Parents Are edTech’s Next Big Users

Sean Oakes bio picture Sean Oakes

We were 10 minutes into a Zoom call with my 13-year-old daughter’s school when her teacher asked us for feedback on their remote learning efforts. Even though I’ve been actively involved in my daughter’s education, it wasn’t until afterward that I reflected on how different it felt to be asked my opinion about the way in which she was being taught through technology.

As someone who’s spent their career working in edTech, I could have critiqued the digital platforms her school chose, or suggested her teachers use even more of the amazing learning content I know is out there. But most of my feedback was about how to leverage technology to build more powerful social interactions between my daughter, her teacher, and her peers. How to go beyond Zoom calls and video lectures to find tools that foster authentic team dynamics, promote critical thinking in a social context, and allow for digital citizenship. At the end of the day, my daughter was still getting more out of her relationships with her teacher and her peers than any one edTech tool.

As we ended the call, I saw heads nodding. I felt heard. In the eyes of the school, I had switched from occasional IT help for my daughter to an authority figure on future technology decisions. I realized that my role as a parent could have a real influence not only on what technology platforms the school might adopt in the future, but also the ways in which those tools might be used.

These same kinds of conversations are happening all across the country. Suddenly, parents are poised to become edTech’s next big user group.

Parents and Technology: How to Reconsider Parent Personas in the Age of At-Home Learning

If you’ve always thought of your buyer as a school administrator, the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic are likely making you reconsider your product’s audience. As more parents take on the role of an at-home educator, they have also become potential buyers of learning technology. This makes parents new — and non-traditional — edTech influencers.

Parents who are deeply involved in their child’s education care about the technology teachers utilize in their at-home learning plans. They want to know how specific edTech tools work and which ones fit their child’s needs. Parents are also savvy enough to lobby for technology designed to teach their children 21st-century skills. They want their children to cultivate an early love of reading, become better writers, and learn how to coordinate on team projects. They’ll look for the right learning tools to supplement their child’s instruction in order to make that happen.

We also expect parents to become stronger advocates for specific learning tools, which have become part of the overall experience of at-home learning. As parents seek out and share the best solutions for at-home learning with one another, parent networks have become non-traditional edTech influencers.

This sea-change in edTech’s target markets will likely affect your marketing team’s efforts first. As teams determine which product features resonate with parents juggling at-home learning with work-from-home tasks, messaging will shift. But how should you rethink feature design, or upgrade your existing products, to meet the new needs of parents?

Here are four areas where you can focus your attention and meet the needs of edTech’s next big user — parents.

Emphasize Family Communication Features

Our research indicates that much of learning happens in the context of strong student-teacher relationships. Unfortunately, the new structures of at-home learning have drastically challenged those relationships. Email, messaging, and video calls just don’t build strong teacher-student relationships in the way that real one-to-one time in the classroom does.

In order to help teachers maintain their voice, infuse their personality, and remain effective educators, the communication features in your product need to drive engagement for students and families. How many different ways can you introduce interactivity within your product? How do your communication features help teachers create clear expectations for both learners and family members?

At-home learning requires a lot of flexibility from teachers, parents, and students. In order for products to offer users this flexibility, interactive features should be as conversational as possible. Teachers need feedback, parents need to be heard, and students need clear pathways to assignments and other teacher-student or student-student interactions. Conversational features are also at the heart of SEL learning techniques and can further strengthen relationships between parents and teachers.

Here are a few conversational family communication features to consider:

  • Open message boards
  • Threaded discussion streams for assignments
  • Office hours for one-to-one instruction or parent-student discussions
  • Quick, lightweight responses, like emojis or social media-esque interactions
  • Dynamic sharing features

The more edTech products iterate on family communications features at the platform level, the easier it will be to serve the needs of all your users — including parents.

Revisit Onboarding and Integration Needs for Your Products

You may already be used to designing different onboarding experiences for different users. Teachers, for example, may not be as technologically savvy as young students, who have a different facility with software. Now, you’ll need to revisit your onboarding and integration needs to address the parent persona, too.

Most often, students are the end users of edTech products, and parents serve as a facilitator user — the user who helps set up accounts and profiles for your student persona. Parent personas may lack the pedagogical context teachers have come to expect from products, but at-home learning means parents now need that information, too.

Given the parent persona’s role in facilitating student interaction, your onboarding process can provide even more context for how your product fits into the curriculum and how it can be used as a tool for student learning. Your product may integrate with Google Classroom, SeeSaw, or other popular edTech platforms. If so, help your parent persona understand what those integrations are, how they work, and why you’ve included them.

Here are a few other solutions to consider:

  • Leverage common UX patterns to help parents understand how your product works
  • Borrow from the vocabulary of the classroom to clarify user interactions ( consider, for example, phrases like, “turn the work in” or “share” vs. “mark as complete”)
  • Consider the full constellation of learning software your users depend on
  • Design using a single sign-on whenever possible

Remember: your product doesn’t have to be everything to everyone. In fact, when you avoid designing proprietary platforms for existing solutions, like word processing and file-sharing, your tool becomes more useful for teachers and parents.

Now is the perfect time to revisit whether parent personas have the right context for understanding your tool — and how you can help them navigate common challenges within your software. The more you improve the UX of your product, the more you’ll be able to address the concerns of this emerging stakeholder persona.

Embrace Mobile-Ready Design

Even if students have their own desktop to complete school work at home, their primary point-of-contact for most edTech software will be through a parent’s mobile device.

Backpack’s user research has shown both teachers and administrators rely heavily on mobile-ready software. There’s enough anecdotal evidence to suggest parents and students have similar technology needs. Just as teachers want to plan for class or do professional development on their phones, parents may want or need to watch help videos about your software or prepare for their day of at-home learning.

When parents are uncertain about how edTech tools work, it adds a layer of frustration or apprehension for students who are already experiencing heightened emotions during at-home learning. Mobile-ready designs with developed parent personas give parents more flexibility as they preview lessons or prepare for helping their children navigate tasks.

You could also consider:

  • Allowing parent personas to preview or pre-use your tools in order to explain tasks and teacher expectations to their children
  • Introducing planning tools or video content aimed specifically at parents
  • Ensuring family communications tools are optimized for mobile experiences
  • Designing with asynchronous at-home learning and work-from-home schedules in mind
  • Making mobile-ready software as robust as desktop software to ensure accessibility for all students

Ultimately, mobile-optimized design ensures better family communication, more flexibility for parents, and eliminates barriers to access for families who may not have desktops available for their students. As at-home learning continues, parents will expect — and advocate for — edTech solutions that are easy to use on multiple devices.

Eliminate Barriers to Access

Our user research has shown that even tech-savvy parents are lost as they attempt to navigate Google Classroom and other online learning platforms. Even well-designed products can make it unintentionally difficult for parents and students to read and submit assignments in one place. When points of interaction are disconnected from source material or assignments, confusion reigns.

We believe that edTech has a responsibility to improve UX whenever possible. Now is the time to survey users and re-evaluate your product’s ease-of-use for personas who don’t have a background in tech. Whether or not it’s fair, a parent’s negative experience with technology may reflect on a teacher’s ability to use tech effectively.

Other common barriers to access include:

  • Unreliable internet
  • Manual saving functions
  • High-res designs
  • Desktop-only design

To ensure ease-of-use, consider adding functions like autosave to prevent the loss of information or working offline to allow users to make progress if their internet blips out. Take extra steps to ensure that users can easily differentiate between accounts, since parents may have multiple children signed into one computer or device.

Are You Ready to Roll Out edTech Tools to Parents?

The time of the parent persona is here! It’s up to us to design the best experiences possible for our newest power-user — and improve UX for tools that facilitate learning beyond the classroom.

Even though uncertainties about at-home learning remain, we expect to see parents continue to influence the kinds of software schools use and adopt. At-home learning has made parents even more fluent in the kinds of features that make products work outside of the classroom. This new knowledge will translate into more advocacy for software that addresses specific student needs, too.

Schools and administrative buyers will also want to better understand the parent persona as they navigate licensing decisions for at-home learning. They’ll look to edTech companies to identify learning software that checks all the boxes.

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