Frugal Innovation in Digital Learning

I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on what makes a good and accessible digital assignment for faculty and teachers who are not comfortable with digital tools but open to learning and experimenting. An approach I’ve often seen is what I’ve recently started calling the kitchen sink approach to “onboarding.” In this approach, a suite of tools or a single tool that can do “everything you can imagine and more” is shown or given to a faculty member to integrate into their already existing course or assignment. The hesitant but eager faculty member, initially excited to try something new, quickly becomes overwhelmed and frustrated as they attempt to make the tool live up to the promises of “doing everything and more.” Frustrated, the faculty member then abandons integrating the tool because they “tried and it didn’t really work with their style of teaching” or “there is too much stuff in the course already to add digital tools.”

In my everyday life, I am always struggling with the tension between access and equity when it comes to digital tools and learning. When working with populations who are part of the digital divide in learning in terms of things such as broadband connections, access to powerful computing devices, cost, data security and predictive analytics, time to do digital work outside of classes, data, and technological support, one is forced to work with the tension of access and equity in ways that are complicated. Often times the tools that are available and affordable are not designed with these limits in mind. As a result, they are often clunky, require a desktop, and attempt to do everything. While this may seem like an efficient approach, I am increasingly convinced it is not. More is overwhelming, takes up data, has more instances where it can break, and requires more time in both planning and doing in a course, thus, potentially taking away from course content. Additionally, more robust systems require a lot more professional development and support for both faculty and students.

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In the midst of working through some of these thoughts, dan greene let me know that what I was talking about sounded a lot like Frugal Innovation and directed me to a talk by Bill Thies, “Frugal Innovations for a Developing World.” My understanding from this is frugal innovation is the practice of doing less with more and optimizing the use of technology “not to change people but amplify human intent and capacity while understanding that “new technology is never the start of positive social change.” While the practice of frugal innovation seems to be most prominent in socially aware projects and programs in developing countries, I think it has a lot to offer the work we do with students, especially those who are on the margins I discussed, in terms of bringing meaningful and accessible digital innovation to the classroom. This is even more important to me, though, because when there are real access issues, giving students tools that are so unwieldy to the point of being impossible to master every component in a meaningful way, rather than leveling the playing field, the tool is increasing inequality.

In order to work around this, I have a four-pronged approach that I am in the process of fleshing out for approaching digital tools, especially in professional development with people who are, not without reason, hesitant to try something different. I think these four things are also beneficial for thinking through the various digital divides students in diverse classrooms might find themselves a part of.

  1. Simplify
  2. Make it fun (for faculty to learn and students to engage as part of the learning)
  3. Show relevance both in learning and beyond
  4. Goal is always small cost to students including time, equipment, stigma, etc.

While we often spend a lot of time looking at the promise of digital learning and the opportunities we may provide, if we are thinking through this with a Frugal Innovation lens, the constraints become more important. To me, this means if a system is a non-essential system for student success in their course of study, it is only beneficial if both the students and instructors interacting with the system do not feel overburdened by it. Additionally, given the prevalence of mobile and smart phones, it is important to design with mobile not as an added feature but as the primary space of contact. This adds constraints due to data limits, connectivity issues, screen size, and many other things I am probably not thinking about. While mobile phones are full of affordances, a frugal innovation approach asks that as we design tools, assignments, and other digital learning projects that we think about the essentials of what an assignment is trying to do and where students are coming from before taking a “bells and whistles” approach. If you must use complex tools, focus on what you can do with one or two key features, going over best practices and examples of implementation. One of the benefits of having people in a learning environment is we know they have a shared intent, though they might articulate it differently. Their goal is to learn something they do not know and, hopefully, to apply it to wherever their life takes them after their time embedded in said environment.

The biggest thing I think I’ve been rethinking is a meaningful and useful ePortfolio when working with at risk populations. The disclaimer I always use when claiming a population is at risk is that it isn’t the people, it’s a structural problem. The most beautiful definition I’ve heard of ePortfolio is a collaborative assignment across courses for both faculty and students. The impetus is often, in my experience, to give students a robust ePortfolio system that can do anything and everything to highlight the different aspects of a student. I understand how this is helpful and important. However, in terms of needs as a student moves through school, it is important that they learn to contextualize their experience and meaningfully reflect, and that isn’t always archiving activities. What I would love to see done more often is an academic resume, where a student learns to place their learning in a larger context of the goals both for the course and for the life they imagine themselves having after the course. While this creates a lean digital footprint compared to more robust portfolios, it also opens a different world or possibility. By that I mean by keeping this small, it becomes easier to incorporate into more courses. An ideal integration would be having the student do the reflection at the beginning of the course as part of an ice breaker, at the midpoint of the course as they are part way through, and again at the end. This becomes most valuable when students have a chance to discuss what they’ve written with their classmates as, in addition to reflecting on what they are getting from the course and why it is important, they also learn to talk about these things to an external audience engaged in similar work, something that will be important when they enter the next part of their professional life, be it work or additional schooling. When students have to create robust ePortfolios that do everything, it becomes harder to pinpoint what is important and what the purpose is.