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August 6, 2020 - No Comments!

Remote Learning Puts Teachers in the Role of UX Designers. What’s Next for edTech?

Teachers have always recognized how valuable in-person instruction is. In fact, they rely on these relationships to help students succeed. This dynamic is central to how they learn to gauge student progress—even without formal assessment.

When at-home learning made one-on-one instruction next to impossible, teachers had to pivot. They immediately reached for new ways to foster crucial relationships with their students using technology. They created sophisticated versions of their curriculum using stitched-together technologies, digital platforms, and online resources.

In many cases, teachers haven't even chosen or purchased the classroom technology they've now come to depend on. Districts or school administrators buy tools and product licenses, while teachers coordinate responsibilities across teams or grade levels. Sometimes they even share user responsibilities within a single account.

Because they now have to rely heavily on digital tools for instruction, teachers have also started to think as designers of digital learning experiences. This has prompted deeper and richer teacher engagement with digital learning tools. From integrating the tools purchased by their districts to sequencing activities, teachers are thinking like UX designers, striving to create the best possible experiences for their students.

But if teachers have started thinking as UX designers, where does this leave edTech?

How edTech Can Support New Demands on Teachers as Designers of Digital Learning Experiences

With new demands on teachers come new demands on UX designers. As you roll out digital products or update existing ones for the fall, here are four elements that will support the work teachers are already doing during at-home learning.

  1. Develop product integrations.
    edTech solutions that integrate easily with other products or platforms have always been valuable to busy teachers. Now, they'll be even more important. In addition to virtually instructing students, teachers must also address the technology needs of both students and their families. With so many new responsibilities to balance, teachers will avoid using products that make it difficult for students or parents to log in, complete assignments, and share work.

    Products that function as their own islands aren't as useful in at-home learning scenarios. The more you design for product integration or use common UX patterns, the more you will facilitate how teachers already integrate products all on their own. Easy-to-use integrations give teachers back the one thing they care about most—time. When teachers save time by using your product, it becomes an even more valuable tool.

  2. Facilitate communication.
    In addition to product integration, teachers are also looking for communication platform integration. Real-time and asynchronous communication tools facilitate class meetings, peer-to-peer learning, and teacher feedback.

    Digital platforms are more than places where teachers can communicate with their students and vice versa. They're the tools teachers depend on during at-home learning to facilitate the student-teacher interactions that are so important to student success. When you support this crucial component of classroom instruction meaningfully in the digital space, teachers will turn to your product again and again.

  3. Provide "meta" onboarding support.
    Teachers are packaging disparate digital tools, platforms, and resources together to support and deliver their curriculum. One of their challenges is making it clear to students and their families how all of these products work together in a meaningful way.

    As UX designers, we can do more to support this new technological ecosystem. Whether you provide templates, video demonstrations, or infographics for your digital tool, you'll also need to provide a new vision for how to integrate your tool with the solutions teachers already use. UX designers can create more product support and "meta" onboarding experiences for teachers. These proactive features will 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.

  4. Design sequencing tools and suggestions.
    During at-home learning, teachers are no longer standing in front of a classroom to give direction. Instead, they must now write clear, step-by-step instructions for using digital tools, so students can complete assignments at home.

    In the virtual classroom, teachers think even more carefully about the sequence in which they want to use digital tools. This sequence of events must be set in motion in order for students to successfully complete and submit work or interact with one another online. As teachers integrate edTech tools into the curriculum, sequencing suggestions informed by learning science and pedagogy will become even more important for student engagement.

    Like UX designers, teachers are always iterating. They reflect on what works well and what doesn't. They constantly receive real-time feedback that strengthens their instruction. When an assignment is easy or interesting for their student to complete, teachers build engagement and see results. With the right sequencing support, your edTech tool can become even more indispensable to this process.

When "Easy to Use" Becomes "Easy to Integrate"

When surveyed about the qualities of an edTech product that influence buying decisions, teachers always place "easy to use" in their top two or three responses. Teachers are simply too busy to figure out how to use challenging products.

In our new reality, we expect teachers to now add considerations like "easy to integrate." The way teachers value good UX design won't change, but their experience using many edTech tools has given them new expectations. The most valuable edTech tools will be those that integrate easily into their current suite of digital tools or into their curriculum.

Even after the need for at-home learning fades, we hope teachers will shift from casual edTech users to users who rely heavily on digital platforms for instruction. We hope that edTech products will transform from supplemental to core instructional tools.

Teachers Are Poised to Become edTech Super-Users

As teachers become more sophisticated consumers and users of edTech, complex features will be vetted in ways they never have been before.

In the long run, this is great news for edTech. Sophisticated users engage more deeply with products and help designers create more powerful, user-friendly tools. In addition to designing key features with teachers in mind, brands now have an added incentive to reduce the UX threshold of their products for their new super-users.

The baseline student data teachers collect in the fall of 2020 will give UX designers a better indication of the challenges and successes of at-home learning. We'll know whether UX designers have done a good job of giving teachers the right tools—and the right support mechanisms—to reach and engage with their students.

Teachers now understand how the most sophisticated digital tools work within their technological ecosystems and support their existing curriculum. Our hope is that they'll never go back.

July 20, 2020 - No Comments!

Battling Summer Slump During COVID-19

This is part four of our ongoing series about edTech industry shifts in at-home learning. To check out the whole series, click here.

The effects of "Summer Slump,” learning loss that happens over the summer months, are often shocking. Without the routine and rigor of school and extracurricular activities, students fall behind and often struggle to catch up with their peers in the fall. This disparity is especially evident in underserved students.

Because of  COVID-19, many students have not set foot in a school since March. According to Education Week, students who normally lose between two weeks and two months of growth over the summer may now only retain about 70% of their literacy progress and 50% of their math skills. How can parents combat an unprecedented loss of learning this summer? Tackle it head on. 

Here are three simple ways to introduce structure into your summer and support your child’s educational growth. 

Start your day with a meeting.

The morning is a great time to chat through what your child might want to focus on and what they can expect from you during the day or week. The length of the meeting depends on you and your child, but 10 to 15 minutes is best practice. Here are a few formats to consider:

  • Make it official.
    Ring a bell, do a quick dance, or sing a song to signal the beginning of your day.
  • Establish a routine.
    Discuss the weather, your schedule, or meal times. Whatever your opening routine is, try to make it as consistent as possible. Make sure differences in the schedule are communicated to your child at the start of the day.
  • Address academic work.
    Discuss what book your child plans on reading, what they're excited to accomplish or learn, and which devices they may need to use.
  • Plan a group activity.
    Family walks, art projects, or book clubs will bring you closer together (see below!).

Encourage your child to read and write for pleasure. 

Reading doesn’t need to be a chore. Even 15 minutes of reading a day can support your child’s developing literacy skills.  

  • Sign up for a “Reading Challenge.” Our partners, Scholastic and Learning Ally, host summer reading experiences where children can access digital books, track their reading progress, and can even win prizes! You will also find additional literacy resources like book lists and activities. 
  • Start a Family Book Club. Choose an age-appropriate book as a family and decide on a day and time to discuss the book together. Younger children may do better if they have time before the conversation to consider their favorite characters or whether they liked the book.
  • Set reading goals and track your family’s progress. Set a reading goal, i.e. 3.5 hours a week or 2 grade-level books a week, and track your goals with a simple log or calendar.
  • Keep a journal.
    Journaling can be a fun way for your child to practice their writing skills and reflect on what they’re doing and feeling this summer. Not sure what to write about? Support them with some writing prompts! Ask them leading questions or have them write about their favorite thing they did that day.

Explore educational sites and games.

Screen time isn’t always our enemy. It’s all about setting time limits and finding quality edTech experiences that are age-appropriate and easy to navigate. Make sure you decide on when, what, and how often children are exploring sites and games during your morning meeting.

Feeling guilty about your child spending more time online? Pivot the experience by joining in or asking your child to show you how to play. Here are a few sites we recommend: 

If you need additional ideas about helping your child succeed academically from home, check out my other article on how to weather the storm of at-home learning. With your support and care, "Summer Slump" doesn’t stand a chance.


Milagros comes to Backpack Interactive with almost a decade of teaching and administrative experience. She holds an Early Childhood Education from Hunter College and was a former columnist for Scholastic Teacher Magazine. A native New Yorker, Milagros enjoys a good Broadway soundtrack and a strong cup of coffee.


June 22, 2020 - No Comments!

How Teachers Can Connect with Students & Families During At-Home Learning

This is part three of our ongoing series about edTech industry shifts in at-home learning. To check out the whole series, click here.

Strong relationships between students and teachers support academic growth and social-emotional development. During at-home learning, however, those connections have been harder than ever to make and maintain.

As the school year comes to a close, you'll gain valuable insight by reflecting on the ways in which teachers have been thrown into the role of tech support for students and families. These insights will also inform the ways you approach remote summer school practices, as well as any at-home learning experiences that may arise in the future. 

Even after the last three months of at-home learning, you're most likely still finding your own way on digital learning platforms and changing your lessons to accommodate digital formats. Our new reality also comes with outsized expectations and added pressure from administrators and parents.

Through it all, you've had even fewer opportunities to forge the meaningful, one-on-one connections with students that make a difference in their learning. This will remain true during abridged summer school schedules, where teachers are under increased pressure to demonstrate growth from students they often do not know. 

edTech will never replace teacher-student relationships, but learning tools and digital platforms can help you make the best of a bad situation. Here are four expert tips for connecting home and school using edTech tools:

1. Survey your families 

Design anonymous surveys to ask parents and families honest questions about their access to technology and their current frustrations with at-home learning. 

Use survey language that assures families you can accommodate for a lack of tech access. Whatever the specific needs of your class may be, it's a good idea to prioritize apps that have strong mobile versions. Time and again, our research has shown that students use their caregiver's mobile devices to complete and submit assignments for school.

Surveying parents about their biggest frustrations can also yield great insights. Maybe parents are struggling to find time to read with their children while they work from home, and they’re feeling guilty. Whatever the stand-out concerns are, you'll be able to pivot your attention there and provide extra support or resources, as needed.

2. Set expectations and keep students accountable

There’s nothing like a morning meeting in a classroom with your students. Those fifteen minutes give you the opportunity to assess every student in the classroom. You can see who didn’t sleep last night, who might be sick, or who’s feeling chatty.

Our new digital reality might make this check-in more challenging, but it's still crucial. The more you can set expectations during a check-in meeting, the easier it will be to keep everyone accountable and engaged.

If students aren't checking in regularly or completing assignments, reach out to parents directly through email, phone calls, or the "parent" persona on an app. You'll want to make sure any communication between yourself and parents stays separate from student communication channels, too.

3. Explore grouping options

Group apps or digital resources by what will work best for self-guided learners, average students, and students who need one-to-one support.

Self-guided, independent learners who enjoy setting their own pace, exploring their own interests, and taking a more active role in their learning will do well during at-home learning. Curate a list of resources these students can explore, along with directions and accountability guidelines. This will make it easier to check their progress and discuss their learning without pivoting away from the needs of your other students.

When it comes to helping students who need a little TLC, consider how you’re directing your energy. One-on-one time might be more helpful for these learners than using digital apps that may or may not be accessible to their individual needs. 

4. Make time to connect

Divide and conquer to create more opportunities for personal engagement — without losing all of your valuable prep and assessment time. Here are a few of our favorite go-tos:

  • Schedule a town hall with parents to discuss your learning plan. 
  • Create regular discussion meetings, like book club meetings, for self-guided learners to interact with one another and you.
  • Set aside periods of one-to-one availability for students who need more support.

Remember, you can't be all things to all people, and that's ok. Create and keep boundaries within your work day to make sure all your students are receiving enough attention. These boundaries will also help you avoid digital burnout.

We’re in a brave new world. Instead of re-designing your entire curriculum and instruction style to fit into the mold of an app or learning platform, meet your students and families where they are. The more you can make the tools at your disposal work for you and your students, the easier at-home learning will be.

Monica Sherwood is a UX designer and researcher dedicated to edTech. Prior to entering the UX field, Monica was a special educator in Brooklyn and Manhattan, where she saw firsthand the importance of inclusion and accessibility in design. Monica obtained her undergraduate degree at NYU's School of Individualized Study, and her Masters in Special Education at Hunter College. In her free time, she enjoys traveling, painting, and writing.


June 17, 2020 - No Comments!

At-Home Learning: Resources for Parents, Teachers, and edTech Product Owners

The COVID-19 pandemic brings unprecedented challenges to the field of education. During at-home learning, parents are suddenly tasked with overseeing their child's education. At the same time, many educators are still learning the best ways to engage families and students from home, troubleshooting on the fly.

We've noticed a sea-change in the edTech industry, too. Organizations and nonprofits that plan to keep their buildings shuttered to the public must rise to meet new design challenges. Now that visitors and and target populations are home-bound, organizations must rush to create valuable online resources or experiences to be of service. edTech product owners will also need to address issues of accessibility and equity more nimbly than ever.

Backpack is ready to weather these new challenges with you.

As former educators, design professionals, and parents, we know how difficult and stressful this moment is. Both parents and teachers may be new to working with learning products for extended periods of time. Nonprofit organizations may be designing their very first virtual experiences with at-home learning in mind. Product owners need tactical tips for rolling out accessible design quickly, too.

In order to help, we're launching a new series dedicated to easing the transition to at-home learning — no matter what your role happens to be. (Some of us even have more than one!)

Whether you're a parent trying to balance working from home with instructing your child, a teacher stepping into the unexpected role of tech support, or a product owner planning to revamp your existing learning tools, we've got digestible, easy-to-implement guides for your biggest challenges.

We'll publish new guides every week throughout the summer. Be sure to bookmark this page, follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn, and subscribe to our newsletter for monthly digests, so you don't miss out on a single post.

For Parents
How Parents Can Weather the Storm of At-Home Learning
Educational Resources for Talking to Your Kids About Race and Anti-Racism
Battling Summer Slump During Covid-19

For Teachers
How Teachers Can Connect with Students & Families During At-Home Learning