ARTICLE: Brian Keenan

Nontraditional learning: How EdTech tools are different for corporate and personal users

When most people think EdTech, they naturally imagine students and instructors in K through 12 or higher education settings. But learners and teachers can be found everywhere from boardrooms to living rooms. And while the reasons for learning vary, companies that make learning products for corporate and personal use can benefit greatly from the knowledge of their counterparts who target K-12 and higher ed sectors.

There have always been personal and corporate learning tools, of course: workbooks that teach home hobbyists how to paint or play guitar; daylong business seminars on interpersonal skills. But the tools are becoming more complex and immersive, and companies are investing more in technology that facilitates learning.

The Rise of Online Learning

No wonder companies are investing more in training their employees. According to the recent “Workplace Learning Report” published by LinkedIn, “the short shelf life of skills tightening labor market are giving rise to a multitude of skill gaps.” HR managers are struggling to keep up with changes in the market, while trying desperately to retain their best talent and fill key positions. They are depending more on online learning solutions than ever before.

Young workers are increasingly motivated by the opportunity to develop new skills and take on more responsibility — and that takes training. And specialized jobs require continuing education and credits or certification to advance through the ranks.

At the same time, more and more people are finding effective venues for continuing lifelong learning for personal satisfaction. They’re choosing products that can help them maximize limited free time by teaching them new skills quickly and easily. This type of learning is entirely optional; the boss isn’t requiring them to use a particular product or set of products. If your digital product isn’t easy to use, they will simply move on to one that is.

The short shelf life of skills tightening labor market are giving rise to a multitude of skill gaps.

Classroom and Corporate Learning Modes are Similar, but Different

Companies that make products for corporate or personal learning can look to those that serve more traditional education markets. The theory and practice of education can be borrowed from classroom scenarios and applied to corporate and personal worlds to create effective learning and teaching products.

But if you’re developing EdTech tools for business or hobby users, you need to know important differences in those markets.

Students aren’t professional learners. It’s often said that a student’s only job is to learn. In the corporate world, though, the user of your EdTech tool isn’t primarily at work to learn. She may be years removed from school, and may not be familiar with current educational tools or modes of teaching. So your tool may need to help students through the learning process itself.

At the same time, your product’s role is to teach. So you need to remove the bias of thinking of your users’ identities of their core job or personal functions (a nurse, a pilot, a mom, etc.) and think of them as students. When they’re in learning mode, their needs are very similar to those of their traditional K-12 or higher ed counterparts. The same principles for success apply.

Students have other priorities competing for their time. The single biggest obstacle to learning in the corporate setting or at home is time. For employees, every task in their day may feel imperative; an online training module not so much. And when we’re at home, we have countless things fighting for our time — including the lure of Netflix and the couch.

Whether you’re developing a program to help someone learn Italian or a training regimen for financial managers, it simply has to make smart use of the learner’s time. That means making it easy for users to get up to speed on the program, and easy for them to progress through the process. It’s also important to note that learning often happens in fits and starts, as people try to fit it in around the core function of their jobs or the other demands in their lives. Consider adding ways to reward users for achieving milestones so they remain engaged. For example, gamification is a great way to build incentive structures that keep users interested in leveling up.

Students have some choice. In the traditional education space, if you’re a student and an instructor tells you to use a product, you don’t have much choice. You can complain about the experience, but you’re still stuck using the tool.

At work, your boss may tell you to use a product for training and enhancement, and while you have to use it, you’ll be less likely to finish the training if the tool is simply too time-consuming to use. At the end of the day, employees will put their work obligations first, and abandon a learning product if they can’t seamlessly blend it into their 8-to-5 responsibilities.

In the personal realm, it’s a good time to identify as a lifelong learner. The internet is teeming with products and services that cater to personal learning. In some ways, product leaders that serve this B2C market are more challenged than their B2B and B2E (Business to Education) counterparts due to the multitude of activities and resources that consumers have to choose from. And, there isn’t an instructor or a manager telling these folks which content to consume and what products to use. They’re on their own and therefore have less reason to stick with any product whose user experience is any less than stellar.

Whether you’re developing a program to help someone learn Italian or a training regimen for financial managers, it simply has to make smart use of the learner’s time.

Research is Essential in Developing Business & Personal Learning Tools

There are certainly big opportunities for EdTech tools in the corporate and home environment — and big risks, as well. There’s a lot of competition from established players (and even from YouTubers who teach people everything from how to knit to how to change the oil in their Toyota).

User research is the key to success. Too often, EdTech products in these markets miss the mark — even when they’re built on a solid premise — because product teams shortchange user research. The three top reasons why technology products fail are all tied to research:

  1. They’re too complex — which points to a weak research process that doesn’t validate assumptions or understand users.
  2. They don’t solve a real need for their users — which means you haven’t asked the right questions.
  3. They don’t fully integrate into users’ lives — which suggests you know little about them.

It’s incumbent upon EdTech UX and product teams to understand corporate and hobby learners — how they differ from each other and from higher ed students. With so much competing for these nontraditional students’ time and attention, their learning tools need to be simple and applicable. And if the product, no matter how well designed and useful, doesn’t fit into their routines, then they may download it, open it once, and never use it again.

  • Photo of Brian Keenan
    Brian Keenan

    As a Co-founder of Openfield, Brian’s focus is helping business leaders understand how UX research and design can help them increase speed to market, while reducing risk and waste. He is an avid student and practitioner of landscape photography, which pairs well with his love of road tripping and exploring vast and wild destinations.

Spread the word – help avoid the traps of digital product development!