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June 30, 2017

Designers Discuss the Challenges (and Rewards) of Designing for Education

AltSchool was honored to host a group of talented designers changing the face of education technology in a Leaders in Education + Design panel organized by Khan Academy. Thought leaders from Coursera, Desmos, Remind, Khan Academy, and AltSchool talked about the challenges they face crafting tools for education and how they’re working to make quality education more accessible for everyone.

Moderator May-Li Khoe, director of design and co-director of long-term research at Khan Academy, kicked off the event with the panelists: Jenny Wales, designer at Desmos, Danny Salvatori, product and UX designer for Remind, Chris Palmatier, senior product designer at Coursera, Tabitha Yong, senior product designer at Khan Academy, and AltSchool lead designer, Alex Hollender.

Overcoming Design Challenges Unique to Education

An audience member participates in the discussion.

Panelists started by discussing the many challenges they faced designing for EdTech, many of which were surprising coming from non-education backgrounds. The general consensus was that seeing the challenges educators face was extremely humbling.

While most people claim to be “busy,” teachers are truly busier than any profession the designers had encountered, and the need for a solution that requires minimal training and professional development was a huge challenge.

Solving the challenge of designing tools that teachers and students can use out-of-the-box is a large, complex, humbling problem. While design across many industries requires a level of trial and error, the learning curve is steeper in education and the repercussions are bigger. Designers often find it challenging to quantify success and failure when there is such a human aspect to education, making it almost impossible to break results down into simple quantitative metrics.

Therefore, every design is a hypothesis until it gets used. Even with research, you learn new things—users will use your product in ways you never imagined.

Alex Hollender gives some background about AltSchool's platform.

Technology’s Role in Education

While many job sectors are nervous about technology replacing humans, all the designers agreed that no level of technology could replace the human aspect of education. Technology doesn’t replace traditional modes of teaching, but rather, it enhances them.

Bridging any gaps in education—between educators and students, between educators and parents—by creating better tools was a clear goal. There was no question that technology replacing people in education is not the direction we are moving.

“One of our core beliefs is that education is fundamentally a human experience,” said AltSchool’s Alex Hollender. “Whenever we think about designing and improving an experience, we start with educational philosophy, then look at actual practices that teachers and students are using in our lab schools. Technology comes third, and is meant to supplement, scaffold, and amplify what is already happening. We never look to technology to solve a problem on its own.”

Alex recently partnered with one of AltSchool’s classroom educators to co-teach a design learning arc to better inform his UX design decisions, explained that the project had opened his eyes to how much design and curation went into creating innovative, long-tail lesson plans. “There is a symmetry between design and teaching frameworks.”

The Rewards of Designing Education Technology

Despite the unique challenges that come with designing technology with such a human component, the panel ultimately found their work incredibly gratifying. By making a piece of technology like a graphing calculator that was unaffordable for many homes free, Desmos was making education more accessible to everyone, which was very rewarding as a designer.

Khan Academy’s many success stories included a man who had dropped out of high school after his family became homeless, but was able to enroll in Columbia University after he used Khan Academy to take free high school classes at his own pace and schedule. Stories like that led the team at Khan Academy to realize how powerful education is in empowering the disenfranchised and how technology can help learning more accessible.

Across the board, the most surprising part of designing for education was generosity of other designers—many of whom were in the audience. “I've met with several designers to share ideas and challenges and talked about how, unlike other industries I've worked in, the EdTech community is particularly open to sharing ideas and learnings with each other,” Alex said. “There is a general acknowledgement that this problem is too big for any one company to solve on their own. We put the challenge ahead of the individual company we work for, which is really inspiring.”

Thank you San Francisco Design Week and our talented panel for coming together for inspiring conversation.

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