For education insiders, or for those who have been in the edtech world for a lengthy stretch, this post may seem a bit remedial. On the other hand, if you’re like me and always working on a number of different projects, it may serve as a convenient checklist to review with your product managers and/or product teams.
People who work in education like to say that it’s a unique market when it comes to technology products, and there is more than a kernel of truth in that claim. Perhaps the easiest way to explain that difference is in terms of the special constraints present in the space: (1) Equity, (2) Diverse Constituencies, (3) A B2B2C Financial Model, (4) Infrastructure (5) Support, and (6) Privacy. These constraints necessarily inform design parameters for new products and also define needed adjustments for existing products.
In education, equity is achieved when all students receive the resources they need so they graduate prepared for success after high school. Equity is driven by a commitment to the belief that, given the right supports, all students can be successful and achieve their highest potential.
The focus on equity in education dictates that products must provide a wide set of affordances for users at different levels of expertise and offer the necessary built-in supports to give everyone a fair chance to succeed.
Education, in general, is viewed as a public service that should meet the needs of every region and citizen. Rather than choosing a select market to address, companies must work to support all student and family constituencies served by our schools and institutions.
This means that products must be designed to function in high-bandwidth affluent suburbs and low-bandwidth rural regions. They must meet the diverse learning needs of both high- and low-performing students and must be sensitive to unintended inequity related to race, cultural, and socioeconomic differences.
A B2B2C Financial Model
Another constraint for educational products is the general business model. For most products — ranging from SIS and LMS platforms to textbooks and ancillary digital learning services — companies do not sell their products/services directly to the end-user (the student) or to the entire spectrum of uses. Rather, companies sell to an administration and faculty member/group, and they, in turn, authorize the product’s use for/by teachers and students.
There are a number of by-products related to this model, perhaps the most important being (1) a sales cycle that is often longer than that of traditional B2B and B2c models, and (2) a need to embed robust user design/testing that is continuously informed by user analytics. The latter ensures that product companies maintain a clear focus on the end-user, even if they are not the primary audience from a sales perspective.
In education, the old adage that “it takes a village” is certainly apt. In this context, schools and institutions require a wide variety of products to support instruction and learning and must provide a common, sustainable infrastructure to support those products. This often means both networks and hardware necessary for accessing learning tools and content, as well as digital infrastructure for remote learners.
For product developers/providers, this means that products cannot be developed to operate in isolation from a client’s infrastructure. Products must adhere to common standards and integrate easily with the most popular infrastructure products.
With the increase in remote learning, schools and institutions expect product companies to provide multiple levels of support to ensure student and faculty success. This includes online knowledgebases, real-time text chat, and phone support, as well as professional development training for faculty and administration. Successful companies also look for ways to provide proactive support in the form of email/messages or other forms of outreach based on user analytics.
It would be difficult to over-emphasize the importance of user privacy in education. It is governed by different federal and state regulations and should be a foundational focus on any technology product/service designed for and/or marketed to education organizations. Products must address requirements related to FERPA and COPPA, as well as state and organization-specific guidelines. In addition, they must have clear design elements and policies concerning user-generated data/information.
As someone who has been in the space for roughly three decades, both on the institutional and product-company side of things, these constraints have simply become part of my own initial design/evaluation process. All too often, however, I see products and product teams fail because they fail to design within these constraints.