ARTICLE: Annie Hensley

To build a truly customizable EdTech product, look to continuing education.

The most successful EdTech products stay close to the evolving needs and preferences of users. The disruption in education caused by COVID-19 over the last couple of years — and therefore in EdTech — have made that aim challenging indeed. 

Of course, it’s not just education that’s been rattled; the job market has been, too. Many employers are having a hard time finding and keeping workers. Both students and workers are asking how they can learn and grow more efficiently and effectively, and yesterday’s solutions just won’t do. In short, people are more focused on their personal goals and less willing to spend time on unrelated tasks with low or no payoff. 

The EdTech industry, then, must find better ways to support and facilitate learners’ personal goals.

Product leaders don’t have to look far for inspiration; Continuing education has always prioritized personal skill acquisition, which meets many people’s desires to “level up” in a customized way. EdTech needs to pay close attention to — and borrow — what’s working so well in the continuing ed space to serve tomorrow’s users.

Traditional Educational Models Can Limit Learners

In the past, EdTech products generally supported traditional learning models. One of the most problematic components of traditional models is their lack of ability to anticipate and meet diverse needs. 

For example, one law student may be studying for the bar exam full time. Another law student may be a “weekend warrior,” one who has to get it all done on days off from a separate full-time job. Your product may be built to assist the former, but not the latter — which means the weekend warrior may be treated as perpetually behind schedule. 

The pandemic (and its aftermath) made it clear that, while traditional models and settings likely won’t ever disappear, they will be one of many options for learning. Students needed flexible options during the global pandemic. It was understood, for example, that a law student would be studying for the bar in new, less-than-ideal circumstances. And the EdTech industry rose to the occasion. 

And now, learners — personal, professional, hobbyist, and traditional — want these options maintained, improved, and expanded. The status quo of yesterday is simply too confining. They’ve tasted choice and don’t want to go back to one-size-fits-all schedules, requirements, and objectives as they learn new information and skills. 

Continuing Education Defined 

As more learners of all kinds become interested in reskilling (learning new skill sets), upskilling (elevating current skill sets), CE can teach EdTech about meeting user needs in more flexible, adaptive, and empowering ways.

Continuing education (CE) is an all-encompassing term that describes learning activities for personal skill acquisition, not necessarily a college degree. On-the-job training, professional certifications, CEU (continuing education unit) courses, and ESL (English as a second language) courses are a few examples. CE typically focuses on non-traditional students in decidedly non-traditional ways. 

Besides its wide range of offerings, one of CE’s greatest strengths is its ability to be adaptive and agile; over time, CE has successfully embraced change, navigated uncertainty, and inspired growth in both individuals and institutions. 

Continuing Education Allows Learners to Customize Their Experience

EdTech is well-positioned to deliver skills-based, customizable education as it, too, has gotten more agile. CE offers 3 distinct advantages that can — and should — inspire EdTech user experience.

1. Self-Paced Learning

Self-paced learning allows individuals to work at a speed and in a way that is right for them. While the course may have to be completed by a deadline, assignments may not have deadlines at all. Students can:

  • Spend more time on areas that interest them and less time on areas that don’t. They can also choose to devote more time to areas in which they need more practice.
  • Take ownership of their own learning. Deciding what, when, and how to study builds confidence and autonomy.
  • Take control of their learning through their dashboards and different modalities (videos, webinars, books, and the like). Students can choose the most personally engaging tools that provide the most insight for them.

In theory, self-paced learning gives students the opportunity to meet their goals in the most expeditious way possible.

2. Clearly Articulated Goals

Traditional courses spell out learning objectives, usually in great detail. Unfortunately, the language is not always clear to students. This can be further complicated by the fact that students often are required to take classes they have neither interest in nor use for. 

CE courses illustrate their relevance from the get-go. Students know what practical applications the course will have to them now or in the future. They don’t have to guess about their progress toward the goal, what goal-related strengths they already have, and what areas need more development. 

3. Immersive Learning 

CE courses tend to be immersive, so they’re focusing on one thing at a time. There’s no fluff — the content is all geared to support a particular goal the student has decided to own. Rather than being knowledge-centered, CE is skill-centered — and learner-centered. 

Learners may be building skills to advance in their careers, prepare for a new career, or follow their curiosity. Whatever the case may be, learners can do a deep dive into a specific area worthwhile to them. 

CE learners are protecting and managing their time carefully; lessons have to be efficient, meaningful, and focused.

EdTech Can Meet Evolving Educational Needs With CE-Inspired Customization

Rigid products that can’t adapt to support user goals never have longevity. Post-pandemic, users have an even lower tolerance for products that don’t demonstrate their value

EdTech should aim to build products that provide ways for users to:

  • Work at a pace that’s best for them. How might your product simultaneously allow the tortoise and the hare to make progress they can measure?
  • Engage with content they deem relevant to their goals. How can your product better articulate the practical implications of courses, activities, and assessments?
  • Dig deeper into topics highly relevant to them — and skip what might be irrelevant and unnecessary. How can your product make sorting and choosing activities easier?

While these may seem like lofty goals for an EdTech product, users are asking the industry to take them seriously. Now is the time for EdTech product leaders to evaluate whether their product is customizable, and therefore valuable, in the very near future.

  • Photo of Annie Hensley
    Annie Hensley

    As Director of UX Design, Annie is responsible for ensuring our team continues to deliver superior client and user experiences that result in tangible business outcomes. That includes fostering collaboration and crossover between our design and research teams, mentorship and career guidance, stewardship of Openfield’s culture and values, as well as, contributing to strategic decisions that ensure our company continues to evolve to meet the changing needs of EdTech clients and users. Annie is a lifelong runner whose recent Indianapolis and Chicago Marathon times qualified her to compete in the Boston Marathon in 2022. Her goal is to tackle the rest of the 6 world majors by adding New York, London, Berlin and Tokyo to her list of running accomplishments. Additionally, Annie loves visiting parks of all sorts – theme parks, ballparks, National Parks (even rewatching Parks and Recreation too many times to count).

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