Accepting the default configuration

In almost every situation we come across in learning, we accept the default configuration. It’s not because we’re lazy but probably that we’re not even aware that alternative configurations exist. The first time this came to my attention was when I realised in the late 1990s that Windows was not the only computer operating system that existed. Not only were there other options but those options were – IMO – superior in almost every way.

We see the same thing in the default keyboard layout. The QWERTY configuration is not the optimal keyboard layout. It was created to slow typists down because the keys on the typewriters they were typing on jammed. The QWERTY keyboard configuration has been with us ever since. It’s called dominant design, the idea that certain design configurations are common, not because they are the best of competing alternatives, but because of a choice that someone has made.

The problem with dominant design is that almost all innovation is aimed at improving the dominant design rather than exploring competing alternatives. Think about the learning management system. It’s very hard to argue that this is the optimal online learning environment, nor is it a very good content management system. And yet, almost all effort at improving online learning is aimed at making the LMS better. Wouldn’t it be better to invest our time, energy and money into creating something better?

If you’re reading this you probably spend a lot of time writing and you probably use Microsoft Word. You probably use it because it came installed on the computer you’re using and you may not be aware that there are many other options for word processing. You probably type your documents in Calibri because that’s what Microsoft decided to set as the default. This isn’t an inherently bad thing but it has consequences. The fact that you type a document using the default configuration means that your document won’t display accurately on my computer because I don’t run Windows, I don’t have Word, and I don’t have Calibri installed. Is this your fault? Of course not. You just accepted the defaults.

What about classrooms? The configuration of things in space influences the nature of the interactions we can have in those spaces. In the classroom desks and chairs are almost always set up in rows. There is a front and back to the room. The teacher stands in the front. The students sit, facing the teacher. There is a power relationship that is set up by how we configure our bodies in space. Who stands and who sits. Who sits where? Who has to raise their hand to speak? Why have we decided to keep this up? These defaults determine how we teach. Is it because this configuration of physical space represents the optimal learning environment for our students or do we just accept the default?

I’m not saying that all defaults are bad. In cases where you’re not familiar with the field, you should probably accept the default settings. Computer security comes to mind. But, if you’re prepared to dig into the details a bit, then I’m sure you’ll find some settings that you’d rather change. Facebook privacy comes to mind. You don’t have to install open source software on your computers – although that would be a great start – and you don’t have to become an expert on everything you use. But you do need to know that every situation comes with a default configuration that someone else has set, and that you can change the settings.

The next time you are about to start something, ask if there are any changes you can make that will enhance the experience. Ask how much freedom you have to change the things you use. If you have no power to change the defaults then you’re accepting the choices that others have made about how you can teach. Just know that they didn’t make those choices based on what is best for students’ learning.