By Shane Zilinskas, founder of ClearSummit. Experienced, hands-on engineer building engaging products with his Los Angeles-based firm for businesses everywhere.
Companies and educational institutions have been developing educational technology (edtech) products for decades, but never have they been more important than they are right now. School districts are struggling with how to teach 57 million pre-K to grade 12 students while the pandemic runs its course.
Digital solutions are standing in for personal and physical interactions, with the hope that technology is the answer. While there are a lot of strong products out there, many fall short of being able to adequately bridge the gap. These shortcomings have real consequences for the students and teachers who need reliable ways to continue to learn and educate.
Some of the weaker products are flawed in implementation (bugs), while others are flawed in design. Still others are flawed in concept — products so ill conceived (paywall) it’s a wonder they were built at all.
If you’re part of a team or organization building an edtech product, you need to make sure you’re designing a product that will bring value to educators and students alike — not just a bright, shiny object that’s meant to collect investor money.
I recommend following these crucial steps when designing effective edtech products:
1. Define your product’s purpose.
Edtech products with vague objectives like “help students learn” or “make remote teaching easier” have a higher chance of missing the mark because they struggle to tell educators what makes them different or valuable.
Instead, be as specific as possible when defining the product’s purpose. In 2015, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation surveyed 3,100 educators for feedback on the digital instruction tools they used. It found that the most useful edtech products fulfilled these key learning objectives:
Deliver instruction: The tool helps with the effective delivery of lesson plans and course content. Specifically, the tool aligns with target lesson plans and Common Core State Standards and grants teachers a high degree of control.
Diagnose student learning: The product evaluates the progress of class learning and highlights gaps, allowing teachers to adjust lessons accordingly.
Include varied delivery methods: Products with this purpose leverage multimodal instruction to increase engagement and make it easier for students to understand lessons.
Tailor the learning experience: The product adapts lessons to the needs of individual students and involves some form of adjusting the pace, content or style of teaching to suit a student’s needs.
Support student collaboration and interactivity: Student-driven software products can empower students to take charge of their own learning and promote interactivity. These products also encourage collaboration with other students.
Foster independent practice: Tools that provide an additional mode of learning beyond the normal teacher-driven activities allow students independence and increased ownership of their own performance.
An edtech product can serve multiple purposes, as long as those purposes are clearly defined.
2. Prioritize usability and accessibility.
User experience (UX) is important in any software application, but it’s even more important in edtech. For example, a tool may be used by teachers in a live environment in front of dozens of students. This is a high-stress and high-visibility situation, so any struggles with your user interface (UI) or functions will disrupt the class and hamper learning.
Your edtech product has to be easy to learn and use. Your own experience and skill at navigating software products won’t automatically translate to your users. Invest in a proper UI/UX design team, and make sure you have a good understanding of user stories. Don’t assume that users will find your app intuitive just because you do.
Accessibility for impaired users is also important. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires electronic and information technology products to be accessible to people with disabilities such as visual impairment or limited motor function. Find more information about ADA requirements here.
3. Expand compatibility.
Most startups make decisions to target early adopters and therefore build for newer devices or one type of device for their initial launch. In an ideal world, all your users would have access to high-speed internet and the latest models necessary to run your product.
In reality, many school districts are underfunded and have a mishmash of old and new devices, with no or limited IT resources to provide support. Some school districts rely on bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies, which widen the ecosystem of devices further. Your product will have to work on all of them.
If your app requires an internet connection, optimize its bandwidth consumption. It may be helpful to include the ability to manually sync data so the app doesn’t fail or time out on weak connections.
4. Obtain student and teacher input.
It’s crucial to get input from the people who will actually use your product. Too many development teams see things at surface level. They tick off the boxes of features that similar apps contain and think that will be enough. User input is required at all stages of the project at both the UX and the concept levels.
UX-level feedback is straightforward enough. Can students use the software? Can teachers figure it out on their own? Do they need additional support resources to learn how to use it? Usability testing sessions should be included in the design phase, as well as closer to launch.
Concept-level feedback is tougher. Is your edtech product providing value? Has the learning/teaching experience been improved? The nicest UX in the world won’t matter if the product you made doesn’t students learn.
Your dev and design teams might be great, but they’re not educators. They don’t know the soft skills, education principles and techniques that educators use, so their view of the tool’s value is limited. Bring teachers into the process early to validate your idea and test it on real students.
Bringing It All Together
Technology that effectively and thoughtfully improves learning is worth the investment. If you pursue such a project, follow the steps above to increase your chances of developing a successful product.