ARTICLE: Trevor Minton

2020 was a whirlwind for the EdTech industry. Our team shares what to expect in 2021.

2020 was most clearly defined by one thing: COVID-19. That was true for the world at large, and it was also decidedly true for the smaller world of EdTech. The pandemic forced a handful of industries into the spotlight. Chief among them? Health, finance — and education. As schools everywhere rushed to assemble remote learning protocols, EdTech products and other tech companies (hello Zoom!) stepped up in a major way to fill the gaps that were exposed. 

But that doesn’t mean it was seamless. Far from it. Last year’s remote-learning experiment wouldn’t even have been possible 20 years ago. But even in 2020, it seems we only made it happen by the skin of our teeth. 

In the end, though, we in the EdTech industry have a lot to be proud of. Despite the cataclysmic stress test, the digital tools we collectively produce helped (and are helping) everyone in education get through this once-in-a-generation challenge.

So, what’s next for EdTech? Is COVID-19 ultimately just a massive blip on the radar? Or is education forever changed? If so, how? And what does that mean for the future of EdTech companies like yours? 

The EdTech industry finds itself in a moment not unlike that of coastal cities in the wake of a major hurricane. After the wind and waters recede comes a moment of reckoning. It’s time to ask “what parts of our infrastructure need to be bolstered before the next ‘big one’ hits?” This question should be top of mind for all EdTech product leaders in 2021.

Brian Keenan, Openfield Co-founder

As a new year dawns (and a new vaccine enters the market), EdTech leaders must embrace visionary thinking. Because one thing is certain: No one really knows what “normal” looks like anymore.

In that spirit, we asked our entire team to reflect on how the pandemic has changed EdTech and the work we do to support it. Based on those changes, we asked them to forecast the biggest challenges and opportunities that might be on the horizon for EdTech companies in 2021. This is what they had to say. 

Product Roadmaps Were Blown to Pieces in 2020. Innovation Is the Way Forward. 

Go back and take a peek at your product roadmap circa January 2020. We’re willing to bet it looks completely different today — and that’s a good thing. Managing your product roadmap over the past year may have felt like steering a ship in a wild storm with limited visibility. But the tumult and disruption you and others in the industry weathered ultimately gave way to a new wave of innovation. 

Theres nothing like an existential challenge to drive innovation. While all the uncertainty instinctively caused some contraction at first, thats not necessarily a bad thing. The short-term need for prudence has afforded our EdTech clients the opportunity to refocus and distill both short-term and long-term objectives and priorities.

Chris Albert, Design Director

COVID-19 demanded that nearly all EdTech companies take careful stock of where they stand in terms of business objectives, strategic roadmaps, and their associated budgets. Many of you adapted quickly by taking decisive, focused action, often while keeping your eyes on the long view. 

As you move into the new year, hold your current product roadmap with a flexible grip. Be prepared to pivot quickly as the situation continues to evolve. And whatever you do, keep your eyes on the horizon so you can proactively pursue the next wave of EdTech innovation as it starts to crest. 



EdTech Product Teams Will Be Challenged to Increase Flexibility Without Sacrificing Usability

Before the pandemic, most EdTech products played a supplemental role in the classroom. Which means most of them were never designed specifically to facilitate remote learning. But the events of the past year made it abundantly clear that digital doesn’t equal remote. 

Coming out of the pandemic, both the challenge and the opportunity for EdTech is to use what we’ve learned to enable more positive outcomes to users regardless of their ability, access to technology, socioeconomic status, culture, or language. The challenge for product teams will be to address all those considerations while keeping their products easy to use. Companies that focus on their specific user bases needs – both articulated and unarticulated – will be in a better competitive position coming out of the COVID chaos.

Trevor Minton, Chief Experience Officer

Moving forward, EdTech product teams will need to consider a much broader range of use cases than they did before. That’s likely to be true even after the pandemic fades away.

Consider this: By the time most students, teachers, and administrators are vaccinated, they will have had a year or more of remote and hybrid educational experiences under their belts. We don’t yet know how those experiences will shape users’ collective expectations for in-person, remote, hybrid, or asynchronous learning models in the post-pandemic future. It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which a growing number of graduating high school students choose to enroll in online-only colleges like the University of Phoenix. If that happens, expect to see traditional universities rush to compete to prevent sagging enrollment. 

Going forward, the responsible thing may be to design EdTech products as if they may have to work remotely for long periods of time again in the future. Before the pandemic, the industry as a whole really didn’t imagine that need would arise. Instructors and students may have been working on a mix of in-person and online assignments, but we saw that extended periods of remote learning and teaching pushed the tools to their limits.

Jacob Hansen, UX Designer

One thing is certain: EdTech companies that find ways to facilitate a broad range of learning environments will emerge as leaders within the category. 

More flexibility means more complexity

More flexibility within your product will almost certainly mean more complexity in terms of content, features, and user workflows. This means your biggest challenge will likely be to manage that complexity as you build out your product to accommodate more use cases. 

From a usability standpoint, that puts your product between a rock and a hard place. In UX, simplification is often the key to improving usability. But in 2021, you may be challenged to add a great deal of complexity — without adding to your users’ cognitive loads. 


You Don’t Know Jack (or Any of Your EdTech Users Anymore)

Everyone’s lives changed dramatically in 2020. That includes you — and it also includes your products’ users. You know, the ones you took the time to learn so much about. It doesn’t matter how much research you’ve conducted in the past. Now is the time to question everything you think you know about your users.

There are some really great ideas and changes happening at all levels of education. But the best solutions will be the ones that emerge from the users, not forced via admins and technologists.

Brian Keenan, Co-founder

Over the past year, nearly everything about the way your users deliver and receive learning experiences shifted. Instructors scrambled to adopt tools and create updated lesson plans for new learning models, including remote, asynchronous, and hybrid approaches. And in most cases, they did so while working from home and (often) taking care of their own kids at the same time. 

Students, for their part, lost the in-person classroom context that had defined most (if not all) of their previous educational experiences. Rather than classrooms, playgrounds, auditoriums, and lab facilities, students made do with bedrooms and kitchen tables.

The pandemic has caused us to think differently about our users in terms of their time, stress levels and distractions. This is an inadvertent improvement, especially for how our clients think about their users and allowing for more leeway in expectations of users’ tolerance for complexity. Avoiding user stress has become a bigger goal than it was in the past.

Trevor Minton, Chief Experience Officer

The upshot? In 2021, you must be prepared to double down on UX research. Leave your assumptions and educated guesses at the door. It’s time to reacquaint yourself with your users — and possibly meet some new ones, too (we see you, homeschooling-by-default parents!). You may find that their needs, challenges, preferences, and desires look totally different than they did before the pandemic. 

This year we identified another key user group in the K-12 space: the parent. Parents were always considered to some degree, but this year has compounded the need to consider parents in EdTech product design. Tech is no longer supplemental to their children’s learning, but the key facilitator of the experience. Parents are navigating these tools as they are forced to play the role of instructor, parent, and tech support for their children. As we move into 2021, we should interview not only students but also parents and grandparents when looking for user feedback.

Annie Hensley, UX Lead


User Stress Is at an All-Time High

In 2020, the collective stress level of EdTech users rose exponentially as students, instructors, parents, and administrators alike grappled with COVID-19 in real time. Day by day, week by week.

Stress-reduction has always been an important goal in the EdTech space. After all, students often use these products at especially stressful moments, such as during a timed exam. But moving into 2021, your ability to reduce your users’ stress is more critical than ever before. 

Onboarding represents the lowest-hanging fruit with the highest potential to reduce your users’ stress. After all, a subpar onboarding process increases stress for students and teachers alike. (It’s especially hard on instructors, who often act as de facto tech support for their classes.) 

Chances are the pandemic — and the waves of new users it brought — shined a bright light on your own onboarding weaknesses. Prioritize those fixes in 2021 to make it easy for new users to fall in love with your product. 

In addition, be on the lookout for more targeted opportunities to reduce stress for each of your core user groups. For example, can you take some of the weight off of instructors to help students troubleshoot problems? Can you give administrators access to new data-driven insights to help them adapt more quickly to emerging needs? 


Personalization Is on the Rise  

The EdTech industry was already in the process of developing more flexible, personalized learning experiences. But the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated that trend by putting more pressure on EdTech products (and other technologies) to provide individualized solutions to students’ increasingly diverse needs. For example, with less instructor oversight, adaptive learning technologies were even more valuable than before. 

Personalized learning will define EdTech in 2021 and beyond. EdTech products will introduce more accurate tracking of the individual students’ learning journey — and more sophisticated data analysis of the progress they are making.

Yanni Xiang, UX Designer

Moving forward, personalization will continue to be at a premium. Look for opportunities to serve up individualized processes, insights, and tools. Brand loyalty is sure to follow. 

Adaptive learning and self-paced tools will be a big trend in the future (especially if they can help students manage time better).

Sarah Freitag, UX Research Lead

Declining Student Engagement Is a Growing Problem. EdTech Should Offer Solutions. 

The question of student engagement is not new, nor is it unique to a digital classroom. We’ve known for a long time that higher levels of student engagement enhance learning outcomes. What we need to think about now is how we might make some of the tried-and-true engagement models — like a flipped classroom or active learning — flexible enough to accommodate varying learning environments, both synchronous and asynchronous, as well as distanced, in-person, and hybrid.

Lauren DeMarks, UX Designer

Student engagement is clearly linked to better learning outcomes. Conversely, boredom is clearly linked with cheating. So it makes sense that student engagement was a top-of-mind concern for educators (and parents) in 2020. Many students were accustomed to in-person learning environments and active learning methods. After COVID-19 struck, they were stuck watching videos and answering online assessments. This lackluster learning experience was sometimes exacerbated by other pandemic-related hardships, such as financial insecurity and mental health issues.  

In the midst of the pandemic, students are facing serious mental health problems and need extra motivation to show up to class. More peer collaboration could have the potential to alleviate this. Students might be more motivated to complete an assignment if they know a handful of people in their class are working on it.

Julee Peterson, Accessibility Lead & Senior UX Designer

Suffice it to say, student engagement often took a hit. Moreover, the privacy afforded by remote learning (combined with the ease of sharing digital content) meant students often had an easier time “gaming the system” — and getting away with it. 

Instructors are trying to find new ways to combat cheating in remote learning environments. To complicate matters more, students are suing institutions over privacy concerns because of the use of anti-cheating tools, like proctoring solutions.

Julee Peterson, Accessibility Lead & Senior UX Designer

Teachers also struggled to monitor and spark engagement. In the transition to remote learning, they lost the ability to simply “read the room.” They had to learn how to gauge and increase student engagement from a distance without all the in-person cues they’d previously relied on. With fewer “red flags” for teachers to see, more students risked falling through the cracks.

This has been an incredibly hard period for everyone involved in education. But it represents an exciting opportunity for those of us who work in EdTech. New products have been introduced as people saw created new software to address gaps. For companies that already had established products, the influx of users during the pandemic represented a totally new base of users for testing and improvements. We expect to continue to see a lot more innovation throughout 2021.

Crissie Raines, Project Manager

In the end, student engagement isn’t just a learning issue. It’s also a retention issue — one that institutions of higher ed will be monitoring closely. 

Of course, EdTech products aren’t solely responsible for student engagement. Teaching styles, course materials, class dynamics, and other factors also play a role. But as more and more educational experiences are mediated by technology, the onus is increasingly on EdTech to boost student engagement. Tools that promote communication, feedback, and collaboration will be primed to fill this gap.

Students need help streamlining, managing time, understanding instructions, and combating boredom. All of these are major gaps in many EdTech companies’ product roadmaps.

Sarah Freitag, UX Research Lead



More Investment, More Users, More Data — More Problems 

The pandemic brought EdTech to center stage in 2020. We expect investment in the sector to continue to increase this year. With that will come more users who collectively generate an explosion of data. 

More data is a good thing — as long as you can make sense of it. EdTech needs to up its game when it comes to helping educators, administrators, parents, and students to make sense of (and make decisions with) their data. The ability to spot trends in performance in near-real-time is key. 

We’ve been saying for a while that EdTech needs to do a better job of equipping users with actionable data. The pandemic amplified that need. It was hard enough for higher-ed and high schoolers, but the performance of our youngest students really suffered. Children thrive on consistency and schedules, they need more attention than is available when they are learning remotely. Teachers, administrators, and parents could have used more timely data to help them intervene more quickly. When we’re beyond the pandemic, that need will persist.

Trevor Minton, Chief Experience Officer

Your product team needs to take the impending data bubble seriously. They should begin planning and implementing changes to their products that will help their buyers and users glean insights from their data. Ignore it at your peril; rest assured that new competition who can deliver on this growing need is waiting in the wings. 

Better data visualization is certainly key, but it’s not enough on its own. New technologies like machine learning will play much larger roles in EdTech’s future.

Kyle Bentle, UX Designer


EdTech is in a State of Disruption — and New Competition is Coming 

This pandemic has shown that EdTech wasnt ready for the influx of users when schools went fully online.

Autumn Gilbert, UX Researcher

COVID-19 has served a frightening warning shot for the education sector. As with the healthcare industry, if institutions and EdTech companies dont challenge themselves to adapt, the disruption will come from outside — whether it’s welcome or not.

Chris Albert, Design Director

As educators around the world scrambled to transform educational models for remote learning, one thing became clear: EdTech wasn’t ready to serve all of their needs. If you take a look at the top tools educators and students used, many of them — such as video conferencing software platforms and Google’s suite of office products — weren’t even technically EdTech tools. 

COVID-19 brought a lot of new attention to the EdTech space. That, coupled with EdTech’s inability to deliver a soup-to-nuts remote learning experience, means the market is now ripe for disruption.

Gone are the days when EdTech companies could make products that are seen as a good experience just inside our market. Instructors are evaluating their technology more critically than ever, and they will look outside of traditional tools if they better meet their needs. It is an exciting time. I do believe that these new players will lead to healthy competition and innovation.

Annie Hensley, UX Lead

We’ve already started to see a lot of “non-EdTech” tools being used for EdTech purposes. Moving forward, that trend will likely continue. This means EdTech products will not only need to compete with established competitors, but also with a wave of small startups and huge tech companies like Google (which is already expanding into the EdTech space with Google Classroom). 

Many of us may be tempted to return to what’s familiar and comfortable after the pandemic subsides. That may work well in our personal lives. But it won’t fly in the EdTech space in 2021. EdTech companies must embrace the opportunity to disrupt their own operations and product experiences to support their users’ rapidly changing situations. 

Especially when it comes to content-agnostic tools, it will be critical to show the value of a tool designed specifically for learning and how it stands up against other products.

Allie Lozinak, UX Designer


Don’t Let Accessibility Get Lost in the Shuffle 

It would be foolish to write about the emerging EdTech trends for 2021 without stressing the importance of accessibility and inclusive design. Accessibility isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a trend. It’s a core pillar of usability in any industry, but especially in education. If education is a basic human right, then inaccessible EdTech products undermine that right. 

The sad truth is that the pandemic has taken a toll on the industry’s accessibility efforts, as we recently explained in this white paper: “According to Inside Higher Ed, a leading online source for higher education news, the needs of students with disabilities have often been overlooked during the scramble to adapt to remote learning. We expect that to translate to even higher numbers of federal complaints triggering more organizations to work on correcting this gap.” 



A Few Parting Thoughts  

2020 (and the COVID-19 pandemic that defined it) packed a walloping punch for the EdTech industry. But all that disruption didn’t cause EdTech to buckle. Instead, it changed it for the better. As much as we dislike the phrase “new normal,” this is it. Students of all ages have accepted online learning as their current reality and — whether they want to or not — EdTech products will need to adapt. 

This means products will need to become more comprehensive, more accessible, more widely available, more streamlined, more cost-effective, and more efficient. That’s a lot of “mores” that add up to a pretty daunting challenge. 

So, what will we do about it? The EdTech industry has a choice. It can either rise to the challenge or go back to the way things were and hope for the best. Unless we commit to the former, today’s “innovations” will amount to little more than Band-Aids — Band-Aids that won’t offer the necessary solutions when the next big challenge presents itself.

Futurist thinking says that EdTech does continue to change. But, we know education is often slow to evolve. The real question is, do we have a choice?

Brian Keenan, Co-founder 

So let’s choose to keep pushing. Let’s choose to innovate. We have faith in the industry’s ability — in your ability — to step up to the challenge.

  • Photo of Trevor Minton
    Trevor Minton

    As CXO at Openfield, Trevor collaborates closely with our clients and ensures that our team delivers world-class design thinking and execution that results in strong emotional connections between users and digital products. He is passionately enthusiastic about music, local and international soccer, automotive design and racing, and getting under the hood of his old but new-to-him BMW to keep it on the road for another couple of decades.

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