Who’s in Control? Minimalism in the Modern Learning Classroom

What sets the pace in your classroom? Your technology, or you?

“Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure in this world;
it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius.”

–George Sand

A couple of years ago my 10th Grade advisees asked my help in conveying to the rest of the faculty how overwhelming their technology demands were becoming.  Just in terms of note-taking, for me and my partner teacher they were required to use Evernote, for another teacher they were expected to use Google Drive, in another class they were asked to use Dropbox and in another—with a more traditional teacher—they were tasked with organizing a three-ring binder. (With real paper!)

And this was a just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to the school’s homegrown website, all students were required to use Jupitergrades and either Edmodo (6-10) or Managebac (11-12) even before adding on the requirements of individual teachers. The situation created not only a chaotic and confusing online environment for the kids, it fostered negative attitudes toward technological innovations that were meant to ease their burden, not increase it.

This prompted my partner (the schools’ Instructional Technology Coordinator) and I to reflect on our practice with the goal of reducing the burden on our students, our teachers and us. We reviewed the professional development schedule for the previous eighteen months, and we realized that almost two-thirds of the training was devoted to new apps and technologies, while none was devoted to follow-up or reflection sessions on the technology already in use. Furthermore, many of our other sessions were spent on exchange-based meetings like “Appy Hours” and unconferences intended to get teachers teaching teachers how to use even more apps than could be introduced in a traditional PD setting.

Unwittingly, between our enthusiasm and anxiety—and what we witnessed whiz by in our Twitter feeds—we had created a culture of accumulation: our teachers believed that more was better, that everyone else out there had more, and that we had to catch up! –We had become app-a-holics.

Therefore, the two of us challenged each other to narrow down our technology use to no more than seven applications or key software items (not including basic word processing and school mandated technology). This rule held both for our students AND ourselves.

We established a set of five parameters for the applications we were allowed to adopt:

  1. Relevance. All chosen apps must pertain directly to class goals. No bells and whistles for the heck of it.
  2. Not redundant. (I.e., if you require iAnnotate, you can’t also choose Notability.)
  3. Flexibility. Whenever possible, apps must be cross-platform and cross-device. (I.e., work on both Mac and Windows; on desktops, tablets and mobile phones, etc.)
  4. Authentically useful. We use Evernote, Dropbox and Twitter in our daily lives and careers for both personal and professional purposes. Why ask our students to use apps that are useless outside the school environment?
  5. Longevity. Too many apps are here today, gone tomorrow. We only want apps that are going to at least span the course of a student’s high school, and ideally, college career.

After devising this set of rules, I sat to reflect on our essential needs and came up with this final list for all my high school social studies classes:

  1. Google Apps –A bit of a cheat here as Google Apps offers so much. But because the platform makes it easy for students and teachers to move from one application to the other without burdensome new learning, we allowed it. We also teach of all our students how to use Google Sites, but allow them to use other site creators and media platform of their choosing. Their favorites are WordPress, Wix, Cargo Collective & Tumblr.
  2. Turnitin –Editing and originality checks
  3. Evernote – Note-taking and sharing. Always synchronized, never lost.
  4. Zotero  –Research organization and citation.
  5. Dropbox –File storage and back up.
  6. Memrise –Formative assessment (self-quizzing). This choice had dramatic, and amazing, repercussions for my teaching).
  7. Twitter –PLN-building and knowledge-sharing.

Our commitment to less also had a brilliant ripple effect (it was a paradigm shift, really) on the way that we taught as well. But that will be the subject of my next Mindsets post on Minimalism in Instruction. In the meantime, what have been your experiences with app-addiction and the scramble to “stay relevant”? How have you dealt with/are you dealing with the issue? Are you riding the tiger by the tail, or have you let it run free in the wild where it belongs? Boil your practice down: what are your seven essential apps?

  • Bonnie

    Google Classroom

    This year I've been using Google Classroom for all my lessons and assignments for courses. It has organized everything I do with my classes chronologically. I haven't had to archive a course yet, but will in four weeks. Has anyone had experience in moving or copying all lessons and assignments from one course to another using Google Classroom?

    • Patty

      New semester transfer

      Works like a charm!  

  • AndrewMajewski

    7 apps/software programs limit

    This 7-app limit seems like a good strategy, but I imagine many educators would try to sneak a couple more in!  Regardless, I can relate to feeling overwhelmed by the myriad programs that have become commonplace for us to have to operate.  Another arena that’s become too bloated is social media: We have Facebook, Google Plus, Linked-in, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr, Pinterest, and more to help us “connect”. Yes, all these online communities do have their own spin on things, but it would be good to have just one home-base, even for a little while!

    • wjtolley

      Don’t tell anyone…

      Full disclosure: once or twice…I may drop another app in here or there from time to time. 🙂

      Of course, the seven app limit is somewhat arbitrary–some people made need more, some less–the idea is to avoid accumulation or sprawl, and to promote mastering the apps you need before trying out others you may not. 

  • Merrick Windham

    Minimalism! Yay!

    Your post is definitely on point. I've shared by email with five high school English teachers here who are using classroom sets of Chromebooks this year with all of their classes. Your list is interesting, and those of  them who have gone ahead to select additional apps for their classes will enjoy seeing what you chose. Thanks!

  • Ed Kowieski

    Selecting fewer programs/apps for your school

    While the idea of having only a small handful of apps and programs is nice, it again attempts to put all teachers into one single box.  I work with special educators (and gen educators), and what works for the SPED staff would likely apply to other staff based on UDL principles.

    Although I can't conceive of only one program fitting the needs of all teachers, I can suggest one that could be used across the grade levels and subject areas that would benefit the great majority of students. (The reason you teach, right?)  A resource that allows teachers to pull from nearly any existing curriculum to create interactive lessons that can be totally personalized for the age & ability levels, interests, subject matter, languages, or disabilities….and it exists as a result of evidence-based studies by leading researchers in autism (tough crowd to please).  Check it out – it's not Google in size or power, but what it lacks in financial status, it totally makes up for in flexibility and relevance for any pre-K to 16 educator.  www.monarchtt.com (and they offer a free trial so you can check it out before putting a single penny of your limited curriculum $ down on your own subscription….

    • marsharatzel

      Awareness is the first step

      I’m with you Ed….I worry about anyone putting out the ultimate list of what we’re using.  If the list is a starting point, I’m all for that.  The professional discussion around what would be used would be the most beneficial part of this.

      I think your point about content relevance is also very well taken.  As a math teacher, I would have included Geogebra, for example.  As a science teacher, I would have included PheT Simulations.  I wouldn’t have had as much use for TurnItIn or the notetaking app.

      Maybe the idea of these 7 apps were just to get the realization that we should be careful and coordinate our use????

      • wjtolley

        That’s it Marsha!

        That’s it Marsha!

        I saw that a couple of people tweeted this article as “The Only Seven Apps You’ll Ever Need” or something like that. Excellent clickbait, and, times being what they are…:) 

        But of course, like I said above, it’s about mindfulness and minimalism when using tech–not trying to essentialize the needs of all teachers to one common list of apps. I don’t believe in standardizing anything, really. 

  • Sue Maloney

    7 app limit

    Great concept, great list–thanks for sharing! I'd love to see upper and lower elementary versions. 

    • marsharatzel

      Here what elementary teachers I know are using

      I’m betting that elementary versions of the list would include Edmodo, Remind, ClassDojo, Explain Everything and some way out there teachers would want Minecraft.


  • wjtolley

    If there’s one I’ll confess

    If there’s one I’ll confess to “sneaking in” it’s Class Dojo. It’s brilliant for keeping track of particpation during Model United Nations simulations…

  • Julieferreira

    My problem is many of my

    My problem is many of my students do not have computer access at home; therefore, I try to use technology in school.  However, many of my colleagues do too so I can be quite a juggling act to use technology and make it equitable for all students.  I teach in an urban school district and many families must make the difficult choice between technology and living essentials.

  • JakeT

    Hello William,

    Hello William,

    I like the idea behind this challenge very much. Narrowing down our technology use to only the essentials can be a great way to increase efficiency and save time.

    Great choice of apps, WordPress and Wix are also some of my favorite site creators as well. I must say the choice can sometimes be hard as there are so many great website builders out there as shown in this list http://www.websitebuildercomparison.com/ for example. The most important thing when choosing technology is to make sure it comes with a full range of features, so you can use less to do more.