The Product Owner’s Guide to Designing Interactive Educational Technology

Sean Oakes bio picture Sean Oakes

One of the most important principles of learning science is to move away from more “traditional” modes of instruction, like lecturing or explaining concepts, and toward a more interactive experience. When learners have more interactive educational technology they’ll be able to retain and apply new concepts more easily.

It’s important for us to understand this as edTech designers, too. After all, there’s a direct relationship between user interaction and product engagement. When learners participate within a product, your engagement automatically increases.

This is a win-win from both a learning science perspective and a product engagement perspective. Designing interactive educational technology not only boosts product engagement, but it also supports real learning goals, like retention and application.

Thankfully, there are easy ways to apply learning science techniques directly to common edTech features. Whether you build learning concepts into your onboarding feature or design a sandbox learning tool, we’ll help you unpack four common learning science techniques and how to use them in your product effectively. 

Let’s dive in!

4 Learning Science Techniques That Support Interactive Educational Technology

If you’ve been looking for more precise, science-backed ways to support learning outcomes in your edTech products, learning science is the perfect foundation to build from. The teachers who use your tools will see better learner outcomes—and you’ll see more student engagement than ever.

1. Explanation and Contextualization

What is it?

When educators use “explanation and contextualization” to teach students new concepts, they provide students with familiar, relatable scenarios to make it easier to understand or apply something new.
After all, it’s much easier to get learners to stretch and grow if there’s a healthy tension between what they already know and what they’re still learning. Students will also be more likely to draw on familiar concepts to make new connections or applications.

This happens all the time in schools. Just think of how common word problems are in math instruction, or how students are asked to draw from real-world experiences to make arguments in writing instruction!

What does explanation and contextualization look like in edTech?

edTech designers can apply this concept to interactive educational technology in a number of ways, from learning games to high-concept narratives.

You can leverage animation, video, and other kinds of content to help students draw from real-world or fictional scenarios to better understand new concepts. Building interactive simulations also allows product teams to teach concepts through memorable game situations.

For example, many classrooms now use Minecraft to help students learn programming and other STEM skills. The colorful, imaginative world is fun and engaging. Students learn about everything from the Civil Rights Movement to climate change while practicing real-world problem solving.

At Backpack Interactive, we used this technique in our “Passport to Mars” project for LEGO and Scholastic. Students are introduced to an imaginative fictional scenario–  leading a team of astronauts and scientists on a mission to Mars. This concept worked not just because it was fun, but because we relied on students’ existing understanding of space travel stories to create a context for learning about real-world science and STEM careers.

As you apply “explanation and contextualization” to your technological solution, don’t be afraid to leverage genre tropes to give students easy inroads to learning content. You can even help students go beyond solving problems that demonstrate understanding and use contextualization as a stepping stone for more abstract or challenging concepts, too.

2. “Before & After” Reflection

What is it?

Using the reflective technique of “elaboration,” learners make connections between new information and prior knowledge. 

When a learner connects a new idea in their working memory to their long-term memory, they retrieve the information they need using well-worn neural pathways. As with contextualization, this technique helps learners understand new concepts, remember new information, and apply or extend concepts later on. 

Your teacher persona will be very familiar with this technique, and there are numerous reflective prompts teachers already use in their classrooms. These include: 

  • 3-2-1 prompts, in which students share three things they learned, two interesting facts, and one thing they still have a question about.
  • Drawing pictures of new concepts.
  • “I learned, I noticed, I wonder, I think” prompts that help students articulate their understanding and continue to generate their own questions. 

By providing students a framework for curiosity, teachers use reflection as a way to both help students retain information and to encourage agency over their own learning.

How does reflection work in interactive edTech products?

Product and curriculum designers can work together to provide teachers with a set of digital tools for helping students reflect, including templates and lesson plans that outline these techniques and provide better results in the classroom. 

From the student-facing side of your product, you might consider reflective prompts or multi-modal responses that reinforce learning. Even quick-response emoji reactions can help students break down bigger, more complex concepts and digest them more easily. 

In addition to providing users with more opportunities to react to content, you can also offer ways for learners to quickly access past lessons or information. Encouraging reflection on past work will help learners scaffold up to new concepts, and this can be accomplished within your product’s UI.

Professional learning environments can also encourage before and after reflection as a mode of problem solving. For example, in the Arts Hub we recently designed for Boys & Girls Club of America instructors, we made it easy for arts educators to discuss lessons and support others who have similar classroom challenges. By helping to solve others’ problems, educators learn more about their own challenges and even receive feedback on their lesson plans along the way.

3. Learn by Doing 

What is it?

When learners or facilitators train in new concepts in real-time, low-stakes environments, they’re “learning by doing.” Creating a low-stakes environment for this kind of learning is key. If learners are not penalized in terms of their grades or their classroom outcomes, there is more incentive to try and potentially fail at something new.

Learners in this scenario might watch and model new behaviors or strategies, verbalizing their answers or the process by which they arrived at an answer. Teachers use this strategy in ELA classrooms all the time, and it is slowly being adopted in STEM classrooms, too. 

After all, educators don’t get the same level of information just from looking at written work or math proofs. Verbal explanations are a great shortcut to understanding both student misconceptions and their available problem-solving strategies, so educators can course correct as needed.

All forms of feedback are valuable in “learn by doing” pedagogy. Students who arrive at the wrong answer will benefit from correction or intervention, while their instructors gain more insights by hearing how their student thinks. 

Even if students produce the correct answer, instructor feedback can extend the principles of the lesson or help these students better understand what makes their answer a good one. Once teachers have insights into student reasoning, it’s much easier to identify the building blocks that will unlock more complex concepts.

How do “learn by doing” strategies work in interactive edTech products?

From simulation exercises to verbal assessment, you can support participatory knowledge building in both student- and teacher-facing products in a range of ways. 

For example, when Backpack Interactive designed Heinemann’s Listening to Learn, we helped transform professional learning video content for math instructors into a participatory teaching lab. 

Educators watch as an expert interviews a student about their numerical reasoning skills. They are then asked to choose which problem-solving strategies the student demonstrates. 

Users are given not just the correct answer, but the best one, including explanations of which strategies the expert would use and why. Because educators are essentially practicing verbal assessment skills in real time, it’s more memorable—and it makes a real student assessment less intimidating.

Better feedback keeps students motivated and engaged in their learning content, too. As students progress, feedback encourages them to continue to apply new concepts in different learning experiences.

In edTech, we can even scale just-in-time feedback with support from artificial intelligence. For example, when students perform practical skills or produce knowledge in real time, AI is capable of providing qualitative feedback on their efforts. With great content design, students understand that there is more to a “right” or “wrong” answer than the answer itself. 

4. Learning through Play

What is it?

Learning through play involves creating a low-stakes, alternate world and using a metaphor for real information or educational concepts. If students are learning about space exploration by designing their own mission for example, you’ll engage their imagination, encourage openness, and eliminate fears of failure.

What does “learning through play” look like in interactive edTech products?

A digital medium is a great place to create an imaginary world and introduce low-stakes learning or sandbox games. Animation, video, sound, character, and multiple storylines each break up imaginary worlds or stories into economical pieces for a cohesive learning experience. 

Because of the pervasiveness of video games, students are already comfortable with being introduced to a whole new set of rules. They are skilled at learning by discovery, rather than by meticulously reading a long list of instructions. edTech product designers can take advantage of these baseline user skills and help students discover rules in simple and intuitive ways. 

One of the best ways to facilitate learning through play in edTech is to incorporate learning content, new challenges, and assessment into overall gameplay, rather than separating them into an imaginative experience and a multiple choice assessment. 

The more you integrate assessment directly into your student experience, the more powerful the entire experience will be. You’ll also provide opportunities for educators to learn more about students than they would through traditional programs or assessments, including their problem-solving strategies or creative choices.

Each of these learning science techniques support the way students learn, while increasing the amount of interaction and engagement in your edTech product. Not only will the content in your learning tool be more memorable, it will also address real teacher needs around process skills, assessment, and just-in-time feedback.

Whether you’re designing a low-stakes environment for students to practice new concepts or a professional learning tool for educators, these fundamental principles will make your features more effective—and more fun!

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