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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 9, 2020 - No Comments!

How to Build and Launch an Online Course in a Crowded Market

When we work with brands to develop an online course from existing content or from the ground-up, we know how important it is to design a product that will stand out in a crowded market. Teachers already have many products to choose from, which means plug-and-play content and turn-key solutions will only take your company so far.

Even if you already have tried-and-true learning content to work with, translating a validated curriculum into the digital realm is a deceptively heavy lift. It requires more research and more creative design thinking to create an engaging digital tool based on existing intellectual property. Not only are you working in a different medium with new challenges (and benefits!), you'll also have to re-validate your content with subject matter experts to ensure the new learning experience is still valuable for students.

But this work is where the magic happens—and what can actually make your product stand out from the crowd. With a strong commitment to user experience research (UXR), you can leverage all the strengths of the medium to drive student engagement, facilitate learning, and differentiate your online course in an overcrowded marketplace.

Stand out from the Crowd with Engaging Features, Sequencing Tools, and Teacher Support

As soon as you move from textbooks and worksheets to eCourses and digital curricula, the expectations of school administrators, teachers, and students change. In order to be adopted and supported by educators, your new online course needs to fit into their curricular ecosystem—and deliver on engagement and ease-of-use.

Here are a few of the tactics we always consider as we work with clients to differentiate their products:


Wherever we can, we look for ways to interject the interactive and peer learning features that make content more engaging.

Not only are these features more interesting than testing or assessment, but they also support teachers who want to use whole-group instruction to get to the heart of content. Encouraging participation with tools like Kahoot, used to conduct real-time polling, can also keep students engaged as they see their peers' opinions unfold in real time.

By designing engaging features that complement your learning content, you'll receive user data that demonstrates your product is more effective than an eCourse without these features. Often this corresponds to greater satisfaction from teachers, too. Your product makes their job easier. If you also include strong reporting tools, your product will make educators look good in front of both bosses and parents—a win-win.

Together, engagement and reporting features are more likely to spur teacher advocacy and school district adoption. And that means your tool is more likely to get noticed.


From an edTech design standpoint, eCourses are meant to sequence information in an intuitive and intelligent way. Traditional sequencing allows students to work asynchronously and finish lessons on their own time—an especially important benefit during remote learning.

Smart sequencing tools can also react to learners' individual interests, promote learner agency, and spark more engagement. For example, low-stakes questions about content can establish where a learner's interests lie and offer multiple ways to engage in the next step or piece of content.

Whether you use traditional sequencing features or amp up your design, automating these features will streamline a teacher's workload. When a tool is easy to use and helps teachers cut down on administrative tasks, you're one step closer to adoption.

Teacher Support

In order to be adopted, your product has to do more than engage students and help teachers sequence information in smart ways. It also needs an exceptionally designed teaching experience.

Onboarding elements should help teachers understand how your product is an easy-to-use part of their toolkit that fits seamlessly into their classroom or curriculum. Improve searchability, so teachers can easily find materials for specific concepts or explainers that link your content to state and national standards.

Providing superior teacher support means teachers will spend less time learning how to use your tool and more time doing what they're best at—teaching.

How SuperD!ville Transformed a YouTube Channel into a Full SEL Curriculum

SuperD!ville was founded to empower students with learning disabilities, prevent frustration, and reduce stigma. Before re-launching their site, the company had developed incredible video content that taught students of all abilities SEL skills. Their videos feature students with learning disabilities and address issues as diverse as bullying and coping with dyslexia. In order to reach more students and make a bigger impact, SuperD!ville wanted to transform their stand-alone videos into a full SEL curriculum.

To provide SuperD!ville with the scaffolding they needed to reach more users, Backpack Interactive built a high-quality interface that helps teachers integrate video content and interactive lessons into their curriculum. When it comes to SEL, we know how important it is for kids to discuss content and reflect on behaviors they encounter in their own lives. With discussion prompts and tips, teachers who use SuperD!ville's curriculum can now create those important reflective moments in their own classrooms.

We worked with the SuperD! team and content experts to create smart activity sequencing for teachers, as well as pre- and post-assessments for each lesson. Multiple rounds of product testing with teachers validated the importance of SuperD!ville's content and the effectiveness of the curricular guides. By incorporating teacher support into the design, we ensured teachers would find immediate, tangible value in the product.

In addition to developing the UI for their video content and curricular materials, we provided additional strategic and design support for SuperD!ville's eCommerce and subscription models. By taking early elements of SuperD!Ville's branding and developing them throughout product design, their new site became the foundation for the entire corporate look and feel. On the back end, we built tools that allowed SuperD!ville to monitor user behavior and adjust or iterate as needed.

When the Right Features and Brand Elements Help You Reach More Users

Ultimately, the development of SuperD!ville's new site is a classic example of how designing for one persona affects all the personas in the product's ecosystem. (Around here, we tend to call that "persona resonance.") On the surface, we helped SuperD! develop a fun, engaging product for middle school students. In reality, however, the content demanded that we also develop a product that spoke directly to middle school teachers. By creating curricular coherence through design and using a sophisticated approach to packaging, we ensured that teachers would use, love, and adopt SuperD!'s transformative SEL content.

Even when you start out with incredible content, like SuperD!, the product development process for a new online course is intensive. But when you invest in content experts, UXR, and high-quality design, the end results speak for themselves. With engaging features, smart sequencing tools, and dedicated support for teachers, you can take strong learning content and leverage incredible UX to make a product guaranteed to stand out from the crowd.

If you need help taking your learning content to the next level, let's talk.

October 26, 2020 - No Comments!

How to Leverage Peer Learning Features and Foster SEL Growth in Remote Learning Tools

Peer-to-peer learning has numerous benefits for students. It provides students with practice collaborating and generates more opportunities for students to understand difficult subject matter by helping their peers learn, too.

While it's certainly easier to arrange peer learning activities in the classroom, students still benefit from these activities when they're offered digitally. In fact, peer learning and other activities that promote social-emotional growth might be even more important during remote, socially distanced learning.

According to Education Week, the only way to address learning loss from remote learning last spring is to focus on SEL growth—even if it's not a normal part of the curriculum. "This may very well require a shift in thinking for some school leaders," writes contributor Arianna Prothero. "[Social-emotional] development is not in competition with academics, but rather a prerequisite for success."

While students are isolated from their peers and teachers, they need increased opportunities to practice SEL skills, including collaboration and delivering peer feedback.

But when remote learning means logging on and zoning out, students disengage from one another—and the material they're supposed to learn. Used in an engaging way, digital tools can counter the mental exhaustion of the Zoom classroom. They can even give educators new ways to reach students with social-emotional distance learning.

How Technology-Based Peer-to-Peer Learning Encourages SEL Growth

Our collective remote learning experiment from the spring exposed everything digital learning tools currently lack. Without preparation, teachers found it difficult to translate classroom strategies for small-group learning or collaborative projects into the digital realm. With a new school year underway, teachers are still looking for solutions that will boost student engagement and foster SEL growth during distanced learning.

Now is the perfect time for edTech leaders to transform their digital tools to incorporate more project-based or team learning features. We can also find more innovative ways to add collaborative features to products that weren't designed with team learning and SEL growth in mind.

Thankfully, digital products and edTech software lend themselves well to project-based, peer-to-peer learning moments that foster SEL growth.

  • Digital products slow down and record real-time interactions in a way that promotes student reflection. This gives educators more opportunities to talk with students about digital citizenship and the interactions they notice online.
  • With structured student participation tools, digital tools can level the playing field and allow all students to participate in the same way. It's no longer necessarily about who's first to respond, or who's loudest—it's about who contributes ideas and what those ideas are.
  • Practice using digital tools and collaborating in digital environments helps students develop digital relationship skills that will be important for the workplace and in other contexts.

Here's how you can continue to build on the collaborative features in your edTech product to foster SEL growth.

Design Features That Foster Digital Citizenship

As edTech designers, we have new opportunities to help teachers examine how students interact with one another and use SEL skills in digital contexts. When teachers have more opportunities to use student interactions as teaching tools, they're able to foster digital citizenship skills that are at the heart of SEL growth. These skills are also broadly applicable to real-world interactions, from social media to remote work.

Because digital products track evidence of student interactions, teachers can use this data as a valuable teaching tool. By working one-on-one with students to improve student behaviors or SEL growth, teachers have opportunities to promote better digital citizenship. edTech designers can support this work by offering constructive ways to resolve conflict, including templated interactions or AI that alerts teachers to problematic interactions.

Digital tools also facilitate ways for students to develop and support their own opinions while making room for the ideas of others. Threaded discussion features are intended to house and promote many different ideas, while bite-size prompts from teachers can offer guidance throughout class discussions. By encouraging students to examine their process and explain how they arrived at an idea, digital tools foster reflection and tolerance in ways that reinforce good digital citizenship.

Teachers—and edTech designers—should expect social challenges to emerge in digital tools used by groups. The more we proactively design tools to address and mediate these challenges, the more edTech can support teachers who are attempting to address SEL growth in remote learning contexts.

Features That Engage Students Transform Class Participation

It's challenging to keep students highly engaged during remote learning. Students can check out easily on Zoom, and teachers can't necessarily inspire the same level of attention and passion when they can't read student body language or interact with students one-on-one.

edTech designers can do more to create learning environments where students feel comfortable in their participation. In order for students to have a successful learning experience, students must feel motivated to participate and engage with the material and their peers. Participation fuels collaboration skills, personal empowerment, and many other key components of SEL growth.

Inevitably, teachers and parents of younger students experience heavier administrative lifts during remote learning. They must monitor student access to online environments or help them accomplish tasks. For younger students, digital experiences must be more self-contained in order to be engaging. Reading logs, positive votes, and directed positive feedback all create more evidence of a student's thinking. These features can even be designed to help younger students learn from one another.

Educators of older students can bring in a variety of media and encourage students to respond in a medium that inspires them. In digital contexts, drawings, infographics, and video are all fair game. Because of the evidence of participation, peers are also more motivated to engage with one another. As the way that they think of their audience changes, older students begin to see one another as peers learning together. These feelings of learner agency are the key to motivation and engagement, bolstering SEL growth.

Finally, digital tools can also give teachers the ability to introduce thought-provoking prompts when a student gets stuck or leverage more advanced, "smart" grouping features. Software should support teachers in the strategic grouping or prompting they would use to facilitate participation in the classroom. With support from digital tools, teachers have more instructional time to check in with the students who need it most.

Collaboration and Reflection Features At the Heart of SEL Growth

Remote learning has asked teachers and students alike to explain, model, and reinforce good digital etiquette. When designed well, edTech tools help students build connections and reflect on their interactions with their peers.

Digital tools record entire interactions, slowing down real-time communication in a way that's helpful for learning. Teachers can use evidence of student interactions to identify misunderstandings or prompt reflections on the outcomes of these interactions. This way, students continue to learn important collaboration and communication skills from real examples.

Teaching the importance of positive peer interactions also shifts the focus away from group output. Instead, teachers can emphasize successful communication, collaboration, and reflection alongside mastery of the material.

The ability to slow down and review a record of interaction may only be applicable to digital environments. But students need and use these skills already—on social media or in group texts with their friends and family members. Students will need these skills in the future, too, as they graduate to additional remote learning or work opportunities.

When edTech designers create more opportunities for students to examine interactions with their peers, we build the kinds of digital tools teachers need to address SEL growth. After all, social-emotional learning isn't something that only happens in a classroom. If we want to prepare students for the workplace and the world, ensuring positive digital interactions and continued SEL growth online is a good place to start.