The data is in.
According to The New York Times, the last four months of at-home learning have only highlighted the steep divides in American education.
"New research suggests that by September, most students will have fallen behind where they would have been if they had stayed in classrooms, with some losing the equivalent of a full school year’s worth of academic gains," writes national correspondent Dana Goldstein.
We've always known that the most important dynamic in the classroom is the relationship between teachers and students. While edTech isn't the solution to the systemic inequality exacerbated by at-home learning, it can give teachers better tools for reaching students at home, collecting work created offline, and tracking student performance.
When edTech designers understand the technological ecosystem of teachers and students, we are better able to identify the challenges of unevenly distributed technology and anticipate the unpredictability of learning at home. We can design remote learning solutions that are lightweight and easy to use, with robust online and offline capabilities.
What's a Remote-Learning Ready Tool?
When we say a tool is "remote-learning ready," we're not talking about self-guided learning tools students use on their own.
"Remote-learning ready" tools work effectively, even with uneven infrastructure. They provide teachers with features that augment how students interact in real classrooms, helping students to develop SEL skills and engage directly with content and concepts. "Remote-learning ready" tools are interactive and adaptive tools for teachers and students alike.
Whether you're redesigning tools for fall or creating new tools that are remote-learning ready right out of the box, here's why you should leverage features that support the challenges of teachers and students learning from home.
Break through Social Isolation and Encourage Collaboration with SEL & Collaborative Features
Tools with collaborative features that promote social-emotional growth are now more important than ever. Because learners have been physically separated from their peers and their teachers, they may feel more isolated or lose touch with the collaborative elements that improve academic outcomes through SEL.
By creating remote-learning ready tools that allow teachers and students to deepen their relationships, you drive engagement and ensure greater efficacy. SEL and collaborative features are crucial for developing peer relationships, too.
Whether students post work to a class feed or teachers encourage peer feedback, learning tools that foster discussion and create a rich, social community around subject matter inspire both meaningful conversations and learning. SEL and collaborative features also nurture an online culture of kindness, create more respectful and effective learning environments, and foster a sense of good digital citizenship.
In Backpack Interactive's work for Scholastic's Literacy Pro, for example, students have the opportunity to review books and communicate directly with their teachers. This feedback process gives students agency over their work and reading goals. Because this is an independent reading program, the stakes are also much lower than graded assignments and students are empowered to be more candid
The digital environment of Literacy Pro encourages this openness and facilitates student-teacher connection. We created an interactive scaffolding around each book, so teachers can do more than assign students a book they think the student will enjoy. They can also create a one-on-one book club, interact with reviews, and help students foster a love of reading.
Our goal as edTech designers is to help teachers develop well-rounded students who can collaborate in other settings. When you create ways for students to talk and resolve conflict or develop systems for learners to monitor and reflect on their own progress, you design better, more effective SEL tools. These better, more effective SEL tools just happen to facilitate the interactions teachers and students need most during at-home learning.
Help Teachers Explain Complex Concepts from Afar with Interactive Features
Our approach to designing tools for the classroom has always been about creating better tools for teachers. Now that students and teachers are no longer in the classroom together, learning tools need to facilitate independent and asynchronous work more than ever before.
Teachers are still under the same pressure to deliver results remotely, and they need tools to help explain complex, advanced concepts — even when the class isn't meeting on Zoom. How can we make sure that remote learning tools still feel supportive? How can we facilitate more engagement between students and their subject matter, between students and their peers, and between students and their teachers?
While interactive games can be a good way for students to engage with and master content, teachers also need tools that make gameplay useful in the context of the classroom. Through our work for Mission U.S., we created teacher tools that help educators use the suite of history games more effectively and drive results in the classroom.
Whether you're designing a game or an interactive science experiment, all interactive tools for students should consider the instructional needs of the teacher. When you provide clear pathways for using materials in—and out—of the classroom, you facilitate higher student engagement—and provide tools for more meaningful instruction.
Direct Teacher Support and Meet Individual Student Needs with Adaptive Features
Without daily student-teacher interactions in the classroom, it's more difficult for teachers to assess a student's needs, redirect, or reteach as needed. In the absence of direct teacher-student interaction, edTech can provide adaptive tools for teachers that identify student trends and direct attention and support. AI-driven adaptive features might help teachers give student feedback or even prompt a teacher-parent phone call.
edTech designers can also use adaptive features to help students working at different speeds. Adaptive features provide more support for students who need it and more independence for the students who can handle it.
When we worked with Amplify to design the UI for their vocabulary game "Best Buddy," we created an interface that accommodated complexity. As students master vocabulary words, "Best Buddy" adapts to different levels of difficulty. Vocab words become more complex and nuanced as students fine-tune their understandings of definitions and help characters in the game. By designing a UI that combines two interactive patterns, content mastery and SEL, we were able to create a complex learning tool with adaptive features.
Even when adaptive learning software is used in physical classrooms, it's intended to meet students where they are. With the right framework, they can even promote SEL growth. After all, students who need more time benefit from interactions with students who are further along, and students who work more quickly benefit from considering the needs and challenges of their peers.
Asynchronous, adaptive features provide just enough of a challenge to keep students motivated and engaged by working at their own pace. During remote learning, adaptive features facilitate just the right amount of independence and teacher support.
Meet Existing User Needs with Mobile-Ready Professional Learning
Even before COVID-19 closed schools, surveys and user testing revealed that teachers want to engage with professional learning content on mobile devices. From an at-home learning standpoint, edTech designers have new opportunities to make high-quality products that fulfill existing needs for mobile-ready professional learning.
Teacher professional development often depends on offline tools, like binders and other paper-based resources. By leveraging technology to make a dynamic, interactive course, you may be able to engage teachers more effectively—and reach them on the devices they use most often. After all, interactive materials shouldn't just be reserved for students!
For example, when we designed the new "Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures" website for Nemours Health Group, we knew early childhood care providers would review the site on their phones. We designed the site's excellent learning content, including quizzes and action plans, by breaking up content into smaller, skimmable sections. We also introduced "show-hide" features that would limit scrolling on mobile devices.
If your revenue is tied to teacher professional development, especially in-person courses or seminars, well-designed online training programs may help make up for lost revenue during social distancing. The more robust, smart, and clear your pathways for digital instruction, the more you'll be able to leverage learning content that helps teachers fulfill their professional goals.