Opinionated software: teaching is about illuminating consequences

There’s pretty much nothing more annoying than a computer telling you you’re wrong when you’re not.

Users are always making decisions about how to use software. I think it’s too dangerous to try to make your software evaluate those decision, because sometimes the evaluation will be wrong. It’s better when software makes it clear that a decision is being made, and what the effects of the choices will be.

If you have an opinion, like “not much time should be spent discussing trivial details,” then it’s easy to make your software say things like “click here to submit your message. Make sure it’s important that everyone read this – otherwise you’re wasting people’s time.”  You could do something snarky like label the submit button “click here to waste everyone’s time.”

Instead, try just exposing the metric that makes you think discussions can waste time.  A message to twenty people that would take the average person 5 minutes to read costs 100 minutes of reading time.  What if the submit button were next to a note that said “it will cost 100 minutes to send this message?”

We were extremely opinionated with ActiveGrade.  We simply didn’t make features to support teachers doing traditional grading. This meant that teachers who already got standards-based grading loved ActiveGrade, but every other teacher was summarily rejected.  In our integration with Haiku I think we’re doing a better job of giving options to traditional graders who are looking to upgrade to SBG, without giving up on our ideal that students should take more out of school than a grade.


[Self-conscious guide for teachers used to posts about high school]

It’s funny, I had these thoughts about software but never thought of them so explicitly for students. Replace “computer” with “teacher” and “user” with “student,” and we have an interesting idea about what classroom teaching can be like.   How much better is it for a teacher to make choices clear… and then let students choose?

Dan Meyer has a lot of interesting theories about education, and one that stands out to me is that student engagement is practically a prerequisite.  How often do students decide what they want to do in your class?

Huh: I think I consciously made 10 or 20 decisions per year when I was in school.

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