What Makes a Good Edtech Tool Great?

Technology Tips

What Makes a Good Edtech Tool Great?

By Tanner Higgin     Jul 21, 2018

What Makes a Good Edtech Tool Great?

In the last five years, there have been some remarkable shifts in the tools educators use in the classroom and to perform their many responsibilities. We’ve seen the market fluctuate dramatically, as early iPad-dominated classrooms gave way to the rise of Google. The boom and bust of Common Core standards have left their mark, just as new concerns over media literacy and privacy are doing currently.

As a director for Common Sense Education, I’ve enjoyed something of a ringside seat, having edited close to 1,000 edtech reviews written by expert educators. We look at a huge variety of products and services, and we’re always tweaking our rubric and updating aging evaluations. Yet one thing has remained oddly consistent: only 4 percent of our reviews get a 5-star rating.

Here’s the thing, though: we want this percentage to be higher. From our perspective, the more 5-star tools that are out there, the better. And while we’ve seen many tools jump from 3- to 4-stars, the jump from 4- to 5-stars remains rare. To evaluate products, we use a 15-point rubric that evaluates three key qualities (engagement, pedagogy and support) essential to great digital learning. We look at whether a tool promotes conceptual understanding and creativity, how it adapts to students' individual needs and how well it supports knowledge transfer.

Having been on the development side, I know how tough it is to make great stuff, especially without quality feedback tuned to the unique challenges of making learning experiences. With that in mind, I’ve put together some best practices we’ve observed from doing thousands of reviews. These are the things that separate the great from the very good.

Listen to Teachers and Students

While to many this goes without saying, believe me when I tell you: A good portion of the products we review clearly haven’t been informed by anyone in actual classrooms. If a tool has any hope of being useful and widely-adopted then it needs early and continual feedback from teachers and students.

At the beginning, these conversations can pinpoint needs. During development, feedback provides evidence and clarity when making tough choices and refining your product roadmap. Of course the whole process breaks down when this process is less about listening and adjusting, and more about verifying already decided upon approaches.

Example: Seesaw: The Learning Journal just flat out “gets it.” They’ve incrementally developed a portfolio product that’s clearly informed by how teachers work and students learn. It’s well-aligned with the goals of elementary classrooms: The learning activities activate students’ creativity while the multi-modal assessment appeals to innovate teachers and offers great home-to-school connections.

Identify a Real, Solvable Problem

The edtech industry has a tendency to misdiagnose the day-to-day challenges teachers and students face. There’s a reason: The problems (poverty, class sizes, teacher pay, segregation, lack of time, burnout) are consequences of systemic inequity and under-funding. These are political struggles and not something edtech can adequately address. However, within those huge challenges there are points of impact where developers can offer help. To find them, great developers narrow their focus and offer teachers meaningful support with a smaller, specific need.

Example: Newsela started out with a simple goal: providing high-interest, fresh, and adjustable non-fiction texts to teachers. It’s a great example of finding a routine need many teachers have (providing students with relevant readings) and then using the affordances of technology (dynamic reading levels and daily publishing) to make things easier and materially better for teachers.

Do an Exhaustive Competitive Analysis

Every year our editorial team walks the ISTE expo floor to find new tools to review. One question we often ask developers is, “How does your product compare to X?” We’re surprised how often developers struggle with this question, either because they don’t have an answer, or, more commonly, they just haven’t heard of their competitors. Teachers know how hard it can be sifting through ten different apps for parent communication or two dozen interactive whiteboard tools, each claiming to be the best solution. Even if that is the case, it’s impossible to stick out in an oversaturated category. Your product will have a much better chance if it finds whitespace in the market, or enters an established market with an immediately identifiable competitive advantage. For help finding these competitors, check out our Top Picks or the EdSurge Product Index.

Example: Zearn has seen fast success for a math curriculum, a crowded category that’d normally take time to break into. But Zearn has effectively carved out a space for themselves with a differentiation-friendly curriculum that mixes digital lessons and in-person, teacher-facilitated lessons and group work. This unique approach not only better matches the way teachers actually teach (vs. doing everything on computers), but it also offers learners different ways to encounter content and demonstrate learning.

Create Clear, Concrete Messaging

You’ve got about 10-20 seconds to convince someone to stick around on your product’s website, and a fraction of that if they’re seeing you social media. While messaging might seem trivial in comparison to these other practices, I can’t emphasize enough how vague marketing can turn teachers off. Some tips: Discard marketing cliches like “digital,” “technology,” “engage,” “empower,” “transform,” “revolutionize” and “solution.” Try to articulate how you can help people in plain, concrete, and descriptive language. Pair this with some images, GIFs or maybe a video that offer teachers an ultra-fast glimpse of your product in action. Finally, make it easy for teachers to try it out themselves. Avoid the whole “Contact us to try this out!” and guided demo approach. Let your work speak for itself, and spare teachers the high-pressure sell.

Example: Screencastify’s site is a good model of how to do this well. They present a very simple pitch up front—“Record your screen” (as well as a rotating list of possibilities other than “screen.” Below that there’s a button to just go try it out. If you’re not ready to do that yet, you can scroll down and see a tour that highlights features side-by-side with an illustrative GIF of the product. They also offer some bullets of distinctive features (e.g. “No more bulky software”).

Focus on Learning Design

Too many learning products are stuck in an ‘80s and ‘90s vision of digital learning. You know the type: computerized-instruction grounded in cartoony interactives that re-interpret worksheet exercises. Sure, this style of product is familiar, cheap, efficient and measurable, but it’s misery for both students and teachers. Just because something is colorful doesn’t mean it’s fun; just because it’s gamified doesn’t mean it’s playful. Great products dig deep into learning design and research, offering students memorable experiences that teachers can use as a platform for all kinds of next-step activities and assessments.

Example: Walden, a game is one of those rare educational products that I just can’t stop thinking about. Games that dig into literature are exceedingly rare, and I’m not sure any have done so as effectively as Walden, which gets students to read Walden, but to do so while living one’s own alternate history of Thoreau’s time at the pond. This helps students contextualize Thoreau’s writing and philosophies in a way unique to games.

Make Privacy a Priority

Privacy issues are increasingly top-of-mind for administrators and teachers when selecting what tools students use. This isn’t just an issue of compliance. More importantly, it’s about valuing students’ learning and agency, something you can’t claim to do without providing an environment that respects and safeguards their data and privacy. While we’ve seen the development community increasingly onboard with this perspective, our 2018 State of EdTech Privacy Report found there’s a long road ahead due to “a widespread lack of transparency and inconsistent privacy and security practices.” While it can seem daunting to tackle these issues, we’ve been busy putting together a privacy evaluation system and supporting resources that we hope are helpful to developers trying to make their privacy policies more transparent.

Example: While any product offers some privacy risks, Remind’s policies were transparent enough to earn their “Use Responsibly” recommendation and an overall evaluation score of 71 from our privacy evaluation team.

Give Teachers and Students Agency

If there’s one philosophy that connects all great edtech developers, it’s that they’re dedicated to making teacher- and student-driven experiences. What does that mean? In my perspective, it’s about giving teachers and students meaningful control (not just choice) over their learning, so they can use your tool based on their needs and contexts. Great tools emphasize and support the creativity of learners, and respect the fact every classroom is unique.

Example: Minecraft: Education Edition has the advantage of building on the phenomenally successful and influential design of Minecraft. Still, Microsoft has added value through a set of tools that let teachers and students make Minecraft work for classrooms and class content—without losing the feeling of freedom, creativity, and collaboration baked into the original experience. What results are co-crafted stories about learning that teachers and students share ownership over.

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