Digital Minimalism applied in education or change management

Technology should help everybody to focus more easily. A minimalist approach to technology in companies or schools may seem to be less cutting edge, but the results of it will prove a point.

These are uncertain times, not just because of seemingly uncontrollable viruses or complete lock outs of entire countries. These times are special as they are challenging and disruptive as nobody could have ever imagined. Everything has multiple perspectives and people are not yet ready or trained to spot the right angle: overwhelming and overcoming.

Theory and Practice clash with the sometimes crude reality of our world and its rather unpredictable path. Dueck (2017)

Pretty much all companies, as well as providers of higher education are shut down at the moment. Work in the office and physical lessons have been cancelled and are, where possible, assured and provided via digital technology. There are multiple platforms, applications and group communication tools for an even bigger amount of different expectations, uses, wanted and finally achieved outcomes. The approach to this “new technology” has been investigated differently on multiple levels across Europe for some time now:

  • There are entire countries or big corporations, which deliver widespread online tutoring or smart working possibilities, while utilising the remaining face-to-face time for the elaboration of and working on social and ethical skills. This often happens as an integral part of a long term political, governmental or managerial strategy.
  • Universities, as well as entrepreneurially oriented companies for their in-house training programmes, are more and more opening access to online education, lectures and interactions with renowned professors, managers or business owners to the entire world. For free. Their commercial business model is profoundly shifting from turnover directly linked to delivery of hard knowledge, to the unimaginable value of transmission of core and soft skills, experience and, why not, the lifelong membership to an exclusive network.
  • Everyday great tutors, managers and consultants are trying their best to persuade and engage children, teenagers, students or adults to create their very personal and hopefully uninhibited relation of technology and learning. These educators are doing an even greater job, where the system they are working in is not facilitating such ideas or concepts.
Knowing this, at the same time everybody seems to struggle to keep up with digitalisation. Entire countries or industries, from big to small companies, as well as single human beings have to deal with it, on a global scale. We are all, to different degrees and from different angles surely, confronted with digital technology and its tools. “We didn’t, ..., sign up for the digital world in which we’re currently entrenched; we seem to have stumbled backward into it.” Newport (page 7)

Digital Minimalism, a solution?

Although the existence of tools for online, digital or remote lessons and training are known and used for quite a while now, a lot of education providers, as well as companies have taken their time to implement them. They have probably preferred to stick to known territory. Change and its management can surely be a lengthy process. Rather than being an Alpha-Geek (Kelly, 2010), by always and passionately being the first to implement and test every new possible tool, this longer reflection period may even be a good idea. A wise choice. In the before mentioned book, Cal Newport (2019) says that “thriving in our high-tech world,..., is to spend much less time using technology.” (page XV). But to do so based on a thoroughly planned process, which can not be the result of cost control, fear of technology or a lack of trained staff. Every company and university needs to elaborate a philosophy of technology, something like a digital mission statement allowing management, members of staff, faculty, as well as students to know where they are, where they’re asked to go and how. Such a philosophy could be Digital Minimalism as proposed in Newports eponymous book. The manual is generally used to find a better digital-technology / life balance, especially for social media, and to avoid addictive patterns. Looked at from a institutions point of view, it’s three principals could be reinterpreted as follows:

Principle 1: Clutter is costly

Companies and schools need to recognise that cluttering their space or time and staff’s attention with to many devices, apps, and notifications may work in the beginning, but will be slowing everything down mid- or long-term. On the long run and with no motivated structure in place this may also lead to an overall negative cost that can swamp the small benefits that each individual technology item may provide in isolation.

Principle 2: Optimisation is important

They need to understand that deciding a particular technology supports something they value is only a small first step. Companies and schools will need to necessarily think and carefully plan about how to introduce and use technology, in order to truly extract its full potential benefit. These benefits may be opposite for different branches or levels of management within the same organisation. Solutions can only be found through a means to an end approach. The decision makers therefore need to be absolutely clear what these ends actually are, how much they are valued and finally, where they are situated in the company's overall mission.

Principle 3: Intentionality is satisfying

It becomes clear that approaching decisions about technology is better done with unequivocal intention, as it can be more important than the impact of the actual decisions themselves. Members of staff or faculty will derive significant satisfaction from a general, but felt company’s or school’s commitment to being more intentional about how they enhance with new technologies. This source of satisfaction is independent of specific decisions that a company or school may take and grows in the distant future.

Minimalist screening rules

Out of simplicity companies often explain and look at technology in a binary way: they either like and therefore highly use it, or they don’t. Only with the best motives in mind and at hand these very actively high-tech companies or schools create a digital “ecosystem” which possibly traps its users (management, members of staff, faculty and students ie.) and has them engage beyond the original purpose, beyond the actual need and, most dangerously, beyond their human capacity. A system put in place to deliver in a quicker and more precise way, turns out to actually do the opposite in the long run. It burns people out, as their attention span, even if rather stretchable, is only as big as it is. “Attention is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. This implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.” James (1890). Newport proposes three screening questions that need to be affirmatively answered in order for specific technology to pass. This may be a bit too much to ask for a company or a school with much more complex economical or social structures to deal with, i agree. But this article is food for thought:

The Minimalist Technology Screen:

To allow an optional technology to be introduced into a company or school (CoS), it must:
  • Serve something CoS deeply values (offering some benefit is not enough).
  • Be the best way to use technology to serve this value (if it is not, replace it with something better).
  • Have a role in CoS’ activities that is constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifies when and how members of staff use it.
Technology, if used and implemented correctly, can and should help everybody to focus more easily. It can be a facilitating power to free time, to be creative again and perhaps to finally find that hour in which we can meet peers, managers or students to have an informal discussion over a cup of coffee. A minimalist approach to technology in companies or schools may seem to be less cutting edge, but the results of it may prove a point. Some like to play along and probably win a few points short term. Others may want to adapt their strategy and re-write the rules, before imposing a whole different game on the long run.

References: Dueck, G., (2017). Bildung der Zukunft oder Kopfreform?. Teleakademie, SWR Fernsehen. Kelly, K., (2010). What Technology Wants. Viking Press. Newport, C., (2019). Digital Minimalism: On living better with less technology. Penguin Business. Wu, T., (2017). The Attention Merchants: the epic struggle to get inside our heads. London: Atlantic Books. James, W., (1890). The Principles of Psychology, Vol.1. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

A chance for acceleration towards contemporary higher education

Working for a School based in France, delivering higher education to students with a vast international and multicultural background, we now finally also have to cancel all physical lessons and close our premises. The shutdown surely has not come as a surprise, as pretty much all neighbouring countries, affected or not, have already taken such measures or have at least clearly mentioned to impose them sooner rather than later. One could therefore think that this has left the French providers of education more than enough time to at least come up with a short-term strategy for an emergency, known to be just that for some two months now. 

issue or chance

The actions taken by the government unquestionably create bottlenecks, as well as managerial and social issues for nurseries, kindergartens, primary or secondary schools, but foremost for the parents and their kids. These establishments teach children who need to be pedagogically entertained and looked after all the time. It is not sure who will take on these tasks, as teachers will be barricaded at home and parents probably still in need to go to their place of labour, because not able or allowed to smart-work.

Whereas the limitations imposed by the government could be seen as a concern for the before mentioned cluster of schools, they may be a real chance for universities and all other providers of higher education. These institutions are working with young adults, mostly millennials or gen-Z-ders, who have completely different expectations and needs from faculty or a school. 

contemporary interaction with the contemporary student

In today’s world students have much vaster possibilities to choose the city, school and programme they want to attend and get their degree in. They do not feel to be bound to a classic linear timeline, nor do they feel any need to finish their study in the same institution where it began. Following this mindset, they want and need to be the sole owner of the deciding power. They alone want to decide what best suits them. Despite the decision being taken by the student, the responsibility for the quality and success of education remains that of the institution. This is the somewhat unfortunate but current situation, private higher education is acting in.

Students want, need and deserve very personal solutions, a bespoke learning experience for a contemporary, global, multichannel-communicating and inclusive citizen of the world. Higher Education needs to be able to fill this student's need overtly. It needs to accelerate and become it-self as reflective, cutting-edge, disruptive and inclusive as it teaches or asks its students to be.

This imposed obligation to shut down the physical classroom for fourteen days therefore forces all concerned providers of education to go an extra step; to be creative again, to be somehow uncertain, to experiment new ways, new channels, new programmes, new subjects et cetera. 

An urgently needed acceleration

This quarantine urges everybody in education to finally and realistically implement the theories, concepts and ideas they were rather emptily teaching for so long now. The trend in academia to talk or discuss about design thinking, lean entrepreneurship, disruption, creative destruction, as well as the theoretical processes that have been elaborated on how to implement these schemes into the classroom; they finally need to be applied in the real world and very urgently so. 

This acceleration towards a different, hopefully new way of learning and teaching should just be the beginning. A rock that has been put in motion by extraordinary and uncontrollable forces. It is now up to the education sector, us, to make it and keep it a Rolling Stone.