There’s a lot of talk, time, and money going into education technology these days. New startups appear every day, each hoping to provide a needed disruption through new and innovative products. There are no magic bullets in education. It is a famously complex, perennially underfunded, and politically charged sector. These factors yield serious challenges that everyone in the field must confront.
For the past 4 years, EverFi has faced these and many other obstacles. We’ve learned a lot in the process. We wanted to share some of the guiding principles that have come out of our experiences, our growth and our collaborations. This is by no means an exhaustive manifesto on edtech entrepreneurship and innovation, but it is a pretty good picture of how we approach product design.
Don’t cut pedagogical corners
An architect must have an understanding of the engineering behind the building designs she drafts. Ignoring this critical consideration puts the structure at risk of failing to uphold one of its most fundamental functions: not falling down.
The same goes for edtech products. Their most fundamental purpose is to facilitate learning. If they fail at this, whatever other value they may have is lost. Every edtech product team should include talented, creative, knowledgeable learning designers. If you can’t afford to hire one, at least find a talented consultant.
For a useful guide on questions to ask a potential learning designer, see “The Audrey Test”.
Utilize the student voice
Today’s students expect a place at the table when it comes to creating learning content, and rightly so. Facebook and Twitter have created platforms for them to contribute content, and brands spend millions of dollars developing campaigns that utilize the “customer voice.” Students’ favorite bands ask them to take pictures and videos of their concerts and post them online; professional sports franchises, television and film studios, and fashion companies invite young people into conversations that ultimately contribute to the success or failure of their brands. This is a big part of how these companies personalize their products, services, and brands for their customers, and provides the education world with plenty of interesting and useful examples.
The education community has come to grasp, at least in theory, that learning involves more than simply consuming information and proving understanding through tests and exams. The edtech movement provides an exciting opportunity to bring that theory into reality in a greater way. Students have a lot to offer each other, in terms of shared knowledge, constructive peer feedback, creative inspiration, and more. Relying exclusively on subject matter experts to generate all of the content in a learning platform ignores the value that student users bring to the table. Bringing students into the conversation can help give them a sense of ownership and investment in the learning environment that is hard to accomplish otherwise.
Invested students are engaged students, and engaged students learn more.
Use the best technology
This can be a tough one, because schools tend to be late adopters of emerging technology. For web-based products, the big kicker is often browser compatibility. Many schools are using archaic browsers (IE7 and older, I’m looking at you…) that don’t support most of today’s web technology, and that’s the unfortunate reality of working with cash-strapped and inertia-bound institutions.
That being said, there is a degree to which edtech companies can increase the pressure on schools to upgrade their technology, because their students are missing out on learning tools that simply won’t work on the hardware and software they currently have.
And let’s be honest here. There is very little in this world that is more important than our students’ learning, and students will only benefit from better technology in their schools. This means infrastructure and systems that can keep up, but it also means high-caliber content that leverages that infrastructure in ways that enhance and deepen student learning. We have to push the ball further in this area, and we can do so in part by creating learning tools that are too good for schools to resist.
“Design” is more than making it look slick
Good design fixates single-mindedly on the goal it sets out to reach. In education, this goal is always learning, and is never simply to look good. I’ll be the first to say that it matters greatly how a product looks, and to admit that edtech products seemingly by tradition look pretty awful. But the reason this is a problem is not because slick aesthetics are inherently important; it’s a problem because overly childish, or cluttered, or simply tasteless design distracts students and interferes with learning.
And, as this section title suggests, I’m talking about more than how a product looks. Great thought should go into every aspect of the user experience, and designers should have their proverbial razor blades at the ready to remove or reshape any design element, graphic, typography, color choice, layout, animation, or menu that doesn’t promote student engagement and learning.
Bring your users into the development process
Good UX designers, learning designers, and engineers will do a great deal to help your product in these areas. But the best designer will tell you that an untested design is an uncertain design. The only way you’ll know if your interface is intuitive, your learning activities are both engaging and effective, or if your learning analytics reflect actual student understanding, is to test your design with actual students and teachers, and get their feedback. For an example of how this can work from outside the edtech world, see this article from the folks at Asana.
It’s all too common in the product design world, and particularly in the edtech world, to delay user testing of a new product so long that it’s too late for the results of testing to inform design and development. If possible, bring teachers, and maybe even students, into your earliest brainstorming meetings. Prototype early, collect user feedback often, iterate quickly, and repeat this cycle as many times as possible.