ARTICLE: Julee Peterson

How EdTech can deliver rich, collaborative learning experiences — in a remote context

The primary trend in 2020 was the sudden shift to remote learning. As the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to go remote, educators scrambled to find fast, effective digital solutions to facilitate their new reality. While we’re all relieved to be in 2021, many challenges remain.  

We’ve already established that when it comes to EdTech tools, digital doesn’t equal remote. And EdTech companies are still working to develop or optimize tools to support online classes.

At this point in the journey, one thing is clear: Digital tools shouldn’t just “replace” in-person learning. They should go above and beyond and bring something more to the table. The digital landscape is a place with the power to break down barriers and bring people closer together. And now is the time for your EdTech product to do just that. 

Remote Learning Isn’t Always Second Best 

In-person education is the gold standard for obvious reasons. But that doesn’t mean that remote learning has to be a sad consolation prize. 

To say that isn’t to deny the hardships that 2020 delivered. It makes sense to mourn the sudden, pandemic-fueled loss of in-person schooling. With COVID-19 raging in the background, instructors, students, and families struggled to make a major transition with little to no warning. And without the physical safety net that in-person schools offer, many children have undoubtedly suffered. 

That said, EdTech companies should recognize that digital tools can do more than just offer a weak replacement for in-person learning. In fact, remote learning tools offer unique benefits that can, in some instances, offer a superior experience. 

First (and most obviously), remote learning tools offer the ability to meet and collaborate anytime, anywhere. With remote learning, instructors and students don’t have to follow strict meeting schedules or even be in the same zip code or region.

This opens the doors for a more inclusive experience, particularly for students in higher education with jobs or family activities that get in the way of the usual class schedule. It also opens up colleges and universities to out-of-region students who are unable or unwilling to move closer to their school of choice. This trend may even promote competition among institutions of higher education and, ultimately, drive down costs. 

Additionally, digital tools level the playing field for students with certain types of disabilities. For example, a deaf student who requires an interpreter may feel uncomfortable receiving assistance in a physical classroom setting because of the attention it draws to them. In a remote environment, with tech-driven support tools, an individual’s special accommodations may not be as obvious or disruptive. 

Similarly, some ESL students may feel more comfortable contributing to classroom discussions if they are able to take their time and type out their responses rather than speaking up in the moment. 

EdTech companies should seek to play to these inherent strengths. Doing so makes your product more useful now — and more competitive in the long haul.

How Your EdTech Product Can Deliver Online Collaborative Learning in a Remote (or Asynchronous) Setting

Use the following tips to promote a rich remote learning experience within your EdTech product.

Give instructors access to critical engagement data

The best teachers develop an uncanny ability to “read the room.” A quick glance around the classroom tells them all they need to know about their students’ current level of engagement. When students work remotely, instructors lose many of the usual cues they’ve historically relied on to track how much time and effort students are putting into their studies. 

EdTech tools can and should fill in the gap. They can do so by tracking and reporting on key metrics that paint a detailed picture of each student’s effort, engagement, and mastery of materials. These metrics might include:  

  • Time on task
  • Engagement with various educational materials 
  • Performance (such as a student’s grade on a multiple-choice test)
  • A student’s confidence levels in completing an assessment (how certain were they that they knew the right answers?)

Tracking and reporting on engagement-related data is one thing. But it’s really just the start. Things get really interesting when you can find ways to leverage that data to uncover even more valuable insights and predictions with data visualizations. Imagine if your EdTech product could automatically flag anomalies for the instructor’s benefit and review. For example, your product might alert an instructor if a student’s performance suddenly dips. Or, it might raise a red flag if a student receives a high score on an assessment in much less than the expected time it takes to complete it. 

Replicate in-class collaboration and communication

The quality of communication and collaboration tools can make or break the experience in remote work and learning environments. When the tools are subpar (or when users don’t utilize them correctly), everyone’s level of understanding takes a major hit. 

Consider the power of cameras in remote meeting tools, such as Zoom. When cameras are turned off, the whole group misses out on body language cues that are a normal part of in-person interactions. In addition, students who rely on lipreading to compensate for hearing issues will struggle to follow along. 

With remote learning continuing to be the new norm for the foreseeable future, EdTech companies must find and refine ways to maximize real-time and asynchronous collaboration within their products. Of course, it’s not possible to fully replicate the experience of in-class collaboration. But the best remote collaboration tools on the market, such as Mural and Miro, offer a helpful vision to inspire EdTech companies. And in some ways, instructors may find that remote collaboration has its perks. For example, it may be easier to track individual student engagement or manage a larger group of students at the same time. 

Start with empathy and emphasize flexibility

If there is one silver lining to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it might be that it has helped everyone to be a bit more empathetic. In the classroom context, instructors are developing more empathy for their students, especially those who struggle to access basic resources or have to juggle multiple responsibilities, such as part-time jobs and childcare. And the reverse is true, as well. We’re all in this together. 

UX professionals know that empathy is the starting point for all the best user experiences. Take advantage of the empathy upswing by taking the time to learn more about your users’ current needs and struggles. Understand that with so much in flux, the best way to empathize with your users is to bake as much flexibility as possible into your product. Give instructors and students options in terms of how they run their classes and complete work online. 

Reduce boredom — and cheating, too

At this point, we’re all familiar with the concept (and reality!) of “Zoom fatigue.” Students of all ages struggle with the tedium of screen-based learning. That’s a problem when it comes to engagement and learning. But it’s also a problem when it comes to cheating. 

Many studies of digital learning environments have linked boredom with students’ efforts to “game the system.” And in a digital learning environment, cheating may be much easier for students to get away with. 

Each individual teacher’s style and cadence will contribute to a class’s level of interest and engagement. But EdTech tools can and should support instructors by injecting moments of surprise and delight to reduce boredom and retain students’ attention (think gamification). In addition, the EdTech industry can lead the way in providing digital mechanisms to prevent or flag suspect student activities. 

Remote learning is here to stay — at least for the time being. But the lessons you learn from this highly unusual moment in history can pave the way for a more robust, user-friendly, and delightful EdTech product — one that serves your users in any environment for years to come.

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    Julee Peterson

    As Accessibility Lead / Senior UX Designer at Openfield, Julee brings a tireless dedication to creating stellar user experiences that work for ALL users by leading our efforts to stay at the forefront of ADA compliance and inclusive design practices. She holds a Master of Science in User Experience Design from Kent State University. Outside of the office, Julee enjoys cruising on her motorcycle when the weather’s nice, gardening and furthering her love of cooking and baking with challenging new recipes. She is currently satisfying her thirst to learn new things by teaching herself to play the cello and speak Korean. 반갑습니다!

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