Anxiety about one’s online teaching skills often finds an interesting outlet. Instructors find many different digital tools, platforms, and services, and use them in their classes. For example, Padlet, Flipgrid, Word Wall, Kahoot, Edmodo, Socrative, Projeqt, Thinglink, eduClipper, Animoto. There are literally hundreds of them out there, each with its own fan club. Instructors also use blogs, website building platforms, Google and Office tools, smartphone aps, YouTube and Vimeo, etc. The way fetishism works is fairly simple: discovering a new tool gives you a sense of agency, a sense of accomplishment. It becomes your thing, gives you a feeling of being an expert, awakens your teacherly creativity. It is all good fun, until you consider the cost of using every new tool. The cost is significant.
Canvas or any other modern LMS has features that allow you to do almost everything that these tools offer. You don’t need Kahoot to put together a quiz. Video discussion is available in Canvas; no need for Flipgrid. For 99.9% of functionality you need in an online course, Canvas and Zoom are just fine. The external tools may look a little flashier, or work marginally better for specific purposes. But students hate additional platforms. An undergrad may have five classes, and each professor requires them to learn one or two new platform, create a new account, remember one more password, and learn a set of new menus.
Some instructors like the excuse that this is a part of digital literacy training. Yet digital literacy is not in learning dozens of different tools and platforms. It is in the ability to find the right tool for a specific need you may have. I would argue that digital literacy is the ability to be critical to all the claims various vendors are making, the ability to resist the shiny objects, and see the essence of the task at hand, and the many tools that can be used to accomplish it. Real pros have an equidistant and skeptical attitude toward any tool out there. They assume that none is irreplaceable, and each is coming with its own set of advantages and problems. Most will survive for just a few years. Excessive enthusiasm for a specific tool is a telltale sign of a novice.
Every minute spent on playing with a new toy is a minute taken away from thinking about pedagogy. What makes or breaks an online course is the instructor’s though about how to present content, and how to help students master knowledge and acquire skills. Course design in planning what I will be doing, and what students will be doing; how I will help them learn, and how will I know if they have learned anything. Similarly, every minute your student spends learning another tool is a minute taken away from learning what your syllabus actually says they are supposed to learn. The bar for bringing another digital tool into the class should be very high: it has to be absolutely unique, directly bearing on the class objectives, and unavailable through the standard platform, e.g. Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, or whatever LMS your institution uses. If the tool meets these criteria, fine, by all means, use it. There is nothing wrong with a good tool. But it becomes a fetish when takes on undue importance.
The fundamental principles of online course design are these: simplicity, predictability, variety, and explicit step-by-step progression. The first principle implies that the course objectives have to be met with the simplest technology and with the fewest tools possible. I can write more about other principles, if there is interest. For now, let’s get back to basics, and don’t get seduced by every new toy out there.