OER20 – Small Tech for Higher Ed

At her recent keynote at OEB Global, Laura Czerniewicz (2019) depicted
the marketisation of higher education and demonstrated how
surveillance capitalism (Zuboff, 2019) continues to intrude on the
educational sector. In her talk, she highlights the accompanying
dangers of these trends toward big tech and surveillance capitalism.
Given more urgency with Instructure’s recent sale for $2 billion to a
private equity group, she makes the case that this “new normal” is not
inevitable in higher education. Laura calls for us to resist,
research, regulate and reimagine how we use technology.

As an example she refers to Laura Kalbag and Aral Balkan’s “Small
Technology” framework. Their focus is on simple, private, and personal
tools built by people for people. This is part of a larger movement
towards simple tools built outside the commercial enterprise which has
sprung up in a variety of places under a variety of names. Knight
Lab’s projects are a variety of tools oriented towards empowering
people to make better content online. Individuals are creating tools
that are being used by many individuals and universities. Alan Levine
has produced a large number of WordPress-based SPLOTs (simplest
possible online learning tool) over the last 5 years. Martin Hawksey’s
TAGs Aggregator has put data privacy considerations and analysis in the hands of

With or without a particular name these tiny, targeted tools are being
built to solve problems, build better content, and protect student
privacy. As such, they implement a pedagogy of care (Bali, 2015),
focusing on the needs of the teacher and students using the
technology. Instead of fitting learning activities, assessments and
other resources into the learning management system or virtual
learning environment, educators can help choose or build a tiny tool
for a very specific purpose. These tools are often hosted on the
university’s IT infrastructure ensuring privacy and GDPR compliance.

In the United States, one advocate for the use of tiny targeted tools
is Virginia Commonwealth University. In the European context, Karlstad
University, Sweden, has taken on the approach as part of their
externally financed open online course development projects.
At both institutes, small tools have been used for a wide range of
purposes across a wide range of disciplines. They have been used to
help identify plants using a dichotomous key and to replace Google+
for building community conversations in a multi-institutional online
course. Small Technology authoring patterns offer the ability to
create structure and guidance while students are in the process of
creating content. This guidance in media res leads to an engaged
acquisition of knowledge and the potential for its immediate
application. The options for tiny tools are endless.

This presentation will expand on this philosophy, point to powerful
examples, promote frameworks for building, and advocate for increased
collaboration on these tools from educators. Now is the time to make
sure these concepts, tools, and their specific applications are being
shared in our community. We have built a website at
https://splot.tools/ to document and share the work being done.
Examples and tools can be submitted by anyone.