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Return-Tech: The New Normal for EdTech

Lisanne Binhammer

Lisanne Binhammer

Senior Product Designer

education workers using zoom to teach classes

COVID-19 is a health crisis first, with a ripple-like impact that has changed multiple industries beyond recognition. And there’s no clearer example than the disruption caused by shutting down schools across the world. 

From early childhood to late teenage years, the closure of schools has forced parents into (disruptive) at-home learning, and online (and untested) teaching efforts by school boards everywhere. Learning has become an issue of access—to technology and wifi—and assessments and qualifications have been paused or replaced by alternatives online. These challenges are likely to result in long-term consequences for students’ abilities to be qualified for future education or work.

map of school closures around the world showing very minimal schools staying open
From Microsoft and New Pedagogies for Deep Learning’s ‘Education Reimagined’

With mass disruption underway, we need to start examining the current state of education technology in order to better prepare students, teachers, and parents alike for future waves of the pandemic. While Research and Markets forecast that the e-learning industry will be worth $325 billion by 2025, education technology or EdTech exists as a fragmented, burdensome, and overpopulated landscape that requires unpacking to sensemake.

“We’re not only going to have to construct a backup to get through this crisis, but we’re going to have to develop new, permanent systems, redesigned to meet the needs which have been so glaringly exposed in this crisis.”
– Paul Reville, Former Secretary of Education for Massachusetts

The pandemic has shed light on issues surrounding the blended learning approach (which combines online materials and interactions with place-based classroom methods). If we’re to succeed moving forward, then EdTech needs to radically improve. In order to comprehend the past and present state of the EdTech industry, we spoke to parents and teachers alike to map out some of their pains, gains, and needs of offline and online learning for primary school children. 

In order to truly understand the experience parents and teachers are having, user perspectives are key in aligning our current and future EdTech systems with people’s lived realities. Naturally, user perspectives are not exhaustive, but pointed, in that they highlight the crucial points that EdTech needs to cover in order to realize it’s new normal.

1. Embrace the flipped learning experience

According to Lesley University, flipped learning “hinges on the idea that students learn more effectively by using class time for small group activities and individual attention. Teachers then assign students lecture materials and presentations to be viewed at home or outside of the classroom day, prioritizing active learning.” During our research we discovered that during the pandemic, teachers have started to rely on flipped learning. They are doing this through a ‘hack’ of sorts: teachers are pre-recording themselves giving lectures which are then watched in a classroom setting over a Zoom call. This gives teachers the opportunity to provide one-on-one assistance while the lecture takes place. 

This teacher hack highlights a real need to literally flip the one:to:many ratio that dominates the education system today to a more hands-on and tailored approach. This type of active learning means that students are no longer passively listening, and are becoming engaged learners in their own educational experiences. Products like Snapask are great examples of one-to-one learning with algorithmically matched tutors for students.

2. Embrace progressive personalization or adaptive learning to its fullest potential

workers using zoom in a group call

The flipped learning experience starts to introduce a different way of thinking about education: completely personalized. Montessori methods of learning have hinged on this idea for some time, but with technology (and machine learning) in the mix, we can start to unpack what a student-driven approach to learning would really look like. Not unlike health trackers, the ability to track how someone is learning, what they are interested in, the speed in which they write, read, etc. is extremely telling as to what a student might need to do in order to get their learning ‘on the right track’.

Paying attention not only to age as the defacto measurement of where a learner should be is one way of helping students make the most out of their education. The need for this is ever more apparent in the pandemic, where while we have the opportunity for personalization, students are mass-sent assignments via disparate channels. On the flip side, a product like Prodigy, the math learning platform, is a step towards personalization with it’s self-paced approach for learners and a progress dashboard. We need this type of personalization and interoperability between different learning platforms moving forward. 

3. Consider a kinesthetic and multimodal approach

Each learner is unique; the different learning styles tell us so much. Unfortunately, EdTech often reaches auditory or visual learners alone, leaving the kinesthetic learners out in the cold. In our research, we found a clear gap in physical learning when it comes to EdTech. Parents are insistent that there is a need to do something with one’s hands—solve math equations via paper and pen, learn handwriting the good old fashioned way, and conduct science experiments, or be in labs where students can palpably feel what they are learning. 

EdTech needs to bridge the digital with the physical world in order to inspire different modalities of learning. One way this can be achieved is by referencing maker culture, wherein students can create and tinker with their hands in a real-world environment. The subscription product Kiwi for children is a great example of this, and if offered a digital counterpart, then multimodal learning would be realized.

4. Create products that enable learner (and scheduling) independence

The simple fact is: EdTech requires too much oversight at the hands of caregivers (for younger learners especially). From unclear onboarding to dexterity issues, to password management and a lack of time-based structure, students get bogged down and lost in administrative issues—as opposed to actually learning. On the flip side, we also learned in our research that students are learning new forms of independence during the pandemic, such as teaching themselves new tools. 

EdTech needs to elevate learner independence to alleviate burdens on caregivers, but also to reinforce self-reliance for students themselves. This means products that are easy to learn, easy to return to, and ones that have just enough guidance to prevent students from rabbit holing down a particular topic or assignment. Google Classroom is a tool that helps students be more independent (the platform is straightforward and intuitive), as well as teachers—we found that teachers are ‘hacking’ Google Classroom to create quizzes and assignments within the Google slides feature.

5. Let social connections flourish

It goes without saying that our social experiences are falling short in light of the current pandemic. Unfortunately, this has a particularly negative impact on younger learners, who need social exposure just as much as educational experiences. While many of us are reliant on video conferencing to stay socially close, for young students a Zoom call is a poor substitution for a social experience. 

During our research, parents reported that even outgoing children are withdrawn, and shy over Zoom. We heard that students struggle to use the Zoom interface, and there was plenty of confusion around when to participate during a Zoom class. While products like Class Dojo and even #quarantineparents social media groups are ways that teachers and parents can communicate with one another in order to share feedback, progress, and resources during this time, EdTech products that are educational and truly social for students are few and far between. Only up and comers like Zigazoo seem to be truly helping. Integrating a social network into EdTech products will be a key differentiator, and an unforgettable aspect of these technologies moving forward.

To sum it all up: the time for EdTech to reinvent itself (or at the very least, improve itself) is now. With more and more learners entering into this global market daily, EdTech companies need to consider flipped learning and personalization, multimodal learning experiences, independence and social ways of expressing their products. No one can say for certain when or even if we will return to the way things used to be. We need to start imagining experiences that are blended in their approach and uniquely different from what we were doing before if we are to pave the way towards a brighter (and smarter) future.

Lisanne Binhammer

Lisanne Binhammer

Senior Product Designer

Lisanne Binhammer is a Senior Product Designer at Connected with a passion for ethical and inclusive design. Most recently, she has worked on a discovery-based project for a client in the civic technology space. Outside of her day-to-day, Lisanne is the Director of Product Design Education at Bridge, a non-for-profit that levels up skills for marginalized groups in the tech sector.

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