ARTICLE: Trevor Minton

4 key takeaways from SXSW EDU 2023 that all EdTech product leaders should read

Another year, another successful SXSW EDU event! We’re always energized by the annual event, but this year might have been our favorite yet.  (Full disclosure: We do have a habit of feeling this way every year). Openfield’s Chief Experience Officer, Trevor Minton, was in Austin at the event to immerse us in a wide range of topics that matter most to EdTech product leaders. 

We’ve selected four big takeaways to share with you and your team.

1. The pressure for EdTech product teams has never been greater to integrate AI capabilities.

Even when presentations at SXSW EDU weren’t about AI, speakers and panelists were asked to discuss it. It’s the thing everyone is talking about right now thanks to the explosive adoption of generative platforms, such as ChatGPT and its counterpart on the visual side, Midjourney

But for EdTech product teams, pondering AI’s potential to make our products more effective  isn’t all that new if you think about it. Adaptive learning products are just one example of the technology already in use. Throughout the entirety of SXSW EDU, we kept hearing an analogy we like – AI is a copilot. The true promise of AI lies in its ability to streamline time-consuming tasks through automation. 

For educators, AI represents tremendous opportunities to free up valuable time spent with administrative and data processing tasks. Doing so would directly lead to greater freedom and creativity in how they engage their students. 

EdTech teams that leverage AI’s ability to process vast amounts of data to make their products more adaptable to different users’ teaching and learning styles will win in the end. 

Platforms that can, for instance, recommend activities and tasks based on age, learning level, discipline or language preferences will have immense competitive advantages over those that do not.  But we need to be mindful to ensure the technology is integrated ethically and responsibly, and that it is implemented in ways that truly enhance student learning and outcomes.

2. EdTech products must better serve underprivileged populations.

Every learner is different. If you don’t serve all of your users, you’re failing in the EdTech business. This is especially true for underserved communities, such as African Americans, Latinx, indigenous learners, students who have immigrated from other countries, and those living with physical or mental impairments. The good news is that we’ve never heard more discussion and commitment from the industry as we do now.

As an agency that specializes in UX design and research for EdTech companies, we know how important it is to do our best to set aside our own biases and immerse ourselves in our users’ worlds. It’s also not easy for product teams to do so — additional research is time consuming and costly. But it’s worth it to ensure your team utilizes inclusive research practices that will result in your product being as strong as it can be for all users. 

There are a myriad of online and in-person user research and co-creation techniques you can utilize to develop deeper empathy for users of various backgrounds and the unique challenges they face. 

It takes a true commitment from stakeholder and product teams to ensure your product makes the world better for all your users, regardless of their race, sexual orientation, cultural background or socioeconomic status. 

3. Are we nursing a post-pandemic virtual learning hangover? 

As the pandemic’s grip began to loosen and students and educators returned to classrooms around the globe, we asked ourselves some important questions. Will students and instructors still want to use EdTech products or will they associate them with the worst of the shutdown days? The most important question is why should they want to use them now that they’re back to in-person learning? 

In our 2023 UX Trends Outlook report, you can learn how to navigate a new era of choice in which instructors and students may feel less reliance on learning software. In this environment, products will compete and ultimately succeed when they truly make teaching and learning easier and actively eliminate the headaches experienced in the emergency transition to virtual learning in 2020. That requires diligent user research and testing, plus the backing of stakeholders to fund it. 

At the 2023 SXSW EDU, we were glad to see this addressed in multiple presentations. The message: Virtual learning should not be written off as a negative short-term thing we all were forced use. Rather, it represents a longer-term  opportunity to enhance the overall learning experience for product leaders who are looking at how their products truly fit into their users’ lives.

Educational institutions at all levels are facing barriers of time, budgets, and human resource shortages, as well as new pressures on curricula being introduced by state and local governments and school boards. Instructors face pressure to not only understand where their students need more help but also to provide tech support for EdTech products.  There is a great opportunity for those of us working in product development to lessen these challenges for instructors and students if we fully commit to understanding our users’ journeys and adapting our products to align better with their needs.  


4. Your EdTech product has got to have game. 

Nearly all of your users have a great deal of experience playing games on consoles, web browsers or phone apps. When it comes to the sophisticated use of narratives and role-playing, few tech platforms hold a candle to the gaming industry. But whether your product is experienced as a game or not, you can leverage the best of gamification approaches to enhance its effectiveness. 

The power of gamification lies in its ability to make tasks that might feel like work fun. In game-based EdTech products, teaching and learning can seamlessly be integrated into goals achieved through narratives and role-playing. For example, if a well-designed game is teaching quadratic equations, it won’t stop the game to quiz the learner on a quadratic equation — the quiz will be integrated into the gameplay. And games can level the playing field for learners at different levels because their pathways through the game can match their ability while not calling attention to them progressing at a different pace from peers.

But for non-game-based software, it’s possible to borrow techniques to make your product more effective in a number of areas, including:


Game developers have long taught their users through engaging experiences rather than verbal instructions. EdTech product teams know that onboarding is a critical phase in the adoption process. Poor onboarding can result in higher stress on your  CX team, or worse — lost users. The easier and more enjoyable learning a new product can be, the greater the likelihood that a user will continue using it.

Community building and social learning

Many recent studies have shown students are seeking more social connectedness coming out of lockdown. Game developers have mastered features that EdTech teams can use to encourage collaboration through techniques such as team-based challenges and leaderboards that foster group learning.

Progress tracking

Consider how badges and rewards might be utilized to recognize and celebrate student achievements. Tracking and celebrating incremental progress is a powerful way to involve users in their own learning path. For instructors and administrators, it can provide timely feedback that can help them intervene when students need additional support.

Increased engagement

Game-based learning has been shown to increase engagement over time with repeat use. The techniques used in games are inherently effective at reducing fatigue and decreasing interest. EdTech product teams seeking to better help their users to complete tasks and goals should look to the gaming industry as a benchmark.

We returned from SXSW EDU 2023 with a renewed sense of optimism and energy. The takeaways covered above are but a few of the immediately actionable themes for EdTech product teams like yours. If you’d like to further the conversation on these topics or others that are top of mind for you, feel free to connect with Trevor via Linkedin or drop us a line using our contact form. 

  • 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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