User Research Findings are the Key to Designing More Adaptive edTech

Monica Sherwood bio picture Monica Sherwood

As teachers returned to in-person instruction this year, they reported unprecedented learning gaps between their students. Some students stayed engaged during virtual learning. Other students didn’t attend virtual classes or experienced difficulty completing tasks on their own.

This widening gap between individual students makes it more difficult for teachers to meet students where they are. Typically, a teacher “differentiates” content for students, especially students with special needs. Differentiation requires teachers to provide individualized support, so all students can understand a concept—no matter their starting point. 

With so many students now at different levels, however, differentiation on a large scale has become almost impossible. edTech must do a better job supporting teachers throughout this ongoing crisis.

In order to have an even greater impact on pandemic learning outcomes, edTech publishers can use existing tech to create products that both assess students for understanding and scaffold learning content effectively.

Below, we’ll walk you through how user research findings can support re-sequencing your learning content. By making your content more adaptive, you can improve user outcomes like engagement, usage, or accuracy—all while supporting the needs of teachers in the classroom.

Better Content Sequencing for the Pandemic Student Persona 

Better content sequencing improves the adaptability of your learning tools and gives students the support they need to practice, learn, and retain content.

In order to support teachers who need to differentiate instruction within a single classroom, edTech products can:

  • Identify what students already understand
  • Anticipate a wider range of user understanding and content familiarity within grade bands
  • “Scaffold” learning content by providing additional tools or opportunities to practice
  • Design alternate pathways through learning content

In addition to preparing multiple pathways through learning content, you can support scaffolding by using technology to your advantage. For example, if you’re designing a reading app that exposes students to new vocabulary words, you can:

  • Design a fun, low-stakes pre-test, like a matching game
  • Break down how concepts are introduced and sequence them
  • Provide tools like visual charts and graphic organizers for extra support

By using existing data, you can inform each students’ pathway through your product and identify any gaps for teachers through reporting. The more you are able to structure your content design to address multiple pathways through your learning content, the more adaptive and supportive your product will be.

User Testing and Task Completion

Sometimes low engagement with a particular feature points to a need for more adaptability. 

Perhaps students tend to give up when they reach a specific moment in your learning game. Instead of assuming you’ve got to start all over, try conducting a user test and observing what students do. Are they giving up too early? Not completing every task? Do they fully understand the concept?

In well-designed edTech products, struggling students receive immediate feedback. They’re prompted to try again or click on a button for help. If your product currently only tells students whether they’re successful or not, it’s probably easier than you think to add additional checks for understanding. These could include:

  • A one-question quiz after an instructional video
  • Animation or illustration that calls out areas for support
  • Asking students to engage by choosing an emoji or thumbs up/down

Beta test your new features to see if they increase engagement, usage, or accuracy in your trouble area. The best way to do this is to roll new elements out, test them slowly, and observe the data.

Best of all, you can leverage content you already have to provide just-in-time support for students. You don’t have to create an expensive new fix or invest in new logic in order to be more responsive and engaging at the moment students need the most support.

Rapid Prototype Testing for Classroom Use

User research findings will also help you uncover whether your product’s internal logic and content sequencing make sense in real learning environments. By talking to and observing actual teachers at work, you’ll get a better sense of which strategies can make your content more effective or adaptive for your users. 

You may wish to ask for user feedback on wireframes or conduct rapid prototype testing in a classroom environment to get a better picture of how your product might be used. Here are just a few elements to observe in a classroom or virtual setting:

  • How do teachers test students for understanding? Can you emulate this strategy in technology in an efficient way?
  • How is your product used in the classroom? In small groups? During individual learning time? How does this observation change the way you think about content sequencing or scaffolding supports?
  • Which competitor products do teachers use? When, why, and how do they integrate competitor products into their instruction?

The stronger your understanding of how teachers use your product in the classroom, the more of an impact you can make with your content, sequencing, and UX design choices—and the easier it will be to design adaptive content pathways from the ground up.

Building Adaptive Content Pathways from the Beginning

In an ideal world, you would have plenty of time to research and test adaptive content from the first wireframe. Proactive companies are already starting to think this way. Products like Zearn, which uses both audio and video to break down concepts, offer a strong example for how to bake adaptive content into your designs.

Moving forward, it will also be important for edTech publishers to think more openly about the concept of grade banding. One of the biggest pieces of feedback we receive from teachers is that their students are in very different places, even within the same grade. If your learning content only offers the concepts traditionally associated with a specific grade, you risk rolling out a product that is less useful to teachers—and less reflective of student needs.

If you’re considering designing a new adaptive feature within an existing product, there are easy, cost-efficient ways to tackle content sequencing:

  • Break your content down into concepts—not just grade levels or bands.
  • Market your learning tool by concepts, or consider alternative licensing models for teachers who may need access to more than one grade band to use your tool effectively.
  • Align and tag your content to state standards, making it easier to search. For example, a 3rd-grade teacher may need to look at 2nd-grade standards in order to help a student get up to speed.

At first glance, re-imagining your learning content in order to make it more adaptive seems like an expensive, time-consuming endeavor. But these strategies offer light-weight ways to make a real impact on both student learning outcomes and product engagement. 

By leveraging the content you already have and collaborating directly with your users, you can discover how to sequence your product more effectively. With more adaptive sequencing and more creative scaffolding, your product will give students the support they need to succeed during a deeply challenging time.

Are you re-designing a learning tool to make your content more adaptive? Contact us below to find out how we can help!

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