Lessons From the Past: Less is More

Monochromatic Chinese calligraphy painting showing the style of painting described in the article.
Published: Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Five lessons Chinese calligraphy painters can teach us about how to use educational technology to get more from less.

I’ve always enjoyed Song Dynasty (960-1279CE) monochromatic calligraphy paintings by Muqi Fachang, Qu Ding, Guo Xi, and the like. Their simple, yet elegant works are the embodiment of the phrase “less is more.” A simple household brush that was used to compose letters, and a single color, black, are all they needed to bring breath-taking scenery to life. This was done by using a culmination of simple strokes--the same strokes used to construct Chinese characters, which were strokes the artist would have already known. Furthermore, these artists were known to have experience with or tenure in Chan (Zen) Buddhism, which meant they placed a high value on emptiness. To them what was not there was just as important, if not more important, that what was there. Black ink on a page only sustains meaning when surrounded and filled with nothingness.

Now I’ll digress from my romanticization of calligraphy paintings and begin relating this to digital education. I believe there are several lessons to be learned from these Song Dynasty painters that can improve the way we approach teaching with technology.

First, one tool can be enough. The innovation and quality of our teaching is not determined by the number of technologies we use to teach. Far more important is not only how they are used, but how they are introduced to our students. Using one tool with virtuosity can be far more effective than using several less than masterfully.

Second, what is not there is just as important as what is there. The sheer number of technological tools students are required to access for learning at our university can be overwhelming. If you require a special course technology, and another professor another technology, and another professor requires two...students can end up falling behind on their regular course work just trying to learn the tools they need to learn for a single semester. Especially now, please take special consideration of what each tool you require for students will cost them in added time, effort, and stress.

Third, each tool has multiple uses. The way you use D2L can vary significantly from the way your colleague in the same department uses it, let alone another instructor in another college. The same is true of VoiceThread, PlayPosit, Panopto, Google Jamboard, Zoom, etc. Be explicitly clear on how you wish your students to use the educational technology required of them. Provide several specific examples and demonstrations of how you want them to use your chosen technology to learn.

Fourth, use what is already known. These artists used the same strokes to paint as they did to write. You too can use the same tool in multiple ways. It is much easier for you and your students to learn to use the same technology in a different way, than it is to learn an entirely new technology. Schedule an Innovation Session with us! We would love to talk to you about how you can use a technology you already know in a different way to accomplish your teaching goals.

Finally, strokes are individual, but they work in concert. While we as educators can often be siloed in fields, schools, colleges, and departments, the tools we use to educate our students are not. Consider how the technologies you use in your courses will fit with your students’ whole education. What new skills can you provide students using a tool they may already know? How can your department or college build consistency across courses with how and when technology is used to educate students? How can you do more for your students with less?

Guest Author(s):
Adam Baldry
Former Instructional Technologist, Digital Learning