iPads for Schools? Not that simple. Ed-Tech Needs “Design Research.”
Kim Campbell and Hila Mehr
Last week, gaming company Zynga announced the launch of a $1M accelerator for educational games in partnership with the NewSchools Venture Fund. Similarly, ed-tech incubator Imagine K12 recently announced the formation of a Start Fund that will support promising new ed-tech entrepreneurs with a $100k investment. Education technology is seeing more money, support, and incubation than ever before. As exciting as it is to see these changes, as the sector grows, what we would like to see more of in ed-tech is design research.
One of the resounding lessons from the failure of initiatives like One Laptop Per Child has been that ed-tech initiatives fail to reach their potential when they lack understanding of the school environment and users. This is where design research comes in.
“Design research,” a term popularized by innovation consultancy IDEO, is the discipline of developing a deep understanding of users and incorporating them into every element of a product’s design. Rather than getting feedback on a product your team has already built, design research demands that your users’ needs drive a product’s development from the beginning. For new enterprises, understanding the user is no longer an extra element to give the company an edge; it’s a pre-requisite to success. This is the level of acceptance design research needs to take in the world of education technology.
Where design thinking becomes especially relevant to ed-tech is the fact that we are already seeing technology products being developed for a wide range of education systems throughout the world. Technology in education has captured the imagination of leaders on every continent and the past few years has seen announcement of one-tablet-per-child schemes in India, Ethiopia, Thailand, and New York City. Exchanging ideas across nations is exciting and encouraged, as long as the heavy lifting is done to ensure that the idea meets the needs of the people and can thrive in the new context each school district, city, and country offers.
Our report, Education Technology in India: Designing Ed-Tech for Affordable Private Schools lays the groundwork for understanding users in India’s growing affordable private school (APS) market. Through our own application of several design research methods, we uncovered how each school stakeholder influences technology purchases, and identified over a dozen tangible ways ed-tech could better address school pain-points and succeed in the APS context.
For instance, developing solutions that rely on tech use in spaces outside of school could reinforce the surprising gender gaps that we found in Internet access between girls and boys. It’s important for core educational content to be visually appealing to students while tied explicitly to the school curriculum, otherwise teachers will have to work harder to make it relevant, or just see it as a burden. Parents’ middle class aspirations for their children make them willing to invest in technologies that will improve their children’s grades, and also develop skill that makes the children more employable, with an emphasis on English language and 21st century skills.
As ed-tech products become more sophisticated, integration of stakeholders needs to be present through all stages of the product’s creation. Investors and ed-tech accelerators can be an important part of facilitating this trend. For instance, Imagine K12 accomplishes this with its teachers in residence program. The constant conversation that the cohort has with teachers throughout their company’s development helps create scalable, workable solutions that can actually take hold in the classroom. Programs like Stanford’s d.school fellowship for Edu innovators could also be the beginning of placing thoughtful design and ed-tech in tandem.
Why is design research so important to education technology? Because each school is really its own little universe, with its own ecosystem, objectives, and colony of unique individuals. The outcome of creating products that actually work can open a world of opportunity and learning success for a child–or for a generation of children. The cost of not building relevant and innovative products is too high. So let’s not miss the opportunity to change the future of education and start taking the time to understand the people behind the solutions we’re building.
Kim Campbell and Hila Mehr are co-authors of the report. Campbell recently worked with Grey Matters Foundation on ed-tech project in Hyderabad and Mehr is a recent IDEX fellow in Social Enterprise.