Teacher Rant of the Day: Not in the Same Room — Student View, Teacher View

A frequent pain point with technology in the classroom, for me at least, is not being able to see clearly what students see when they use an edtech tool. It's fairly standard that there is a teacher or control interface and then a student interface. Where I might, if I were in control of a server or most other services, be able to create/manipulate/pose as a user of another type, that functionality to masquerade as a student seems always curtailed and limited in edtech products.

There are technical reasons why there are two views and often two divergent interfaces, but I wonder how much of this is driven by design assumptions as well and, more crucially, how much those design assumptions from outside the classroom are at odds with good pedagogical practices. Whether it is in exposing a minimal amount of control directly to teachers or in the seemingly innocuous (but actually quite mistaken and problematic) assumption that students need a different user experience than teachers, the dichotomy between what teachers see and what students causes all manner of grief.

Those griefs might include not being able to see at a glance that something is missing in the student view (e.g. in Canvas, when a module hasn't been published even though all the assignments have nice green checks next to them; hence students can't work on the module). Or it might be when some element of a page renders for me but doesn't render for them. Sometimes it's the way the grade displays, as when my view puts a clear letter grade but theirs displays numbers first even though I set the damn thing to do it the other way. And don't even get started on what does or doesn't show up in calendars or through LTI integrations and 3rd party apps plugged into an LMS.

Again, there are technical reasons for the dichotomized view of a class through the lens of educational technologies. Nothing is perfect and labor is involved in making all these things work. But in the case of student view vs. teacher view, there's a set of design assumptions and value judgements too. Consider, by contrast, something like googledocs (or etherpad or hedgedocs or draftin — any sort of collaborative writing platform). One of the killer features of those tools is that you can work in real time and, crucially, see more or less the same thing. It feels like you are in a common space, a shared space for the most part where we are all having the same conversation. (Sidenote: there are of course features which fragment the common experience as well, e.g. individual chats that people might have in that platform.) In a classroom, the typical use case of presentation software or the like still revolves around something like a shared experience. Yes, the teacher might have notes in the slides and see a different set of things surrounding the slides, but knowing what students are seeing is both in my control and fairly clear as an instructor.

I think that I tend to like educational technology in direct proportion to the distance between student view and teacher view. That is, the easier it is to see a shared space, where what I can clearly visualize both what students see and maybe a little more that I need to see, the easier it is to use that technology effectively. The more divergence between the student view and the teacher view, the more I get uneasy, feeling like control rests in the software and in systems that are not entirely manageable. Even when it is possible to set up or use a 'test student' account, I am often surprised to see behaviors on the student side that were not predictable from the teacher side.

My biggest pet peeve are the various automatic grade calculations which you have to hunt through menus to turn off and kill, but it happens on most platforms that students will bring me their view of something and it invariably looks very different. Submission buttons that for me are at the bottom are now at the top. What I see first and sorted is now sorted differently for them. Selections possible on my side are not possible on theirs, and so forth.

This is before we get to the case of phone apps. Again, I recognize the technical problem here, having to serve multiple platforms and devices. There are important issues of accessibility that need to be addressed in design as well. This is not a simple problem.

But we can't have better edtech if the starting assumption is that student and teacher views are naturally divergent. Or that it just makes sense, by default, to have a sort of teacher control panel and then something that feeds out to students. This strikes me as a constant misreading of the classroom. Cynically and aggressively I might characterize it as a way that non-teachers, marketers or others who have only ever experienced a classroom as a student might remember the classroom: an intensely hierarchical space where what the teacher does is a form of control: mysterious, opaque, and wholly cut off from what students see. More charitably, I think there is some of the value system of admin/user being transposed from tech architecture, without much filter, to a classroom space.

But classrooms, in all their diversity, are shared spaces. Edtech that works against this ethic is edtech that cuts against the grain of good pedagogy.

I would really like to see more edtech that works or aims for a principle of a single space. This seems missing, as an orientation and philosophy of pedagogy baked into educational tech. There are some hints here and there, spurred in particular by the past year or so (e.g. some design choices in Class for Zoom seem to react against Zoom's inherent fracturing of views by reasserting a “classroom”-y format which resizes teacher, TAs, and students in some sort of hierarchy.) But there should be more awareness of this, and more clarity about why it is needed.

What to do in the meantime? Perhaps the easiest thing, where possible, is to seek out tools that right now do a better job of providing a single space for working together. Maybe it's just a preference for tools that don't make a huge distinction between a sort of teacher/administrator view and a user/student view. Most of that will be software built around the idea of teams or collaboration generally. File sharing, collaborative editing, wikis, and the like — I suppose that's all fairly old school (i.e. more than 5 years old) at the present time.

And maybe some awareness of these design choices can help. If it is nagging you why this tool feels “right” and something else just doesn't click, is it because of that distance between what you see and what the students experience? Have you entered different worlds of user experience and are you, in some sense, working in a separate classroom from your students?

#minimalistedtech #edtechminimalism #teacherrant