacher?

In the end, the most pertinent and active structuring principle of online sociality is not a simple list of features and characteristics but instead an open-ended range of possibilities limited only by human imagination, allowing new forms of sociality to emerge. (6)

No one can predict how new digital socialities of learning in digital environments will develop, and this may be the most important lesson of all. What we build needs to be as accessible, flexible, and adaptable as we can imagine…and then some.

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport, Portfolio/Penguin 2019.

Let your values determine your tools, not the other way around. Digital Minimalism—Newport’s follow up to his 2016 Deep Work—is not so much about our devices, tools or apps, the Internet, or which digital learning platforms we use. Rather, it is about how we think and how intentional or unintentional our thinking has become in the digital age. Because of our “hyper-connected” relationship with technology, we are all feeling ever more distracted, fragmented, and exhausted to the point of desperation, asserts Newport. (He cites a number of formal and informal surveys to support his point.) And, he claims, it is a relationship that is simply not sustainable because it works against our mental health, is contrary to our emotional and cognitive wellbeing. We are simply not wired to address an ever-increasing flow of shallow tasks interrupted by irresistible signals and noise.

What we need in place of our current “frenzied activity,” argues Newport, is a new philosophy of technological use and a cultivated, sustainable practice focused on solitude, concentration, and evolving digital engagement. We need to practice an “attention resistance” by redeploying technology and using it in specific ways that allow us to extract value from it without becoming addicted to it.

According, to Newport, “To reestablish control, we need to move beyond tweaks and instead rebuild our relationship with technology from scratch, using our deeply held values as a foundation” (27-28).

Although Digital Minimalism is more culture critique than teaching guide, it does provide some general principles to consider with regard to teaching and learning. First, let ethics determine your tools and techniques. Second, ask what values and ideas your tools and techniques are teaching. Third, design tasks that promote concentration over consumption. Fourth, prompt students to make valuable things (not just “to like” what others have produced). Finally, structure time and build in ways that encourage students to do the same.

For more on these ideas, here is a 2017 Hidden Brain conversation between Cal Newport and Shankar Vedantam entitled You 2.0: Deep Work.

Brian Bergen-Aurand is an Instructional Designer in eLearning and Faculty in Arts & Humanities. He specializes in questions of Quality Standards (QOI, WASBCTC Checklist, QM), peer course review, and questions of the ethics of digital learning.

Last Updated November 2, 2020