Josh Lund

Ockham’s Razor and Online Learning

Rube Goldberg's Self-Operating NapkinI’ve always loved Rube Goldberg’s drawings. They lent a certain sense of the absurd to everyday tasks, creating a ridiculously complicated machine to handle something most of us could do without even thinking about it. Like many young people, I also delighted in building machines similar to Goldberg’s, using every toy at my disposal to produce something that, let’s be honest, may have been more satisfying to design and build than to actually deploy most of the time. A few hours’ work for ten seconds of payoff? Not a big deal, when you’re a kid.

That was sure a lot of fun, but fast forward a few years, and practicality wins in the end. I don’t really need a machine that takes 30 seconds to shut off my alarm when I can just reach out and shut it off in a fraction of the time. When I am looking for solutions, I look for the quickest, or easiest, or both. I would rather find an efficient and effective solution than waste my time “getting creative” in this case. The principle of Ockham’s Razor states that if you are comparing hypotheses, the simplest solution, or the solution based upon the fewest assumptions, is the best choice. Don’t work hard, work smart.

But technology—ah, technology. Gadgets have a remarkable way of making us forget our principles, as we are dazzled by its many achievements. Sure, technology does make some things easier to do, and faster too. But at the same time, it has a way of dragging us down a rabbit hole and making us forget that we did many of the same things we do now, albeit in slightly different ways, without the technology. Rather than looking at the course the way we did when it was on photocopied paper, we get swept up in the magic of cool graphics and pretty shinies, and pretty soon we can’t remember what we were doing in the first place, much less how to effectively do it with the technology we signed up for.

We teach professional development workshops here that focus on getting the most out of the University’s technology, and on mastering interesting, useful tools for faculty teaching and student learning. We try hard to come up with best practices that can be directly applied to common instructional problems. Faculty who come to these are shown many exciting things at high speed, and as energizing as this experience can be, it can also be overwhelming. It’s sort of like what happens every time I eat at a buffet place; I am really excited about all the variety of the food at the time, but later on I inevitably realize that I may have sampled a few dishes more than I really had room for. Similarly, sometimes faculty come out of the Stupendous Technology Buffet (trademark pending) a little too stuffed to be sure what they really should use in a given situation.

I recently spoke with a faculty member who had been through some of our workshops about a discussion activity she wanted to do with her students. She wanted students to comment on a screencast video she had done, and to discuss with one another. She asked if she should use VoiceThread to present the video, since they could use voice or video comments on the responses. To sum up our conversation, she was asking if I thought it was a good idea to go through a five or six step process to have a discussion:

  1. Shoot screencast video.
  2. Produce screencast video.
  3. Create a VoiceThread.
  4. Post this video into it.
  5. Post VoiceThread into course site.
  6. Receive student comments and replies, and post her own.

This got me thinking about the actions involved. Remember Ockham’s Razor: what’s the simplest choice?

In times of trouble, go with what you know. It is important to ask what the outcomes are from this activity. Take the technology tools out, and what do you really want to accomplish? I asked her this question, and we were able to shave that list down a little. Her real goals were:

  1. Create a screencast.
  2. Post it somewhere and use it to have a discussion.

Now we’re getting somewhere. This was really about having a short video to spur a discussion. VoiceThread is a great tool to use if you want a really interactive discussion with voice and video over a series of images or slides, but is often less practical to simply convey one-way information. In this case, the faculty member really just needed to convey the information, and the method students replied in (text vs. audio/video) was less important to her. She just remembered seeing VoiceThread in one of our workshops and thought it looked like something the students would find cool—but she found a little confusing, frankly.

It’s possible to embed a video in a simple discussion board post in our LMS. Since she didn’t really care about the method students replied in, there wasn’t necessarily a need to use the third-party tool. The fact that she was confused by how to do it made the decision easy; we’d embed her video in a traditional discussion board, and students could comment and reply to one another the way they were used to in other courses. Don’t get me wrong, I love technology, and I do it all day long. At the same time, it’s important to remember that if the technology is the thing getting in the way of the solution, it is unnecessary. She may return to VoiceThread someday, since she does like the idea of enabling voice and video discussions in her courses, but for now, the important thing was that the discussion just worked. Sometimes the huge leap is unnecessary, and baby steps will do. So the shortened steps were thus:

  1. Shoot screencast video.
  2. Produce screencast video.
  3. Embed video to discussion board.
  4. Receive student comments and replies, and post her own.

We’ve cut out two steps, plus the confusion factor of the unfamiliar tool. Sounds like a win to me. And on the bonus side, we were able to use the ratings system for students to upvote positive solutions they found and wrote about in the discussion board, which VoiceThread didn’t have.

It’s easy to get distracted by shiny objects and flash, and forget that it’s supposed to be a tool, even if sometimes it can feel like a toy. You might want to use something because it seems neat, but if it proves to be confusing for you or the students, is the payoff awesome enough to make it worth your time to sort out all the confusion? If it seems like the process is unnecessarily tough, perhaps it is!

Consider your objectives first. What do you want to do in this activity? How will you assess students’ performance? What are your (measurable) outcomes from the activity? If you can answer all of these questions, you can handle doing the activity in analog form (i.e., face to face). Moving it online is all just a matter of translation, and of prioritizing. There may be many ways to translate your activity into an online one, but certain features of some tool may shine more than others. This is where the priorities come in. Each technology tool does a few things really well, and it’s important to remember what you really want to do in an activity the most when selecting a tool. In the end, you’ll probably find, as I have, that you end up with ol’ Ockham again, cutting it down to the simplest option.

If a tool confuses you and/or your students, you won’t use it.

If a tool produces results you don’t like or can’t measure, you won’t use it.

By all means, try new things. Experiment, and make mistakes; it’s how we learn and how we get better at teaching. But remember, as you are boldly going forth:

Often, the simplest solution is the best.

Josh Lund

About Josh Lund

Josh Lund is an Instructional Technology Consultant at DePaul, and a former teacher turned mad scientist. After completing a B.M. in Music Theory/Composition at St. Olaf College and an M.M. in Composition at Northern Illinois University, he spent six years teaching instrumental music at Elgin Academy, William Penn University, and Central College. He also worked as an active performer and clinician before returning to Illinois to complete a second master’s degree in Instructional Technology at Northern Illinois. A life straddling two different disciplines, technology and the fine arts, has led him to researching teaching technology in the collaborative arts, multimedia and recording technologies, and user interface design . He is really enjoying the fact that his job lets him play with technology tools all day and then teach others to use them. Josh still writes and performs on occasion, teaches the occasional wayward bass or guitar student, and is an avid gardener and disc golfer. He enjoys cooking, traveling, and the outdoors, particularly when his family is also involved.

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