Technological Minimalism in Distance Education
by Mauri Collins and Zane Berge

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Huge investments in equipment and infrastructure are being made by already under-funded schools in their attempts to compete for students in new and distant markets. Instructional delivery technologies are often implemented without evidence that significant gains in learning will be the outcome (Russell, 1999). Additionally, students seem to prefer courses with a lower multimedia content (Terry, 2000).

'Technological minimalism" is a valid methodological stance that can guide the choice of technologies that are already proven to be robust, available, and relatively inexpensive. Technological minimalists have viewed with dismay higher education's deployment and use of increasingly complex, unstable, and expensive distance delivery technologies. The current increase in the use of video-streaming technology is a prime example, generally adding little beyond cost to the learning situation and negating the benefits of more simple approaches to distance learning.

Inequities quickly arise when delivery of course content moves beyond the use of traditional methods and materials. Replacing in-class, face-to-face, chalk-and-talk, in-person class work with video, audio, and high-end animation does not guarantee an automatic improvement of teaching and learning; these are separate issues requiring specific attention (Cartier, 1992; Russell, 1999). Complex systems require  intensive training and support before they become transparent to teacher and student users and often increase the likelihood of human and technical errors (Lewis & Romiszowski, 1996). Distance delivery demands that both the site and student be equipped with and able to use whatever level of technology has been chosen for the course. Access to complex and expensive technology is a serious issue, as is adequate training and support for teacher and learner.

Historically, distance education has been used to overcome temporal and physical barriers to accessibility. This is still the case when a student attends a satellite downlink/receive site at specified class times; live, two-way, interactive delivery systems can solve location or access problems but do not address problems of time (Threlkeld, 1994). Live television delivery requires a costly infrastructure but many educators consider it the best alternative to conventional classroom teaching. This expensive delivery system cannot overcome time barriers in the international delivery of distance education, where students may be scattered across many time zones.

Lack of access to technologically sophisticated delivery systems is further widening the "digital divide" between the "haves" and the "have-nots" (Jette, 1994). The United States Government (2000) has become keenly aware of this disparity and is attempting to ameliorate this inequity. Technological minimalists applaud those resourceful educators in rural and inner-city schools who seek donations or buy used but perfectly functional equipment, use free Internet Service Providers, free e-mail services, and free chat and threaded discussion so that less privileged students can also enjoy thebenefits of educational technology. It does not have to cost the entire school budget to bring access to Internet information into the classroom and allow communications channels for students.

...we must not allow ourselves to accept the proposition that only the most expensive of the media can be useful in accomplishing our ends. That can lead to an "all or nothing" approach, demanding expensive, state-of-the-art delivery systems. Given the expense of such systems, "nothing" is often the result. With an open mind and a creative approach, the less expensive media, such as correspondence study, audioconferencing, and courses videotaped on campus and shown at other sites, can be highly effective in programming for expanded access. (Pittman, 1991, p. 35.)
Pittman's words express the essence of  technological minimalist philosophy. For many years, those who have not embraced technology as the cure for all educational ills and have hesitated to join the fight for more sophisticated, costly, and complicated delivery technologies have been labeled Luddites. Still, there is a firm methodological, philosophical, and economic basis for the position of "less is more" in the use of educational technology.

Collins defined technological minimalism as "the unapologetic use of minimum levels of technology, carefully chosen with precise attention to their advantages and limitations, in support of well-defined instructional objectives" (Collins, 1999, p. 9; Collins & Berge, 1994). The notion of technological minimalism derives from the "Minimalist" art movement. In American art, for instance, it is well expressed in the words of one leading sculptor: "'Minimal' means to me only the greatest economy in attaining the greatest ends" (Andre, 1984, cited in Baker, 1988 p. 14). Except for capability demonstrations, minimalism should also be the rule of thumb in the use of educational technology. The choice should be the lowest level of technology necessary to attain the objective.

From the viewpoint of institutions in general and instructional designers in particular, there is no need to apologize for espousing technological minimalism and the well-designed use of low technology solutions. Technological minimalism pays practical dividends; the more bells and whistles a delivery technology has, the more expensive and complex the equipment needed by user and supplier. Further demands include those of time and expense (e.g., travel to live videoconference sites), and additional training and technical support, bearing in mind the increased probability of equipment failure.

Technological minimalism focuses on essential issues in education, providing a basis for evaluating distance delivery alternatives. From this essentialist perspective, students and teachers can concentrate on what matters most - teaching and learning.


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