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iPads for Schools? Not that simple. Ed-Tech Needs “Design Research.”

May 9th, 2013Business, Design, International, Tech


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 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.

5 Responses

  1. Considering that One Laptop per Child (OLPC) launched a worldwide movement for 1:1 computing in schools, to declare it a failure is a bit of overstatement. More fundamentally you assume that the only way to educate children is through classrooms and schools, which is questionable given the lack of educational resources and teacher training in most of the world. OLPC opted to define and understand a different user, the student, and fostered a student centric approach which relied less on infrastructure to support learning. You and OLPC have defined a different user, which explains a lot more than your declaration that OLPC failed.

  2. Ove Christensen says:

    I think there is a very important discussion going on between the post and the comment by Robert Hacker. In one end you have people (children as well as grown ups) without the means to gain basic knowledge and information. People who are not scaffolded for educational development. In the other end you find people with a lot of ressources and inner drive who are able to take advantage of all the available information channels, networks etc. (They are probadly the main participants in MOOCs) In between you find most formal education where you find people who are getting an education and they are supported in that endeavour.
    The three groups are so different that designing teaching that addresses all of them is impossible. And when you go into each of the groups you’ll also discern differences that make even a strategy for hidding one of the groups might be futile.
    I believe context is always one of the most important agents when it comes to education. So of course OLPC was not a faillure – and Mitry is not a faillure – but they have a different target group than most formal education. That is not to say that you can take the OLPC approach and get rid of all the teachers in K12 institutions. That is to say that teachers and schools wasn’t available for the target group – and, hence, another design for education was needed. And some people came up with a workable design. Just as MOOCs is a great educational design for a defined group of students – but it wont work with all students.

  3. Kim Campbell says:

    You both bring up very interesting points. I completely agree that OLPC did some things really well. Spearheading the global conversation on 1:1 devices in global development was one of them. But what was the technology’s intended purpose in the schools? What was the design problem it was meant to solve? If it was meant to improve the quality of students’ educational outcomes or reinvent how children are educated in global classrooms, then there were quite a few implementations that failed to accomplish that in schools. It is in this respect I would say OLPC failed.

    I love the observation that learning happens outside the classroom. Also agree there. Which is why Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall project is so interesting. It really brings that to light! But OLPC was deployed largely through schools. And this also brings up an interesting aspect of designing education technology. Although the student may be the primary end user, there are all these other stakeholders that drastically influence what technology is made available to the student, what educational goals are prioritized, and how the technology is facilitated. While a child may enjoy, and develop stronger cognitive skills from playing a maze game, a government that’s invested millions may think that time is better served focusing on learning how to read. A parent may think the focus should be different. Companies designing solutions for education have to take all these competing views into consideration because they all affect the end user’s interaction with the technology.

  4. There is always greater ambiguity in defining the problem in any activity involving the government. The government, citizens and the end users all seek somewhat different outcomes. This greatly adds to the difficulty of measuring the results, particularly in critical activities such as education and healthcare.

    Despite the efforts of OLPC and others to develop new ways of learning through technology, most projects use technology to reinforce traditional teaching methods. In such cases why would one expect improved outcomes from the same traditional approaches, albeit with a computer. The different outcomes desired by all the players to some degree explains why there is inadequate attention to using the technology for new ways of learning.

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