Dedicated software developers design and craft new tools, and we teachers beta-test and tinker to test out those tools --often in live learning activities with our students. For the software developer seeking critical feedback to find the perfect feature set for a game-changing product, this is the moment when magic could happen.
But often, the moment is lost in the wake of a basic question: “What worked well, and what didn’t work as well?” We teachers respond about workflow, mention the user interface, or talk about how we didn’t like the shade of blue (which, as any designer will tell you, is really low on the priority list!). And now, the moment has passed for deep, usable feedback--even if we are really excited about the product.
How could it have gone better?
We’ve heard that both edtech entrepreneurs AND edtech-enthusiastic teachers bemoan the challenges product developers face in getting meaningful feedback from potential users. But the answer is simple, but challenging to master: ask a better question.
In fact, you can look to similar professional strategies in the classroom to start. One thing that makes a great teacher is an ability to ask probing questions to deeply understand students' thinking. Phrasing questions just right to get to just the right understanding takes years of honing and practice.
For example, we know that asking students to explain why we cut flowers before placing them in a vase, why plant leaf stomata close on dry days, and why sugar snap pea vines wither from the ground up are all questions that demonstrate student knowledge more clearly than a request to define botanical transpiration. This is part of our "pedagogy," and especially "pedagogical content knowledge," or techniques that work particularly well for specific content.
So how can software developers use these educator skills to elicit the feedback they need to move their tools in directions that will really improve learning outcomes for our students?
You--edtech entrepreneurs seeking our feedback--can take advantage of our years of experience to start to change this paradigm by carefully crafting your prompts and questions to specifically target the feedback you need. Here are a few ideas to make magic happen.
Ask your teacher collaborator to consider a real potential use case in the classroom. Think of an existing lesson that could be modified using your product.
Follow up with questions like:
What are the learning goals of this use case?
How would you normally conduct this lesson?
What would this product allow you and your students to do that your previous style of conducting this lesson would not allow?
What would this product NOT allow that your previous style of conducting this lesson WOULD?
Ask your teacher collaborator to break down potential use cases for your product according to the SAMR model. If several teacher collaborators can’t imagine M or R level learning experiences with your product, that may be a red flag! Ask your teacher collaborator “What is one learning activity that you could imagine a teacher developing at the _________ level of technology integration, using this product?” Those levels are:
“Substitution,” in which teachers directly replace paper-based activities with computer-based activities, with no change to the activity itself. (An important first step for many teachers!)
“Augmentation,” in which the technology provides a functional improvement and the activity itself is essentially the same. (The technology may simplify peer editing processes, for example, or forums may support clearer book group discussions.)
“Modification,” in which the technology affords different and perhaps more engaging individual learning activities than would otherwise be possible, and the greater overall pattern to the learning may be unchanged. (Student work products may include multimedia or interactive elements rather than static posters, but the topic or driving question to the learning is unchanged.)
“Redefinition,” in which the technology fundamentally changes the learning opportunity in ways that were inconceivable without technology (For example, through a wider network of collaboration, student-driven content creation, and/or the application of concepts towards global problem solving.)
We know that teachers will suggest features left and right that they think would be spiffy, but do those meet a broad need? And are they necessary for the learning goals supported by the product? To narrow your feedback to features that genuinely meet your goals and the learning needs of kids, you again need to narrow your feedback prompts.
What are two or three specific learning outcomes that this product supports well?
What are two or three specific learning outcomes that this product *could* support, but currently doesn’t do well?
What adjustments could be made to support a specific learning outcome? Please describe that learning outcome, and how it could be met through this product?
You want to find bugs. You want users to hammer on your product, but keep in mind that most teachers are not professional software testers. Phrase even those simple questions well so that you’ll avoid “Well, I didn’t really like the blue color…”
As you worked through your example lesson use case, did you encounter any opportunities for improving specific features or aspects of this product?
How easy or challenging was it to move from one part of the learning process to the next?
What features did you find useful within the teacher dashboard? What barriers prevented you from accessing the student data or crafting the learning activity from within the teacher dashboard?
Carefully phrasing your feedback prompts can definitely lead to much deeper and more meaningful feedback from your teacher collaborators, and it can also support your own deeper understanding of learning trajectories in the classroom as well as your teacher collaborators’ varying pedagogies. If you ask what each of us likes, that doesn’t give you a strong window into our classrooms or into our individual instructional designs.
Stephanie Sandifer is an educator with nearly 20 years of experience teaching at all levels. She currently teaches online at the college and high school levels, provides freelance consulting and curriculum development focused on edtech integration, presents regionally and nationally on edtech and innovation in learning, serves on the Advisory Board for A+ Unlimited Potential (a new innovative middle school located within the Houston Museum District), and on the Advisory Board for the SXSWedu Conference. She is also a co-organizer for EdCamp Houston, founder of InVITE, and volunteer Tech Coach at her children’s public Montessori school.