ARTICLE: Annie Hensley

Makers of classroom technology must align product releases with academic calendars

In general product design, frequent releases is accepted as the best way to update products. But in EdTech, your timing can be the difference between success and failure.

How often do you get an alert on your desktop or mobile device that an app or software has been updated? Happens pretty frequently, right?

But in EdTech, updates and new product releases can occur as infrequently as just twice a year, on a schedule dictated not by developers but by users. For makers of classroom technology, release cycles must be tied to the academic calendar, so updates are deployed at the beginning of the fall semester and between the fall and spring terms. If your product is used by administrators, you’re usually free to follow a more traditional path of releasing updates as they become available. But regardless of where and how your product is used, we recommend thorough consideration of how the timing of your releases may impact your users.

Launching an update mid-course creates problems for student and instructor users, who suddenly find the tool doesn’t work the way they expect it to in the midst of their heaviest period of use. And it causes problems for customer service, which fields all the panicked calls about the changes to the gradebook function. What’s more, ill-timed updates may spark dissatisfaction with the product among users who, before the next semester, look for alternatives.

EdTech Designers & Developers Must Carefully Iterate

Your product team and stakeholders may have a laundry list of new features and problem fixes they want to release. But if your tools are used in the classroom, you can’t resolve them gradually, releasing an update every week as you work through the list. At the same time, you risk overwhelming users with new functionality if you dump all the features and fixes on them at once. Here are four considerations as you’re building version 3.5.10 and so on.

  1. UX research is essential. Because you may only have as few as two real opportunities to implement major feature releases, you absolutely have to get it right in the research and design phase. Upfront design, research, and validation with users is key, so that when a feature is ready for build, it’s been fully vetted and accepted by users. Once you roll it out it needs to be right, because there’s no wiggle room for major changes in the experience. As our team often says, “students and instructors can’t have a ‘beta’ semester.” Educational outcomes are at stake.
  2. Instructors want to feel prepared. As they consider technologies to implement in their classrooms, instructors often spend ample time before the semester starts getting comfortable with tools. They need to feel confident in their mastery of the program so they can appear as experts in front of the class on day 1. So EdTech companies need to release updates well before the start of the semester so instructors can get comfortable with any changes and improvements. Instructors don’t want to get caught off-guard if they can’t answer a student’s question about a tool they’ve required the student to use.
  3. Instructors are the first line of defense. Not only do instructors need to understand their side of the tech they’re using, but they also need to be familiar with the student side of the app. Instructors receive the brunt of student questions about how to set up and use the program. If a feature in the student application changes midstream and the instructor is unaware, then they’re unable to be that knowledge resource.
  4. Consider university IT limitations. Most commonly, instructors use a university computer attached to a podium that’s accessed by multiple users. Many universities have IT policies that govern whether desktop software can be downloaded on these shared devices. Every time there is a new version of an app, some universities require IT to run the install. This can be a major task, and would be disruptive if it had to be done multiple times in a semester. Most of the tech support on campus is taken care of before the semester begins.

Prioritizing Product Updates in EdTech

With as few as just two update windows for classroom tools, how can product teams prioritize a long list of improvements? Begin by identifying the problems you have to solve or features you need to add according to your organization’s annual goals for the product.

As you discuss the list, use “how might we” statements to prompt the group to articulate how each feature, goal, or solution might be achieved. You’ll likely find that a pattern develops: Certain features and fixes are mentioned frequently and emerge as top priorities. If consensus is difficult to reach, implement a voting system — for example, ask everyone to choose their top three options.

Consider not just what you want to do, but also the feasibility and ease of implementation vs. impact for users. When we work with client teams on prioritizing upgrades, we’ll plot all the goals on an X-Y axis; items that fall in the “easiest/most impactful” quadrant are our first projects for the update.

Finally, you need to make it easy for users to discover and learn the new functionality amid the chaos that surrounds the start of a new semester. Within the app itself, use onboarding features that prompt users to see that something is new or direct them to find elements that have moved.

The work surrounding the release of a new version of an EdTech product isn’t limited to the design and dev teams. Customer experience and sales staffers need to be deeply familiar with all the changes so they can coach users on what’s new, and marketers should update the product’s website to reflect the latest version. All the brand’s messaging needs to be aligned so that the update gets off the ground successfully, at just the right time.

  • Photo of Annie Hensley
    Annie Hensley

    As UX Lead at Openfield, Annie’s focus is ensuring our clients benefit from world-class UX design and research. She knows how important it is to mind meld with product owners and engineering teams while remaining a champion for our clients’ users. Annie is a lifelong runner who enjoys helping others train for major milestones such as full and half marathons. Her passion for mentorship and social issues is evident in her leadership and involvement in organizations that support women in our industry.

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