In the age of COVID-19, it’s no longer optional for school districts and educational institutions around the world to have some form of education technology at their disposal. They’re now reliant on these tech platforms to provide the digital instruction, assessment, and administration tools that are helping to ensure learning isn’t interrupted when students and teachers are unable to do it in physical classrooms.
Marcus Fields, co-founder of school operations software company SchoolCloud, and Eric Swanson, VP of product management, practice, and instruction at Renaissance Learning, a learning analytics company that makes educational software and adaptive assessments, are two product managers working on the frontlines of this new educational landscape. They joined Pendo’s chief product officer, Brain Crofts, in a recent webinar, “The Digital Learning Experience: What’s Next,” to discuss the current and future state of edtech as the world moves toward the “new normal.”
Revisit your roadmap
Product roadmaps are looking a lot different these days at both companies, too, with swift additions and painful revisions.
Fields said the long-planned launch of a new product, a platform for managing extracurricular clubs, events, and field trips, expected to happen in May was temporarily suspended when COVID-19 hit, so as not to put undue pressure on schools. “What we didn’t want to do was migrate customers to a new product that they’d be unfamiliar with in the height of the pandemic,” he said.
With schools closed worldwide, SchoolCloud found itself forced to pivot its product to focus more on hosting video meetings for parent-teacher conferences rather than digitally scheduling traditional in-person meetings.
Fields said the idea for this functionality was first pitched by an attendee at an industry conference some years ago, but at the time it wasn’t something SchoolCloud deemed a high priority. But, as was the case for many companies this spring, SchoolCloud’s roadmap drastically changed in response to the pandemic, and it shot to the top of the list.
“As things changed, we remembered that one person who asked about hosting virtual parent-teacher conferences all those years ago, and we saw this as an opportunity to focus overnight on building this new functionality,” he said.
Since launching the feature, SchoolCloud has hosted over 15 million minutes worth of video conferences, and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
At Renaissance, Swanson saw an urgent need to ensure that all students would be able to access their software regardless of their socioeconomic status or access to high-speed internet.
“We’ve opened up a lot of our products, to certain countries, to certain programs, for free,” he said. “We really want to make sure those students who are at home in certain situations have access to great reading materials, great math materials, engaging books, quizzes, activities, that they can use to further their education.”
Fields said making their product available to as many people as possible was front of mind as the company adapted to the pandemic. That meant finding ways to make it work on as many devices as possible, and, in particular, ensuring it worked smoothly on the now-ubiquitous smartphones that are commonplace in even the most underprivileged communities and include the bare minimum of a microphone capability required to make the software function.
“We didn’t want to require people to have a certain standard of device,” he said. “As long as they have a smartphone, they can use the product.” Swanson agreed: “More resistant teachers might be less resistant to pulling it up on their phone.”
Swanson said this period of free access will hopefully lead to conversion to paid accounts, depending how long the pandemic stretches on and what sort of value the company is able to show to those users. To that end, they’re putting a lot of effort into ensuring their implementations are consistent, and that school staff are fully supported throughout the process. They’ve also launched a project to ensure their products work on low-bandwidth connections and that students can download and consume content offline.
Swanson said Renaissance also had to shift its focus toward ensuring student data could continue to flow while remaining secure as classrooms and schools moved to the virtual realm. With student bodies dispersed, school administrators and state legislatures are also requesting more and new kinds of data to ensure students are achieving educational goals, he said.
Flatten the learning curve
While a small percentage of classrooms were regularly using edtech pre-COVID, nearly all schools are now, Swanson noted. With that comes a need to make sure teachers are getting the right training and support to make the best use of it, especially older teachers who may have thus far been more resistant to technology in their classrooms.
That starts with ensuring your products are intuitive and easy to use from outset, Fields said. “It doesn’t really matter what product or service it is, try to make it very simple to get started,” he said.
Integrating SchoolCloud with a student information system, so that student data is at teachers’ fingertips right out of the gate, or putting single sign-on in place can lower barriers to use, while software like Pendo can make it easy for users to adopt a platform through in-app onboarding and for product teams to see where friction points are with usage analytics.
Fields said SchoolCloud has also been refining its product to remove unnecessary features from pages to keep users from being overwhelmed. “Think in the mind of the user, the teacher, and what’s most important for them to see, and build the product around that,” he said.
How much of this new tech-driven educational landscape will remain when the pandemic begins to fade is still an open question, Swanson said. It’ll take at least a full school year cycle to truly understand the long-term staying power of the changes.
“Right now, (educators) feel uncertain in the moment, they maybe feel like (edtech) isn’t the way to go long term, but I think until we put a little perspective—six months, a year—and look back and interview those teachers, they might regress a little bit but those things that really have value for the student population will continue to grow,” he said.
Fields believes the current boom of educators learning to use technology to deliver education will make it more likely that they’ll welcome new systems and platforms moving forward. “As long as we can deliver products that don’t frustrate users, then I think they’ll continue taking on more technology,” he said.