When the pandemic shut down life as we knew it in 2020, schools had to somehow keep their digital doors open. The EdTech world rose to the occasion, providing products that helped facilitate emergency-state educational experiences. In 2021, while the threat of the virus seemed to lessen at times, uncertainty remained. EdTech providers — and the educational market that relies on their products — had to ask exceptionally difficult questions with no clear answers. Who are our current users, now that the height of the crisis has passed? How do we prioritize blended experiences? Will we face another cycle of fully remote learning — and how can we prepare?
In 2020, instructors and students had very little agency over their learning environments and the EdTech products supporting them. In 2021, users could begin to decide what facets of those environments were working and which felt, well, unbearable. EdTech products had to prove their worth to users — or they ended up on the chopping block.
Exactly where EdTech is headed in 2022 isn’t clear — but it is clear that there’s no going back to “normal” as we knew it. We asked our team of UX researchers and designers to reflect on what they believe will be the most pressing issues in EdTech in 2022. Here’s what they had to say.
EdTech Product Companies Will See Unprecedented Investment Activity
In 2021 EdTech continued to mature and saw more investment activity as society became dependent on digital learning and teaching technologies. In 2022 many of the tools used by educators, students, parents, and administrators will play an upsized role as the pandemic effects subside. That bodes well for EdTech product companies and those of us that serve the industry.
While the pandemic has brought uncertainty for many industries, it has represented a moment of great opportunity for EdTech companies. I believe our industry is emerging from these past two years much stronger. The continued investment in the sector signals a very bright future for those who best understand and deliver upon the evolving needs of their users.
— Adam Sonnett, President
The Pandemic Will Continue to Require EdTech to Reassess Assumptions About Users
“Know your users:” that is the forever-mantra in UX. And never has it been more important or complex than it is in 2022. Yet EdTech continues to lag behind other more mature industries when it comes to employing the right mix of user research techniques. The pandemic is still deeply impacting education and the human beings who participate in it. EdTech companies that will thrive in the year ahead will be the ones that keep their fingers on the pulse of the evolving needs, lives, and perceptions of their users.
With all the change that’s been thrust upon our industry and our users over the last two years, EdTech leaders who don’t embrace the need for more frequent and effective user testing are risking a lot.
— Crissie Raines, Senior Operations & Experience Specialist
A variety of learning environments, a variety of user needs
Instructors and students have learned to expect the unexpected — and EdTech has, too. Today might be an in-person class, and tomorrow might be a virtual one. This semester may be hybrid by design, and next semester may be virtual by mandate.
It is clear that a larger digital presence in the classroom is here for the foreseeable future. EdTech must be able to flex with these changing classroom experiences to serve users well — and that is a tremendous challenge. EdTech products should be easy to learn, adaptable to remote experiences, and work harmoniously with other classroom tools, whether they are digital or not.
What’s clearer than ever in 2021 is that we’ve had a desperate need across EdTech to embrace flexibility and to anticipate unintended use cases. This underscores the importance of leveraging constant research to build a rich context of our users’ rapidly changing needs.
— Chris Albert, UX Design Lead
The context of users’ lives must be carefully considered
It’s become more and more clear: product teams must take into consideration the full context of users’ lives. After all, the way users feel and what they are experiencing outside of the classroom affects the way they interact with EdTech products in the classroom.
Generally, discussions about users’ mental health, boredom, and distractions center around students. But COVID’s whiplash-like effect was wide. The lives of instructors must factor into product design and functionality.
User perceptions of quality and value are more critical than ever
For many students and families, the form factor of education — how it’s delivered, how it feels, how participation is facilitated — is directly driving perceptions of quality and value. EdTech products figure strongly into the mix. Naturally, users will compare EdTech tools to other tools they choose to purchase. While students may never be excited to make a required product purchase, EdTech companies can’t afford to create or exacerbate apathy or resentment in them.
In addition, if students are disgruntled with the product they are required to use, they’ll feel they aren’t getting what they deserve from their tuition investment. And you can bet their instructors will hear about it (and will eventually abandon it).
The pandemic has created many new unanticipated use cases that are driving the need for more flexibility within products. The challenge will be how to manage your product requirements and avoid overly cumbersome user experiences.
— Trevor Minton, Vice President / Product Experience
EdTech Must Pay Closer Attention to the Instructor Experience
In years past, EdTech knew to be attentive to the evolution of student behavior, which is always quickly affected by tech trends. But the pandemic expedited the evolution for both students and instructors. Instructors are teaching, learning, and behaving in new ways to keep up with changing times.
The educational experience is straddling both worlds now — both in-person and remote. Instructors must manage this hybridization of the educational experience and the related new expectations. EdTech products should be helpmates to teaching rather than become impediments.
We are used to student behaviors evolving every few years along with technology trends, but we used to see a much slower evolution when it comes to instructor personas. COVID has significantly expedited that evolution for instructors because they’ve been forced to teach, learn, and behave in new ways to keep up with the evolving challenges.
— Sarah Freitag, Director / UX Research
Instructors have to manage students — and technology
Instructors have faced one of the biggest challenges the pandemic has to offer: maintaining the quality of education in a remote environment. For some, this means having to learn entirely new online education platforms and adjust their pedagogy as a result. Instructors spend inordinate amounts of time and energy dealing with the logistics of technologies, facilities, and other resources. And frankly, that’s not the job they signed up to do.
It should be no surprise that instructors are feeling burned out, stretched thin, and frustrated. And EdTech needs to demonstrate empathy by prioritizing short-term solutions, like better and better instructor onboarding. EdTech companies should also create long-term solutions, like building one platform that has the capabilities of several.
Product teams need to resist the urge to cut onboarding efforts from their roadmaps. I know that’s hard when new features are fighting for attention, but if new instructor users have trouble coming up to speed on your product, you just may not get a second look.
— Annie Hensley, Director / UX Design
Instructors are finding their way back to teaching
In the survival mode of 2020, test-based assessments were necessary. In 2021, instructors became more comfortable with their adjusted courses and brought back versions of past activities. In 2022, as instructors adjust to working in new ways, their focus can now be on whether or not students are learning. Do they understand the material? Can they think critically about it? Can they apply their knowledge?
When education is fully or partially remote, instructors don’t have the benefit of reading the room. EdTech products should be working to collect unvocalized student pain points to deliver them back to the instructor — in an actionable way.
Choices, choices: What EdTech products will instructors want to keep?
A lot of instructors struggled with rigid institution-approved hybrid models during the pandemic and are relieved to be teaching the way they want to in 2022. Whether it’s fully in person, fully online, or their own custom mix of both, many instructors are successfully adapting to technologies proven to be effective.
Some instructors that have an online classroom component are tired of managing what feels like two disparate learning experiences. The EdTech field needs to be thinking about how to reconcile that. A product that is meant to be used in a fully digital classroom is probably not a product that works well in hybrid environments. EdTech companies must understand where their products fit best in an instructor’s toolbox. Knowing and leaning into a product’s points of differentiation — and aligning your product to key instructor use cases — are important steps in getting there.
EdTech needs to be cognizant of the fact that instructors have more choices now. Given the proliferation of product options, will they want to keep yours?
Hybrid teaching is alive and not well. What’s clearer than ever in 2021 is that we’ve had a desperate need across EdTech to embrace flexibility, to anticipate unintended use cases.
— Chris Albert, UX Design Lead
More on this subject:
- Turn instructors into EdTech product champions with exceptional onboarding
- Integrate instructors’ expertise in your EdTech product’s UX design to improve learning outcomes
- Is your EdTech product poised to stay relevant in the post-pandemic world?
- EdTech strategies for online collaborative learning tools
The Student Experience: Fragmentation, Overload, and Burnout
Supporting engagement and community with students is as important as ever going into 2022. But there’s a heightened need to calm the waters so students can start focusing on the material again.
When students shifted to remote learning in 2020, instructors struggled to keep them engaged. Boredom, disconnection, and cheating ran rampant. The prevalence of (poorly) hybridized education in 2021 shifted EdTech’s attention to restoring a sense of consistency and focus in the classroom. Unfortunately, in 2022, the learning environment is still saddled with technical and logistical distraction. And students are feeling it.
EdTech needs to prioritize making students feel like active, positive participants in their own learning experience.
Keeping students engaged was certainly an issue I saw with remote learning experiences during the pandemic. Many students would either simply not interact with assignments or not engage in discussions because they were either distracted or not motivated to take part in the course.
— Jordan Aguilar, UX Designer
Doubled expectations = student overload
Students are perceiving almost a doubling-up of expectations around coursework, study, and assessment. While many classes have returned to face-to-face learning, the newfound accessibility, ease and automation of digital/remote/asynchronous learning has remained part of the experience as well. There is real risk of what’s required and what’s supplemental to snowball into one potentially-too-big set of requirements.
Students are still struggling with stress and anxiety — and instructors aren’t being as lenient and understanding with students. But students are still expected to motivate themselves, ask the right questions, and be prepared in a learning environment that is foreign to them. The EdTech industry has a responsibility to build products that reduce the potential for student overwhelm.
The challenge that I think we will continue to grapple with is the need to account for so many more learning environments (in-person, remote, and blended) while being as inclusive as possible for every user’s unique situation.
— Tanner Sotkiewicz, Senior UX Designer
The case for connection and empowerment
Students are looking for connection. In 2020 (and even 2021), many felt cut off and unsupported. Now they are trying to figure out what level of collaboration, communication, and engagement feels comfortable and safe to them. EdTech products need to better facilitate experiences that build a sense of community and engagement within the classroom — whether that’s in-person, remote, or hybrid.
Fully remote settings can easily make students feel left behind or forgotten. EdTech products need to do a better job enabling students to contribute to class from afar. And hybrid settings are particularly challenging. How might EdTech products help build group assignments for students to share and collaborate when some are on location and others are remote?
In the end, students don’t want to have to download digital tools for nothing. Successful experiences make students feel like their investment in the product was worthwhile. In 2022, EdTech products should help learners understand how their products will benefit the learning experience. Will it help students realize long-term learning goals, like working toward a big exam or certification? Will it help them make sense of what their teacher went over in class? Will it give them a unique opportunity for low-stakes practice? These differentiators, and how your product presents them, can go a long way into making sure student users feel empowered in their learning journey.
Regardless of whether your product is being used in a classroom or remotely, you should be asking how it can do a better job of making students feel like they’re connected and contributing to the class, and how it can better provide ways for instructors to identify and engage students who are at-risk or struggling.
— Jacob Hansen, UX Design Lead
More on this subject:
EdTech Product Roadmaps Will Be Even More Responsive and Flexible
EdTech companies drafted emergency roadmaps in 2020 and onboarded large volumes of new users all at once. In 2021, growth subsided and the number of new users stabilized. In 2022, EdTech companies must realize that if their products don’t meet a majority of user needs, users will move on to find a product that does.
EdTech needs to make smarter and more creative UX decisions. How do we support a wider range of use cases without completely undermining the focus, usability standards, and technical platforms of our products? This is the evolving product challenge going into 2022.
Building responsive, flexible roadmaps should imply, first and foremost, paying attention to onboarding. Onboarding can often be the first thing on the roadmap chopping block. Sure, new features are important. But if users can’t get successfully started, new features are just noisy bells and whistles.
In 2022, onboarding should be the priority. Then EdTech companies should turn their attention to these additional features.
2022 will be a time to once again reassess how your users are feeling about your EdTech product. User expectations and how they incorporate your products into learning scenarios continues to evolve very quickly.
— Sarah Freitag, Director / UX Research
EdTech products need to consider unique-to-COVID student accommodations and exceptions. Sick time, being unavailable for class, and requiring more flexibility in their lives: these are issues that require technological support.
In addition, EdTech companies are preparing to scale their existing products. During the shift to a virtual classroom in 2020, a lot of EdTech products weren’t prepared for the load. Now companies are fortifying their backends while modifying the user experience in order to handle any number of users. The mass shift to fully remote could happen again, and product owners are hoping to be ready.
Focusing on non users could be key in expanding market share. The pandemic has caused many more people to rely on tech to accomplish daily tasks for learning.
— Anushka Shetty, UX Researcher
The Great Resignation is putting a strain on the need to scale
Throughout 2020, resignations fell dramatically as workers were reluctant to change jobs in the face of uncertainty brought on by the first year of the pandemic. That pent up energy was unleashed in 2021 as vaccines became widely available and the economy thrived. People began to change jobs and careers in record numbers throughout 2021 and into 2022. EdTech is not immune to the impacts of The Great Resignation.
EdTech product leaders now find themselves caught between the need to scale quickly and the difficulty of finding and hiring new talent for their teams. At Openfield, we have seen a significant uptick in product teams seeking to bolster their resources by integrating outside UX research and design services who have deep benches and additional specialities available to them.
As many EdTech products race to support remote learning, it’s crucial that accessibility is not depreciated. Products can evaluate accessibility by conducting a VPAT report. A VPAT, or Voluntary Product Accessibility Template, is a document that provides a comprehensive analysis of conformance to accessibility standards, which allows product leaders to prioritize the steps necessary to conform to these standards.
EdTech teams need to become more aware of other situations that affect accessibility outside of the product itself. Things like home stressors, lack of a stable internet connection, and health problems impact students more than any EdTech product limitations.
As many EdTech products race to support remote and hybrid learning scenarios, it’s crucial that accessibility is not forgotten.
— Alex Hiser, UX Designer
Learning Science Will Increasingly Inform User Experience and Student Success
EdTech products are solving unique problems, but they aren’t always creating a foundational good experience with teaching and learning. The more EdTech integrates user experience and learning experience, the greater the chance of both product efficacy and real educational outcomes. And isn’t that the point?
Even the idea of student success is shifting. In the past, attendance, involvement in student activities, and creating a sense of belonging added up to student retention. However, this was all based on in-person/on campus models. EdTech needs to consider how student success has potentially changed with the introduction of remote and hybrid classrooms and campus life.
EdTech product teams should be thinking about ways to help learners understand how their product will benefit them in the context of their own learning experiences.
— Lauren DeMarks, Senior UX Designer
EdTech Must Rely on Fresh Data — Now More Than Ever
Research is the most important thing EdTech companies can do in 2022. Research from a year ago isn’t good enough. Research from six months ago isn’t good enough. EdTech companies need to know what their users are feeling and dealing with right now and how that’s affecting their product use. Without current research, any chance at adapting roadmaps and solutions effectively is lost.
EdTech companies should consider:
- Studying non-users. Testing/researching with people who are not yet regular users can yield tremendous insight.
- Accessibility in research. How might EdTech companies ensure that they are interacting with all participants in a way that best meets their needs? (eg: hard of hearing participants, people with trembling fingers who might find it hard to navigate prototypes, etc). Remote research allows for more inclusive research, since participants don’t have to physically visit a lab setting.
- Collecting data and effectively delivering it to instructors. Without physically seeing students face-to-face, instructors are left to guess how students are doing. Research can bridge the gap.
- Invest in data visualization capabilities. Designers with backgrounds in effective data visualization will help arm your users with real-time information that can help them make critical decisions regarding student success.
At the end of the day, EdTech products ought to be able to stand on their own two feet and give an instructor and a student a uniquely beneficial experience. This underscores the importance of leveraging constant research to build a rich context of our users’ rapidly changing needs.
I’m seeing a shift to prioritize features that help instructors focus better on student success. That means EdTech product teams need to be ready to better collect and display data. Delivering data in a useful form has been a big challenge for the industry. How well your product helps instructors address gaps in the classroom is largely dependent on how you’re able to incorporate data visualization as a specialty on your team.
— Kyle Bentle, UX Design Lead
More on this subject:
EdTech in 2022: A Developing Polaroid
What should the industry do when nothing is well defined? It’s clear to us: you lean into time-tested research methods and start making small, informed decisions. 2022 is going to develop like an old-school Polaroid. We can only see as far as the Polaroid is developed and then make educated leaps based on what we see.
We are watching intensifying investor focus on EdTech, just as its components are being disrupted and resettled. Hybrid teaching is alive — and not well. Remote learning comes with a serious downside. Students are not connected to instructors and institutions as much as they were. Meanwhile, institutions are still lagging in their ability to support, and the instructors are left holding the bag. How can the tools we create help increase our ability to connect and ensure the best learning outcomes?
To keep your product from being on the chopping block, you need to increase the value it provides in serving multiple purposes that address the growing number of use cases without being overly complex.
— Annie Hensley, Director / UX Design
We can’t ignore companies like Meta, who are investing in the future of education in their own metaverse product suite. Other tech companies like Microsoft are seemingly working on something similar for their own platforms. EdTech ought to consider what the implications might be in our space.
EdTech needs to fully recognize that digital delivery of educational experiences is not the future, but is now a reality in 2022. That presents massive —and exciting — opportunities for paradigm shifts in how educational content should now be created, delivered, taught, and learned.