Showing the Work of Technology

How many times do you need to sharpen a pencil before you get the perfect point?

In math class, we were taught to show our work. Students are expected to include step-by-step documentation of what they did to solve each problem. But in our English classes, we are taught to hide our work. Students are expected to revise their drafts multiple times to perfect and polish their writing, only to turn in a final version that subsumes all prior work and gives the appearance of refined ideas. The difference between the expectations of math and English classes manifests the process/product dichotomy. What is more important for students to learn, the steps leading to the solution or the polish of revised thinking?

This same dichotomy exists in the technology, phrased in terms of simplicity and complexity. Should a device reveal to the user how it works, or should it present a simple interface and encourage the user to think it works on magic? Apple takes a great deal of pride in the latter approach, working to make its products as simple as possible. Yet that approach makes it difficult to see the work they put into their designs. If technology is truly simple, and the complexities are truly hidden, those responsible for all the work involved in hiding the complexity may not gain recognition for their work. English teachers very rarely see the multiple drafts some students go through before submitting their work for grading.

Where is the balance?

In Remediation: Understanding New Media, J. David Bolter and Richard Grusin explore the changes in thinking and perception that have come with newer digital technologies. Computers (and their related devices), applications, and especially websites each interfaces that must be specifically and intentionally designed. The placement of all buttons and other controls, whether physical or merely displayed on the screen, must be planned and deliberately implemented in digital devices. In the typewriter—an analog device—the A key was attached to a lever with the letter A at the end of it; there was a direct correspondence between the key pressed by the user and the action taken by the device. With digital computers, such correspondences either do not exist or are completely arbitrary. To be sure, when you press the A key on your keyboard, the corresponding letter appears on your screen. But a trifling effort will remap the buttons on your keyboard to produce different output, perhaps for a different keyboard layout or language. The correspondence now is a skeuomorphism: a new technology intentionally designed to be reminiscent of an old technology for familiarity’s sake. Our modern computers have keyboards just like traditional typewriters because that is what everyone is familiar with. The buttons on our keyboards seem to us to do the same thing that manual typewriter keyboards used to do, though the actual inner workings are hardly similar. With digital devices, it is very likely that the only reason we still create text with a QWERTY-style keyboard is that no one has yet developed a better interface for input.

So what do typewriters and computer keyboards have to do with showing our work? Some designers somewhere had to work awfully hard to make sure that the keyboard on your computer is familiar enough to you that you knew how to use it without being trained. Certain technology companies earn reputations for usability—a characteristic of technology related to how natural or intuitive that technology’s interface seems to be. In other words, if the interface designers work really, really hard, success is measured by how little the user has to think about the interface. Truly excellent interface design often means that the interface goes unnoticed. User interface design works very much like your typical English essay: all the hard work must be kept hidden below the surface. Bolter and Grusin use the word “transparency” to describe the situation, which they introduce in terms of Renaissance artists who often attempted to make ceiling paintings continue the architecture of the building, blurring the line between masonry and decoration. “The irony is that it was hard work to make the surface disappear in this fashion, and in fact the artist’s success at effacing his process, and it there by himself, became for trained viewers a mark of his skill and therefore his presence.” We see similar irony today in user experience, where the work of skilled interface designers is something that we see through, often unconsciously, when using things they design. The more successful the interface, the more transparent it becomes.

I have two basic responses to this modern irony: one, in terms of education assessment; the other, in terms of online education systems.


A recurring conversation at the 2012 Digital Humanities Summer Institute I attended recently in Victoria, British Columbia, emphasized the problematic nature of contemporary assessment practices. As web-based student work becomes more “multimodal” (meaning they use multiple methods of delivery, or modalities), teachers need to be ready to assess work that goes beyond the traditional essay format. If a student submits a project that is posted on YouTube, the standards for evaluation that traditionally apply to written work likely do not apply to video. As our students become more familiar with non-text media creation, we as teachers must become more familiar with assessment practices that are appropriate for these new formats. Based on the conversations I had at this year’s DHSI, many teachers who want to include multimodal projects in their classes do not feel qualified to assess them.

Another twist applies more acutely to courses that teach the fundamentals of a particular discipline. Is the point of a basic English course, let us say, to teach students how to create perfect examples of professional or scholarly prose by the end of a single semester? Or rather does such a class aim to teach students the practices of that discipline? If in our basic English courses we hope to teach students the academic habits of mind appropriate for composition, academia, or professional life, the final product is less important than the methods students use to create that product. How, though, can we assess what we cannot see? If a successful essay is one that hides all of its work, how can we be sure that the work being done is the work we want to see? Just as good art and good interface design cause the efforts of the artist/designer to become more transparent, effective writing is supposed to mask the work of the writer. How then can we assess that work?

Online Learning

The interfaces I have had in mind while writing this post have been those of computers, devices, and webpages. But what if we consider the interface of an online course for a moment? In a class that has no physical presence, the only interface that students use to work with one another or their teacher is that of the learning management system (LMS). Contrary to comments above, including those from Bolter and Grusin, the interface of an LMS is the only interface a student can use. If that interface disappears, no other means of interaction are possible. If a successful user interface is one that becomes invisible, what would a successful LMS interface have to be? How would students and teachers interact with one another? What would be left of an online class if the interface were to become truly transparent?

The awkwardness of these questions suggests to me that we have not yet adequately articulated the needs of online education. Numerous studies have found that blended classes, with some content online and some content in person, are the most successful course design available. Perhaps that is simply because they provide the greatest number of interfaces possible. Perhaps in a blended course, teachers are better able to see the work that students do, and students have more opportunity to show that work, then they would in a more limited class that is exclusively in person or exclusively online. I doubt the situation is anywhere near so clear-cut, but the ability to show or hide one’s work may be at the heart of future classroom reform.