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December 15, 2020 - No Comments!

Never Going Back: 5 Things That Have Changed for Good in edTech

Nine months into the pandemic, we now understand the challenges and pitfalls of remote and hybrid learning like never before. From spotty WiFi connections to cobbled-together learning software, students and teachers have had to adapt at the speed of light.

Remote learning has also permanently changed the way edTech designers work. We now design based on new understandings about what our users need and want—whether that's more software integrations for educators or better reporting data for parents monitoring their child's learning activities from home.

Here are five edTech trends that have changed for good—and how you can address them in your own product designs moving forward.

1. edTech personas have evolved

Remote learning caused a massive shift in the relationship students, teachers, and parents have with learning technology. These profound, personal, and fundamental changes in how we teach and learn mean that edTech designers and product owners are also approaching the way we discuss learning technology differently.

While we once might have assumed that teachers relied on paper and printable resources, even when using the occasional edTech product, we now know they're fully committed to digital learning tools. From learning management systems to virtual curricula, there's widespread acceptance of edTech among teachers. A teacher's user baseline, or the baseline assumptions designers can make about teachers' needs and pain points, has changed for good.

But teachers aren't the only personas whose user baselines have shifted. Parent users are becoming more sophisticated, curious, and confident when it comes to their learning tech choices. Thanks to remote learning, they have a brand new set of expectations about the products their children use for school. Some parents are even looking for supplemental technology to enhance what their children are doing at home.

Administrators, who were largely in the role of buyers pre-pandemic, have now shifted to focus more on basic hardware needs and internet access for their students, so they can adequately promote remote learning.

While this has been a difficult time for everyone in the education ecosphere, it's resulted in an exciting evolution of user relationships to technology. By paying attention to these shifts, edTech designers can successfully reflect these new, more sophisticated needs rather than trying to create products that are driven by content. The products that will stand out in future markets will listen to the needs of these sophisticated users and design solutions just for them.

2. Collaboration & SEL features will be cross-curricular

Social distancing has only emphasized the need for social emotional learning (SEL) across the curriculum. Educators who already believed in group projects and peer-to-peer learning are looking for ways to more effectively incorporate student collaboration into online coursework. Meanwhile, teachers who don't normally incorporate SEL have likely been mandated to work it into their existing curriculum.

As edTech designers, we must now be more deliberate and intentional about how to include these elements in our products. With the right features, edTech tools can help students build connections with one another and reflect on their interactions with peers. When teachers have SEL-powered tools at their fingertips, they can emphasize successful communication, collaboration, and reflection alongside student content mastery.

3. Student engagement will be asynchronous

Building interactivity into online lessons has proved challenging for even the most superstar educators. While peer-to-peer and group learning features will help teachers increase student engagement, emerging tools like virtual reality and just-in-time teacher help might boost engagement even further.

Now is a good time to experiment with XR, even in products for very young students. Virtual reality lessons help teachers explain complex concepts from afar, whether students are learning how rocket engines work or interacting with models to explore math and physics concepts.

And while we believe in well-designed features that facilitate real-time learning, asynchronous videos and explainers have real value for student engagement, too. As students move through lessons or learning sequences at their own pace, pre-recorded content creates opportunities for them to receive just-in-time help from their teacher.

With more asynchronous sequencing and planning, distance learning lessons become personalized or adaptable and therefore more engaging. If a concept doesn't make sense, students can watch the explainer and try again; re-watching is a great way to expand or deepen knowledge, too.

4. All products should foster adaptive learning

When you take away schools and classrooms, learning happens at a student's own pace. Even if every student uses the same material, the pace is determined by the individual. This makes learning adaptive in ways it rarely was in real-time classrooms.

Technology facilitates adaptive learning. Every teacher wants to have one-on-one time with students, and technology can help teachers do this at scale. From providing supplemental resources for areas of struggle to personalized check-ins based on individual progress, teachers can use learning tools to streamline one-on-one attention.

5. Teacher onboarding will never look the same

More product support and "meta" onboarding experiences for teachers will make or break future remote learning tools. Right now, teachers are spending hours they don't have packaging disparate digital tools, platforms, and resources together to support and deliver their curriculum. They need more support than ever from product owners regarding ways to integrate software choices and get the most out of every tool.

When new learning tools provide teachers with a step-by-step vision for how to integrate an application with the solutions teachers already use, teachers find immediate value. These proactive features support teachers as they onboard their own students to a digital classroom, cutting down on the amount of time they need to spend in a "tech support" role. After all, we want teachers to spend more time doing what they do best—teaching our students.

From rapidly shifting persona needs to more sophisticated onboarding, edTech is never going back to its old assumptions about product design. Despite all the challenges presented by remote learning, there are more opportunities than ever to design for teachers, students and parents right where they are. Are you ready to address these new and evolving needs in your own product design?

November 24, 2020 - No Comments!

20 Years of Insights from the Front Lines of edTech

For the past 20 years, Backpack Interactive has partnered with museums, universities, publishers, and major design firms to create edTech that engages learners and makes it even easier for educators to do their work.

By focusing on the simplicity and accessibility of our clients' UI, we've built products that amplify the efforts of hard-working teachers and create learning environments outside of traditional classrooms.

Whether you're working on a new way to address SEL in your product or re-thinking your approach to UXR, our impactful work with Scholastic, Wharton Business School, LEGO, and others can help you hone your own learning experience design principles and create even more valuable products for your users.

We know these forward-thinking design principles will take our business—and yours—into the next 20 years, and beyond. Here's to the future of edTech!

We believe in the power of good design.

Good design simplifies complex ideas in powerful and memorable ways. It isn't just a nice-to-have—it's a must-have.

In 2012, Weekly Reader (now Scholastic's Classroom Magazines) launched a digital platform designed to help kids understand the presidential election process.

Visual presentations and interactive timelines helped learners understand both candidates and the electoral process, while polling tools encouraged students to weigh in and share their opinions. The look and feel was playful and fun making the complex subject matter visually inviting.

In 2019, we designed Wharton Business School's marketing simulation, Pivot or Perish. Pivot or Perish allows students to role-play as executives for a major department-store chain competing with online brands. Our UI helps them see the impact of their marketing decisions over time and displays complex data in slick, clean graphs and visualizations. By streamlining the game's instructions and contextual data into one, comprehensive learning experience, we ensured a complex game was a colorful, engaging, and fun learning tool.

Simplicity and accessibility go hand in hand.

When you simplify your design interface, you put fewer barriers between users and their end goal. Simpler experiences allow both teachers and students to concentrate on learning concepts—not learning software.

Learning Ally's LINK is designed to transform the learning experience of students with dyslexia or visual impairment through the power of audiobooks. In order to boost student confidence and lower barriers to engagement, we designed an app interface as simple, friendly, and powerful as its content. Since its launch in 2014, students have "read" more than 1 million pages in the app.

As a comprehensive independent reading platform, Scholastic's Literacy Pro application allows students to choose eBooks from Scholastic’s vast library based on their own interests and set reading goals. Our visual search interface helped eliminate typing for early readers and pre-readers, making the product more accessible.

The best edTech amplifies teachers.

By streamlining teachers' heavy workloads, well-designed tools give educators more time to teach and focus on their students.

When EL Education needed to design a suite of reporting tools for educators, we created easy-to-use data collection software that required limited training. Used in real time on tablets, the software helps coaches and school administrators observe classrooms. Educators take supportive evidence photos using the tablet's camera and access reporting features that highlight their most important next steps. By streamlining reporting and eliminating guesswork, we give educators back valuable time in their days.

In 2019, we worked with Scholastic to redesign the Next Step Guided Reading Assessment, a suite of tools that assess students' ELA skills and provide actionable reporting for teachers. We streamlined what had always been a complex workflow, making it easier for teachers to assess students in real time. The tool's reporting features are also simple and intuitive, with drag-and-drop grouping features that help teachers plan instruction and address individual or group performance.

We believe in human-centered design.

We depend on user research to validate our classroom and at-home learning solutions, so we always create tools that streamline the efforts of those who facilitate learning.

As we designed the UX for Amplify's English Language Arts games, we held weekly UXR sessions with real students in the classroom. With real-time reactions to guide our work, we were able to iterate and refine the UX of each game quickly. This kind of rigorous usability analysis always results in a stronger, more relevant end product that serves its users. We find this to be especially important for learning games.

In 2020, we launched Backpack Interactive's Teacher Council to reaffirm our commitment to human-centered design. This group of educators provides us with consistent insight into the problems teachers face around the country. They also participate in in-house user testing, research, and qualitative interviews about our client projects, from requirements and priorities to individual design features.

The best edTech can be used anywhere.

Not in a classroom? No problem. We believe the principles of a great learning experience can always be combined with technology and design to help users learn in many different places, spaces, and contexts.

In 2000, we partnered with the American Museum of Natural History to redesign their main site to include digital exhibits. We also supported the digitization of AMNH Education, a curriculum guide for teachers interested in bringing AMNH exhibits into the classroom. Through good design, animation, and curricular tools, AMNH's digital exhibits became a learning experience that could reach users both in and out of the classroom.

Launched on the 50th Anniversary of the lunar landing, LEGO's Passport to Mars was designed to foster independent summer learning. A series of educational games, Passport to Mars teaches children ages 7-10 about engineering, teamwork—even space botany! Our project partner, Scholastic, validated all of the educational aspects of the product and helped extend the product's reach into classrooms the following fall.

edTech UX designers are specialists.

Because we work with students and teachers, we need to know more than good design principles. edTech UX designers also need to specialize in learning science in order to design stronger, more impactful learning tools.

In 2008, we helped ReadWorks pivot their entire organization and delivery model to a digital platform. A national nonprofit, ReadWorks partners with K-12 teachers to provide high-impact instructional materials and tools that make an immediate difference in reading instruction.

By translating their offline curriculum into something they could use digitally, the organization was able to extend its reach across the country. In order to support how teachers would use this tool, Backpack Interactive needed a deep understanding of learning science, as well as a specialized approach to UXR.

Listening to Learn
leverages the subject-matter expertise of Marilyn Burns and Lynne Zolli to facilitate interviews between teachers and students. These interviews help teachers better understand students' numerical reasoning abilities in real time.

Backpack Interactive's understanding of the classroom environment, knowledge of teacher-student dynamics, and the ability to test and validate assumptions helped us further refine the product's interface. With a crisp, clean UI, Listening to Learn streamlines the interview process for teachers and helps them record findings in real time. This way, teachers can focus on interviewing—not on learning complex software.

We believe in the power of partnership.

We believe in the power of partnering with organizations that share a mission to make an impact on learning.

Forensic interviewers are often thrown into time-sensitive situations. For those who work with differently-abled, abused children, the stakes are even higher. Faculty at Columbia University's Teachers College wanted to design an easy-to-access digital learning resource for students working in their Disability and Abuse Project, so young professionals could better support these extremely vulnerable crime victims.

To help with this important mission, we created an easy-to-use app and supporting website. The content featured in the application was developed through years of groundbreaking research. Our app design made it easier for Columbia students to find these resources as quickly as possible and get victims the help they need.

When Comcast and NBCUniversal teamed up with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to transform the way their young members experience technology, they engaged Backpack to launch My.Future. Through engaging, project-based activities, My.Future helps kids develop skills to succeed in school, stay on track for high school graduation, prepare for college or a career, and meet the demands of a technology-driven society. By creating a tool for students that empowered them to set goals for their future careers, we fulfilled part of our mission to foster learner agency and impact through design.

"In the two months after launch, more than 17,000 members at 700+ Clubs participated in some way – a level of excitement that amazed us."

—David Crusoe, Senior Director, Digital Youth Engagement & EdTech, Boys & Girls Clubs of America

In our 20th year, edTech has accelerated faster than ever. The pandemic continues to re-shape learning, tools, experiences, and personas.

With two decades of expertise in the field, Backpack Interactive can lead the charge and meet our industry's newest set of challenges. We're ready to hit the ground running with solutions that will solve the biggest pain points of remote and hybrid learning, whether that's adaptive technology or a cross-curricular approach to SEL.

We know our design principles will fuel the next 20 years of conversation about edTech with our partners, clients, and peers, too. We're ready for the future of edTech. Are you coming with us?

November 12, 2020 - No Comments!

What Teachers Really Need in a Remote Learning Product

The rapid switch to remote learning this past spring revealed major gaps in digital learning tools. Teachers often struggled to reach students working at different paces or levels within the same class. At times, educators even cobbled together three or four applications to ensure their students could access and understand high-quality learning content. The rise of the Zoom lesson also brought major dips in student engagement, since students felt less connected to their instructors and their peers.

Even if classrooms make a return to learning in person full-time, edTech designers now have an incredible opportunity to reflect on and meaningfully address these pain points. We surveyed our Teacher Council about the challenges of remote learning, then sat down for a roundtable discussion about their needs. By the end, we'd received numerous insights about what teachers are looking for in remote learning tools, including design ideas product owners can implement right now.

From mobile-ready design to adaptive learning technology, here's what teachers really need in remote learning products.

Teacher Pain Points: Where edTech Falls Short for Remote Learning Tools

Equity and accessibility

About 25% of our Teacher Council members report that their students don't have access to technology while working and studying at home. Most of the educators on our Teacher Council work in urban school districts. Even so, student access to technology is a nation-wide problem further exacerbated by the pandemic and socially distant learning.

While edTech will never be able to solve social inequality, there are strategies edTech designers can use to help ease this pain point. For instance, lightweight, mobile-ready designs make it easier for students to work on their parents' phones and other mobile devices, especially when using spotty or public internet connections.


During distance learning, teachers have fewer opportunities to connect with students and support their social-emotional growth with the one-on-one attention that reinforces learning. When digital tools promote student engagement, students are more likely to stay focused, learn material, and retain complex subject matter.

edTech products should help older students understand the value of using the tool, promote learner agency, and facilitate group learning. edTech can also bolster products with SEL features to address the need for additional support.

Differentiation and adaptive tech

In the classroom, teachers are able to differentiate—or, quickly change their teaching style, language of instruction, mode, or medium—in order to reach every student.

Digital tools need to offer this kind of flexibility when a teacher can't work with students in person. This might mean providing additional language support for emerging ELL students, developing audio or video components to content, or using voice-to-text tools to help teachers meet students where they are.

Adaptive learning technology can provide additional support for teachers looking to differentiate content. In an ideal piece of software, adaptive learning technology would recognize a student's level of content knowledge and deliver additional content at the right level. Adaptive technology is especially important during remote learning, when teachers can't necessarily assess and reassess how students are performing during one-on-one interactions.

Ultimately, teachers are looking for tools that differentiate because they want to streamline the number of tools used during distance learning. When teachers are able to pick one digital learning tool that all the students in their class can use, regardless of ability, content knowledge, or language acquisition, they are better able to facilitate learning and ensure accessibility for all their students.

Professional development

Suddenly having to deliver an entire curriculum using digital tools was a challenge for most teachers, especially those who felt less confident using technology. Through onboarding and other forms of support, edTech products can do more to help teachers sequence their curriculum or guide those who find digital learning tools less intuitive to use.

When edTech product owners also switch their professional development content to flexible, mobile-friendly content like pre-recorded video, teachers are more likely to engage with and use content on their own time. Post-pandemic, flexibility and asynchronous content are key for busy, overwhelmed educators who still want to learn, develop, and grow.

75% of teachers reported that their students became less engaged in socially distant learning over time. 

How edTech can Lead the Way in Designing Better Remote Learning Tools

As leaders in the edTech industry, we have a unique opportunity to reflect on the successes and failures of digital tools in remote learning contexts. Now is the time to better understand the challenges faced by both teachers and students through more thoughtful UXR.

Whether you opt for low-hanging fruit, like mobile-friendly design, or go all out with new and improved remote learning features, we hope our insights deck provides you the road map you need to a stronger product.

When we take the time to learn from teachers about their needs and challenges as an industry, all edTech products become more useful—and more valuable—learning tools.

Download insights on remote learning from our Teacher Council below—and stay tuned for even more teacher takeaways you can apply to product design in the future.

September 29, 2020 - No Comments!

What’s Your Baseline? How to Make UXR More Valuable for Your Next edTech Product

UX designers in the edTech space are specialists who participate in a community of educators. To design well, they must have more than a working understanding of best practices in UI. edTech UX designers also need a background in learning science and user research. These specialties help UX designers accurately identify and design for the specific needs of the teachers, students, and parents who use their tools.

With a specialized background in UXR, edTech designers establish a baseline understanding of their users over time and quickly identify gaps in understanding during each new client project. These user baselines also allow designers to use the UXR phase more effectively, scaling research to fit a project and investigating tactical ways to quickly improve a product for its intended users.

This is especially true when designing for a specific subset of edTech users. edTech designers then start with a research baseline and use it as a framework to re-examine their assumptions. Foundational knowledge of user needs accelerates the development process in these cases and creates an even stronger framework for the user research you conduct.

Here's a quick breakdown of common research baselines you can use to ask better questions during the UXR phase of your next edTech product.

The Key to Designing edTech for Teachers

To meet the challenges of an edTech product for teachers, edTech designers must understand the foundational needs teachers have—their challenges and pain points—and be able to further narrow their focus to specific subject needs. They must also understand the entirety of a teacher's world, whether a teacher works with underserved populations or is gearing up for state assessments.

When you talk to real teachers throughout the UXR process, you're able to look beyond the needs of a fictional persona. Throughout surveys and interviews, you'll refine your understanding of how teachers navigate digital and offline tools. Once you know what a teacher's pain points are, you can prioritize them and establish their relationship to your business goals. You'll discover whether your tool will work in their classroom and likely make tactical changes to your product.

By working with edTech specialists throughout the UXR phase, you'll be one step ahead. edTech UX designers already know enough about the needs of teachers to work from a specific user baseline—even if we test those assumptions throughout the process. Here are the baseline assumptions about teacher pain points you need to know to design more effective UXR sessions:

Teachers conduct their work on mobile devices.

Understanding how and when teachers are likely to use edTech products on their phones is a must. Most likely, you'll need to simplify sequencing and processing for mobile design to make the product easier to use on the go.

For example, if you had a product centered around student assessments that could only be completed on a desktop, you might consider a professional development component to your product that worked well on mobile devices. We know that many teachers want to access this kind of content outside of their own classroom environment. Mobile-first professional learning content is a great baseline assumption to work from as you design your user experience research for a teacher persona.

Teachers are looking for more ways to address SEL growth.

Teachers recognize that technology plays a role in mitigating isolation during remote learning. edTech tools that help teachers reach students more effectively and build SEL skills will become ever more valuable. Research suggests teachers are more optimistic than ever about the ability of digital tools to facilitate one-on-one connections at times when those are not possible.

Teachers use edTech tools for instruction in one of three ways.

There are three different modes of instruction: whole group, small group, and individual instruction. We know these are consistent modes, especially for teachers of younger students.

Teachers with high school-age students tend to adopt individualized instruction modes when using edTech products. This is often because students have their own ChromeBooks issued by their school, which means teachers can depend less heavily on shared resources.

But individualization features do more than facilitate adaptive learning for individual students. They also aid adaptive learning in small groups. Work with teachers to discover how individualization features for your product will also affect full-class teaching.

Why Designing edTech Software for Students is Uniquely Complex

Designing edTech software for students is a much more complex task than solving for the common needs of educators. One complicating factor is age and grade level—the differences between K-2 are vast, and the jump between K-2 and 6th grade is even bigger.

Designing tools for students in higher ed is a different story altogether. All students are now adults and data and privacy concerns shift completely—just to name a few moving targets.

Even though designing for students comes with its own unique set of challenges based on age, grade level, task, and access to school technology, there are still a few baselines you can always work from when you're conducting UXR for your product. Here are three assumptions to work from:

Age affects independent learning with your edTech product.

The younger a student is, the more their teacher or parent needs to be involved in their interactions with your product. This will affect how you design everything from log-in screens to interactive features.

When you design edTech tools for older students, on the other hand, they're able to be more independent within your product and complete tasks on their own. It's also easier for a teacher to assign a group project to older students. Students and teachers alike may come to expect these types of instructional features from your tool.

Students expect consumer-like design patterns.

For most students, the context for interacting with edTech tools will be consumer products or games. These products have a high production value and plenty of digital media for kids to peruse. What are the patterns of consumer media that might apply to your product? Whether it's well-produced video instruction or complex game-play, the features in your edTech tool will be held up against the best consumer products on the market.

Students will use your edTech product at home.

Digital learning products always extend from the classroom to the home. Even during our pre-pandemic era, edTech products were regularly used in the home on shared computers or mobile devices. The better you understand a student user's home environment, the more successful your tool will be in the market.

For instance, if your product is designed to improve reading and literacy skills, you already know there's a good chance it will likely be viewed on a mobile device at home. You might even be able to assume that your student users will need more help figuring out next steps since they're out of the classroom and no longer receiving one-on-one instructional support from a teacher.

With these baseline user assumptions in place, you could instead focus your UXR efforts on finding the right balance between rigid sequencing and designing for students agency within your product. You'll want to ensure that your software directs student progress from the moment they log in without taking away elements of student independence, engagement, and discovery. It's a tough balancing act to get right—which means it's the perfect contender for your UXR efforts.

Designing Software for edTech's Fastest Growing User Base—Parents

Parent users have always had a facilitating role in edTech tools designed for younger students. When most students started remote learning last spring, parents took on even greater roles in learning technology. This is unlikely to change anytime soon. In fact, we think parents users are here to stay.

Here are a few of the baseline assumptions you need to make about edTech's next big user:

Parents are looking for easily digestible insights.

Parents with younger students have a co-working relationship with their children within a product. Parent users will facilitate, guide, and troubleshoot as their young children complete tasks.

As their children age, parents play less of a role in how students use a learning tool. Instead, they begin looking for insights into their child's performance. Parents of older children may want a dedicated portal that displays data on how their child uses a specific product.

What administrative data captured by your tool might be valuable to a parent user? Everything from how long a student session lasts to engagement or achievement rates helps parents get more involved in their child's education.

Parents want to weigh in.

Now that parents are more involved in remote learning with digital tools, they're looking for more ways to interact with their child's teacher and provide feedback on tools. They're become more savvy than ever about everything from ease-of-use to integration. The more opportunities you provide that open the channels of communication between parents and teachers, the more valuable your edTech tool will be.

As you can see, the assumptions you begin with when designing edTech products shape the kind of user research you conduct. With the right research and evidence base, you can build off of user assumptions and conduct ever more meaningful UXR sessions.

UXR is always valuable—but it's even more valuable when you can work off baseline assumptions and truly scale UXR to the most unique aspects of your product.