Avoiding Feature Creep, Part 1

This post is inspired by the disappearance of some of the last chalkboards on my campus because of a building renovation. I regard the chalkboard as one of the best teaching tools ever invented. They are absurdly easy to use. They have no moving parts and no need for electricity, so they always work. They are relatively inexpensive and never need upgrading.

The new classrooms that are being constructed will invariably get a combination of whiteboards and multimedia equipment. I find the former to be a pain to erase, and with whiteboards I produce noticeably worse penmanship and diagrams than I do with chalkboards. The latter allows for the presentation of information in a variety of ways — video clips, Powerpoint slides, the display of documents being edited in real time  — but only when all the complex pieces are working properly. The fact that we are able to continue teaching and teach well when this equipment fails demonstrates that the computer, the projector, the speakers, and everything else are actually not essential to doing our jobs.

Generally I want a tool that does one thing or a very small combination of things well, like a pen that makes writing on a piece of paper feel good or a chair that doesn’t make my back sore when I sit in it. Or a cell phone that functions as . . . a phone. Whether I’m in the classroom or online, the tool should make me more effective at teaching because it simplifies the process of learning for students.

Unfortunately many of the people who design tools ignore the fact that the utility of any tool usually decreases in proportion to the tool’s number of features and the manner by which those features are accessed. For example, compare the screens of these two online learning management systems:

Blackboard — Chernobyl control room?

Canvas — I can fly this.

Canvas Screenshot

Or, if selecting a simulation for the classroom, the difference between the Survive or Die game:

Deck of Cards

and Statecraft:


I’ll talk about why avoiding feature creep is important for overall course design in a future post.