ARTICLE: Trevor Minton

Digital doesn’t equal remote: EdTech insight in the era of COVID-19

In the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, schools across America are embarking on a totally unexpected — and wholly unprecedented — remote-learning experiment. As the fall 2020 semester kicks off, K-12 schools and higher education institutions everywhere are tentatively rolling out a variety of remote instruction plans. 

As they scramble to make this arrangement work, educators are looking to EdTech to help close the loop. And EdTech companies, for their part, are working overtime to meet spiking demands and adjust to a new set of user needs

While EdTech companies are doing their part to stand in the gap, one thing is certain: Educators haven’t found a panacea in the EdTech industry. EdTech tools may be digital, but that doesn’t mean they’ve paved the way for a seamless transition to distance learning. 

Consider, for example, a recent EdTech Top 40 survey conducted by LearnPlatform. The study revealed an increase in EdTech tool usage during spring 2020. No surprise there. But it also uncovered another, more troubling trend. The study found that many of the digital tools being used for remote and supplementary instruction weren’t designed with remote learning in mind. In fact, many of them aren’t even EdTech tools in the first place! 

Content creation, content sharing, and communication tools (such as those found in Google’s suite of products), along with video conferencing tools (hello, Zoom!) currently dominate the landscape. No doubt, these are vital components of many teaching and learning environments. But they don’t add up to the sort of engaging, real-time experiences that make face-to-face classroom learning so incredibly valuable. 

Instead, educators are cobbling together remote learning toolkits with multiple products that were designed with different intentions. Which means that EdTech has yet to produce a viable answer to the need for a truly interactive remote learning experience. 

The bottom line? The EdTech industry has an enormous gap to fill when it comes to meeting the challenges of remote learning head-on. And that means your EdTech company has a major responsibility — a responsibility that also happens to be an enormous opportunity. 

EdTech Tools Aren’t Always Distance Learning Tools

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that EdTech didn’t immediately deliver a silver bullet for remote learning. After all, EdTech tools aren’t always (or even often) built with remote learning in mind. Instead, most EdTech products are designed specifically to support in-classroom learning.

Online courses are somewhat common in higher education, but they aren’t typically the primary or preferred arrangement. And at the K-12 level, distance learning was never really part of the plan. It is still a common perception, for good reason, that the best learning typically takes place in person. Beyond that, many educational revenue models rely on students being on campuses and in classrooms. 

As a result, in-person learning has been the primary driver of EdTech investment. Which is why the majority of EdTech products are designed to augment the classroom experience, not replace it. Many EdTech products have some kind of remote or asynchronous element to them (such as allowing students to complete and submit a homework assignment at their own pace outside of the classroom). While the classroom experience is the core component that holds it all together, it’s important to note that student and instructor expectations are shifting as a result of the pandemic. 

Interactivity is the Missing Piece in Remote Learning

As our nation’s students and teachers are forced to transition to remote learning, real-time interactivity is the missing ingredient. Because most existing EdTech products were designed to accompany in-classroom teaching, they simply aren’t equipped to supply that missing ingredient. 

And that’s a big problem. In many cases, student success is perceived to be tied to in-person interactions with teachers, especially when it comes to K-12. But it also holds for higher education, especially subjects with a physical component (such as a chemistry lab or music lessons). 

Consider a kindergartner who is just learning to write. Our young student could complete a writing practice sheet at home and submit it to his teacher for evaluation. But the real learning happens when the teacher is able to observe the child doing the work and give modified instruction in real time based on those observations. For example, the teacher might notice the student hesitating over a particular letter — something she might not be able to pick up simply by reviewing the completed worksheet. 

In the classroom environment, teachers are free to tap into their intuition and offer up customized instruction on the fly. That dynamic is mostly lost when educators are forced to rely on video conferencing and document-sharing tools. 

If you aren’t pausing to reconsider your users’ needs in light of this massive shift, you might be missing opportunities that your competitors are capitalizing on. 

How to Pivot Your EdTech Product in the New Era of Remote Learning

At the start of the year, you and your team dialed in your EdTech product strategy for 2020. But now? If your strategy doesn’t already include considerations for remote learning, how confident can you be that you’re still on the right path? 

Is your user base transitioning to a remote learning environment? Do you offer tools designed to facilitate, support, improve, or deliver the ideal remote instruction experience? If your answers are yes and no, respectively, then it’s time to rework your product strategy and roadmap

Remember, “digital tool” is not necessarily equal to “remote learning tool.” Depending on your users’ unique needs, you may have an opportunity to bridge the gap. If you’re mid-stream on a roadmap that matches your new priorities, your first order of business is to reroute. 

The good news is that it’s possible to pivot in a way that enables you to deliver on your users’ needs without abandoning your original mission. You do it the same way you created the roadmap you’re on now: with user research; quick, agile iterations; and ongoing validation from your users. 

The difference? You must amplify your user understanding by developing a deeper-than-ever level of empathy. Remember, the switch to remote learning is completely new for most of your audiences. Not only that, but this unexpected transition is emotional, disorienting, and stressful – especially with a global pandemic as the backdrop. Administrators, teachers, and students are stressed — yet they must find a way to quickly adapt and move forward. 

In this context, your ability to understand your users’ concerns, fears, and perceptions of what will make remote learning successful is more important than ever. That’s especially true when you consider that we aren’t able to rely on past data or iteratively grow products that already make sense in a remote setting. 

The rules of engagement have undoubtedly changed, at least for the foreseeable future. But by making your users’ needs your north star, your EdTech product is sure to keep moving in the right direction.

  • 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.

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