How to Develop Smarter edTech Tools for Collaboration

Sean Oakes bio picture Sean Oakes

When it comes to “smart” edTech tools, we tend to think of artificial intelligence and powerful algorithms as our most innovative solutions. 

AI can certainly be the first line of defense in a community-based digital tool. It can help teachers reinforce positive student interactions in an online community or flag troublesome behavior for discussion. It can also quickly identify classroom-wide trends in assessment data or discussion threads, giving teachers time back in their day.

But designing for education means more than relying on AI to lighten a teacher’s workload. It also means we can build “smarter” tools with learning science. By helping students collaborate with one another, your digital tool can directly support learning needs.

Here’s everything you should know about designing edTech tools for collaboration, from project-based learning features to digital community spaces.

Design for Education with Project-Based Learning Features

We already know how important project-based learning is for students. Field trips, lab projects, or other real-world experiences all improve retention, engagement, and social emotional skills, including communication and collaboration. 

To successfully create a digital tool that replicates or supplements project-based learning, you’ll need to design a thoughtful interactive element. When all the students using your tool share a specific, digital experience, you can facilitate better individual contributions and group responses. 

The possibilities for shared experiences are endless! Take, for example, the fully interactive science and physics experiments created by Nearpod. These lessons help students apply knowledge in real time and can be easily incorporated into a fully digital, project-based learning curriculum. We also love current event-related projects that encourage students to examine subject-area content through a specific lens.

In addition to creating a shared learning experience, you’ll need assignment-related features to support teacher needs. Open-ended assignments that ask students to show evidence, debate one another, or reflect on their roles in the project are integral to project-based learning. And the more you support teachers as they create, track, and assess student interactions within your product, the more effective your tool will be. 

Finally, integrations with asynchronous tools like Google Classroom or other learning management systems are a critical need. Teachers are still switching frequently between in-person and hybrid learning modes. Thankfully, project-based learning is easily adaptable to asynchronous work. As long as your tool facilitates a teacher’s ability to provide deadlines and project parameters, you’ll help students participate from anywhere and sustain their momentum over the course of a long project. 

edTech Tools for Collaboration, Conversation, and Community

Conversations between peers are deeply authentic ways for students to learn. When students chat with peers who are also trying to learn in real time, it requires them to develop more nuanced understandings of subject matter. 

Features like threaded discussion boards, emoji reactions, and up-voting encourage students to express ideas in their own way. After all, when they’re not trying to impress a teacher, students can be less formal, take more risks, or make unexpected connections.

In the product Kahoot, for example, students participate in quizzes that have social and collaborative elements. Students then return to a teacher-facilitated discussion with the whole class. By identifying and elevating interesting student-generated ideas, educators build engagement with the group in a way that helps everyone learn more effectively. 

Supporting Peer-to-Peer Learning in Digital Tools

In peer-to-peer learning, students discuss new concepts together, apply them to real-world scenarios, and make connections to other areas of knowledge. Because students are helping one another learn new concepts in real time, the knowledge they create together is easier to recall later or apply in different contexts. 

In the best peer-to-peer learning scenarios, teachers are co-present to contextualize student ideas and support inquiry. By bringing ideas from pairs or groups into the whole classroom setting, facilitators can also discuss reasoning or logic in ways that improve learning for the whole class. 

This can be facilitated in digital environments using threaded discussion boards or even classroom Slack channels. In documented online conversations, teachers can clearly see why and how students make certain decisions or assumptions. From there, it’s much easier for facilitators to identify which concepts still need to be clarified for the entire class, or which insights the group may benefit from discussing further.

In addition to supporting teacher facilitation, digital tools with peer-to-peer learning features level the playing field for student expression. In physical classrooms, more dominant personalities might win out in peer learning groups or pairs. But in asynchronous, digital spaces, it’s all about who contributes—and what their ideas are.

This makes digital peer-to-peer interactions especially beneficial for introverts or reflective learners. Overall, students have more time to consider written responses and make interesting connections. At the same time, real-time responses, like chat features or reactions, allow students to interact in less formal ways. This takes the pressure off of students to write lengthy responses for every interaction within a product. (An added bonus: shorter written responses are also a great way to keep students engaged!)

How to Support Teachers in Collaborative edTech Tools

While there’s plenty product owners can do to design peer-to-peer learning environments in digital tools, finding ways to support the needs of your teacher persona is the most important. Without skilled facilitators, peer-to-peer learning only takes students so far. We need teachers to guide students, make connections between ideas, and promote good digital citizenship.

Digital products should also offer teachers facilitation prompts, just-in-time professional video content, or other technology tips to make peer-to-peer learning as successful as possible. The best collaborative edTech tools find a happy medium for both users, supporting teaching and learning throughout the entire experience.

How IdeaMachine Uses edTech Tools for Collaboration to Foster Better Teaching Outcomes

When designing IdeaMachine for Wharton Interactive, we knew that it would be just as important for students to use the tool asynchronously as it would be for instructors to use the tool in real-time, whole-class learning experiences.

Based on cutting-edge learning science techniques, IdeaMachine is a turn-key tool for instructors that helps them teach business and marketing more effectively. Because higher ed instructors are often subject matter experts rather than pedagogical experts, they can require additional support in teaching strategies and techniques. 

Within the tool, instructors are guided to set up all the mechanics of a great assignment. This way, they can focus on delivering the content-area knowledge they know so well to their students. The project-based element of the tool also gives students more opportunities to problem solve and make connections between real-world scenarios and their own creativity. 

For example, instructors are encouraged to assign real-world challenges that get students thinking about the business decisions that shape marketing and advertising. Students might take a picture of a branding strategy and write a detailed analysis of it. Then, the entire class reads responses from their peers, leaves reactions, or makes more detailed comments.

By encouraging online conversation between students, IdeaMachine also helps instructors facilitate whole-class learning. A professor might guide student conversation within the product, for example, or pick two interesting conversations to debrief with the entire class. This could even kick off a new cycle of project-based learning.

Ultimately, IdeaMachine makes it more likely that students will find relevance in subject-area content, making their learning experiences more valuable—and more engaging, too.

Designing smarter edTech tools for collaboration is about more than relying on AI to do the heavy lifting within digital communities. It requires product owners and UX designers alike to think deeply about the pedagogical tools that support student collaboration and foster learning.

By focusing on research-based approaches to project-based or peer-to-peer learning, you can build more collaborative tools for students. You can also more effectively support the needs of teachers facilitating community within your products. Address the needs of every persona, and you’ll improve learning for everyone—and speed the path to product adoption.

Are you building a collaborative learning tool? Contact us to find out how we can help!

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