Friday, March 2, 2012

Simplicity is NOT Simple

This is such a cool presentation of favorite quotes about failure. And the blues track that accompanies it is just yummy. A quote in it by Bill Gates really struck me.. “The barrier to change is not too little caring; but too much complexity.” It got me thinking about simplicity.
Those who know me will attest that if you want to get through to me you have to keep things as simple as possible.  Simplicity is such an important concept, but so hard to accomplish.
Paul Romer and Greg Mankiw
at a Cengage Learning Teaching Conference
As I often do, I was looking through various websites and blogs and I noticed an advocacy piece that a publisher was using to promote an online homework program.  It was written by a professor explaining her experience of training a couple of her colleagues on this online product---how to set up the course, how to choose questions, manage the outputs, setup and use the copious menu of features, bells and whistles etc. 
You might say “this must be a great product that someone would be willing to be an evangelist and take the time to train her colleagues” or you might say “shouldn’t a product be designed simply enough that I don’t need to be trained or for that matter, set it up myself?” This kind of product development sort of reminds me of a Mark Twain quote: “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
A number of years ago I had the good fortune of spending time with Paul Romer while he was working with publishers to integrate their text material into his online homework solution called Aplia. Paul told me that there were so many cool things that he could have added to his product, but each would have also added a level of complexity.
Paul told me that his philosophy was to choose only the most important thing; getting more effort from students with no additional effort required of instructors and to do those as simply, elegantly and consistently as possible. The product had to be intuitive, stable and an instructor could either customize it if she wished to get “into the weeds” or have her course set up by an Aplia support person with virtually no effort on her part.
Teaching and learning economics is challenging enough. A tool to do these things should not be challenging to use--- and a line of students outside an econ professors’ door with software issues should never happen. While there are products out there that do so much more than Aplia does there is a reason that almost a billion answers from students have been recorded in Aplia and it is by far the most used online product in Economics.
“Simplify, simplify”—Henry David Thoreau
John Carey

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