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Aug 6, 2020

Tool fetishism in online teaching

Anxiety about online teaching skills often manifests in an interesting way: instructors are drawn to the vast array of digital tools, platforms, and services available for classroom use. Examples include Padlet, Flipgrid, Word Wall, Kahoot, Edmodo, Socrative, Projeqt, Thinglink, eduClipper, Animoto, and many more, with hundreds out there, each boasting its own fan club. Instructors also turn to blogs, website building platforms, Google and Office tools, smartphone apps, YouTube, Vimeo, and the like.

This attraction to digital tools is a form of "fetishism." Discovering a new tool can instill a sense of agency and accomplishment, making it feel like "your thing" and awakening creativity. While this can be fun, the costs are significant.

Modern Learning Management Systems (LMS) like Canvas have features that nearly replicate what these specialized tools offer. You don't need Kahoot to create a quiz, or Flipgrid for video discussion; Canvas and Zoom can usually suffice. Although external tools may appear flashier or slightly more effective for specific purposes, students often find them frustrating. An undergraduate might juggle five classes, each requiring one or two new platforms, accounts, passwords, and menu systems.

Some argue that learning these tools is part of digital literacy training. However, true digital literacy lies in the ability to critically assess various tools, resisting the allure of novelty to focus on the essence of the task at hand. Real professionals maintain a skeptical attitude, knowing that no tool is irreplaceable, and each comes with pros and cons. Most will only be relevant for a few years, and an over-enthusiasm for a specific tool can be a sign of inexperience.

Every minute spent exploring a new digital toy detracts from essential pedagogical thought and course design. Successful online courses hinge on the instructor's careful planning and clear objectives, not on a myriad of digital tools. Time students spend learning a new platform also diverts them from the course's intended learning goals.

The bar for incorporating a new digital tool should be high: it must be unique, directly aligned with class objectives, and not available through the standard LMS like Canvas, Blackboard, or Moodle. If a tool meets these criteria, it can certainly be useful. But an undue focus on tools becomes problematic and detracts from teaching and learning.

The underlying principles of successful online course design include simplicity, predictability, variety, and explicit step-by-step progression. Simplicity means fulfilling course objectives with the least complicated technology and minimal tools. The focus should be on basics, without being sidetracked by every shiny new gadget. If there's interest, further elaboration on these principles can be provided. But for now, let's return to foundational practices and resist being seduced by the ever-changing landscape of digital tools.

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