Why do so few EdTech companies put the learner first?

A hopeful post encouraging EdTech to adopt a learner-centric philosophy

Jamie Brooker
Apr 10, 2018 · 6 min read

My colleague Tim recently issued a rallying cry to EdTech companies to fundamentally modernise teaching and learning.

I wanted to focus on my own frustration with how few EdTech companies are genuinely designed to improve the learner experience itself.

In the fight to capture the minds of the education decision makers, they forget to engage the hearts of learners.

EdTech’s overarching mission should be to give every individual learner the greatest chance to explore their potential throughout life.

If EdTech startups don’t adopt a learner-centric philosophy, they simply end up reinforcing outdated workflows and pedagogies, without having the learner’s best interests in mind.

Which is a huge problem if we want to shift behaviours enough for EdTech to genuinely have a social impact.

Note: For the sake of making a point in this article I will focus on school education, however, many of the points apply right through institutionalised education, and beyond.

Why are learners forgotten? Because they’re at the bottom of the education hierarchy.

As technology has been introduced, the dynamic of classrooms hasn’t significantly changed.

There’s an established hierarchy in school institutions, contributing to several reasons why so few EdTech companies genuinely focus on the end learner experience.

Reason 1: Learners don’t decide what technology is used

Most EdTech companies settle for fitting into the established system: “If we want to get traction, we need to focus on the people responsible for choosing what technology is used.”

They are often school leaders, administrators or teachers. They may use the technology themselves, but often, it is handed down the hierarchy to the next person to utilise.

Sadly, those who end up using it — whether it’s learners or teachers — rarely have a say in whether this new tool is genuinely improving their experience.

Usually it’s not designed with and for learners, but the decision maker instead. The validation of whether it actually works is skipped.

Acquisition trumps experience and value, reinforcing the current education experience rather than rethinking it.

Reason 2: Most EdTech pitched for learning, is for teaching

Free products are often adopted by teachers and brought into classrooms.

Unfortunately, teaching products are rarely learning products. EdTech companies think they’re being learner centric when they’re not!

Even if the learner ends up using it, do they enjoy it? Is it motivating them? Giving them purpose? Reassuring them? Supporting their progress? Helping them take their learning into their own hands, or discover a sense of direction?

Often, the answer is no, instead the product is measuring and monitoring them.

The teacher community is wonderful, the grassroots nature of it is driven by pure passion. I’ve loved my times meeting teachers all around the world.

However, while EdTech companies get excited about putting their products into the hands of teachers, I feel something often gets lost.

Watching a panel debate at a conference a few years ago, an EdTech entrepreneur in the audience stated “teachers want more data to do their job better”. The one teacher on the panel quickly responded with “no we don’t, we’re doing our jobs better when our students are deeply engaged in their learning”.

Smart EdTech companies don’t assume what’s best for learning by giving teachers more tools to control their students. Instead they are able to design for the end learner experience, which simultaneously transforms the experience for teachers.

Because here’s the thing; the experience for teachers becomes transformative when the learners’ experience is transformative too.

The problem with a lot of EdTech is that it’s designed like old text books. It lacks modern pedagogy, autonomy, relevance, emotion and empathy. It’s designed for existing teaching practices, rather than new learning behaviours.

Reason 3: The system makes it hard to genuinely improve the learner experience

Transforming the learning experience isn’t easy. The current system requires us to benchmark and rank everyone’s performance.

If experiencing an EdTech product creates an immeasurable experience, it’s deemed not up to the job. People ask: How can we prove that this works?

Yet, sometimes it’s just enough to inspire someone. To put a smile on their face. Make them feel like they want to be there. Because who knows what will happen beyond that moment?

Some learning outcomes can’t be measured. We can’t always quantify emotion, engagement or desire. Yet they’re just as important as acquiring knowledge when it comes to helping people on the journey to realising their unique potential.

EdTech propagates the notion that education needs things to be clear cut. Yet truly understanding individual learners as human beings is inherently fuzzy.

Sadly, EdTech’s solution becomes to create yet more admin panels, data dashboards and learning management systems, which again reinforces the established system.

Learning is a human behaviour, treat it that way

1. Make it your mission to help every learner reach their potential

To join EdTech on it’s collective mission, think about your impact on the end learner first (even if your products support other areas of school administration).

Learner-centricity is about how you design, communicate and behave.

It isn’t about monitoring performance; it’s about understanding learners as unique individuals, creating compelling and memorable experiences, helping build confidence, showing empathy and understanding. It’s about giving them the ability to understand their own progress and to identify areas they need to focus to continue to develop as a human being.

If we’re all contributing to the same mission, the opportunity to create genuine change becomes greater.

2. Work with teachers, to shape the experience for learners

Teachers are vital co-creators in designing EdTech experiences. They share the same purpose to give every learner the best chance to achieve their potential.

Design your products on a strong pedagogical foundation, fitting within the classroom of today, but with an eye on what that looks like tomorrow.

Prove your pedagogies with teachers. Work with them to deeply understand and improve the experience for learners, focusing on inclusion, emotion and behaviour.

Use those insights to also understand how your products fit into the workflow of the teacher. A fine balance is needed between giving teachers tools, whilst ultimately improving the lives of learners.

Strong brands are able speak to different types of users in different ways. The aim with EdTech should be to gain the trust of teachers and love of learners.

3. Bridge the gap from the classroom to beyond

Stop designing clichéd and clinical products, and aim to bring emotion into the learning experience.

Look outside the classroom for inspiration. Look at other industries or sectors. Understand what young people engage with in their everyday life. What feels relevant to them? Look at pop culture. Look at the brands they love.

Think globally from day one. Spend time on the outside of the EdTech bubble. Create new frameworks that break out of nationalised education systems.

Ultimately, reduce the gap from the classroom to the real world. You’ll be far more relevant to today’s learners.

4. Strive to discover new business models

This is far easier said than done, I get it.

However, the procurement process in schools is killing real innovation in EdTech. Strive to break out of the established sales model.

Build growth in as a foundational aspect of your company, and learn from all the real user behaviours you see.

Do opportunities emerge for more sustainable models that put the power in the hands of the people who actually use the products?

Selling into the school hierarchy isn’t the only way. It may be harder to discover these newer models, but the rewards and room for real, long term behaviour change will be worth it.

A final thought…

There’s a lot of companies in EdTech who, while having the best of intentions, are skirting around the real purpose of education. Is it time we introduced a new category… #LearnTech anyone?

If you’ve got this far, thanks for reading… I would hugely appreciate some claps 👏 and shares 🙌 so that others can find it!

We Are Human creates purpose driven organisations striving for social and commercial impact. We are mostly known for co-founding and incubating Kahoot!, “the world’s fastest growing learning brand”, launched in August 2013. By May 2017, we had scaled Kahoot! to reach 50 million people around the world every month, along with our co-founders and a highly dedicated team.

We Are Human

Musings about entrepreneurship, growth, design thinking and…

We Are Human

Musings about entrepreneurship, growth, design thinking and leadership from the co-founders and incubators of Kahoot!.