Why Education is the Next Frontier of Experience Design Innovation

We’re hearing a lot about education these days:

Education is broken. Education is the next bubble. Education is the new currency.

“Education” may evoke different reactions from different people, but many believe that modern educational institutions are a legacy built on convention, bureaucracy, and outdated practices.

Historically, when an industry garners public awareness for being broken, for providing poor experiences, or for being old fashioned, the designers, entrepreneurs, and tech innovators don’t trail too far behind. Some come looking for business opportunities, some for easy entry into low-stakes investments, and some for a genuine chance to redesign failing systems and create better experiences for their fellow humans. In education, as in healthcare before it, we’re beginning to see this wave of technology and design driven innovation swell toward the classrooms and faculty lounges of our country’s educational systems-- and with it a complex surge of assumptions and challenges that few are prepared to address.

In fact, 2015 was a record setting year for venture capital investment in educational technology, most of which supported the efforts of thousands of singular tech solutions aimed at “unbundling,” “disrupting,” or “privatizing” bits and pieces of the educational experience. But despite incremental improvements within existing paradigms, much of the edtech innovation we see today is not centered around student or teacher defined experiences and instead continues to focus on data, information, and efficiency. The behemoths of the Learning Management System (LMS) and publishing world are increasingly challenged by younger, more design-friendly competitors whose products are more user-friendly but whose functionality has not evolved. Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are being offered by more and more institutions, yet producing lackluster outcomes for students. Content management tools facilitate blended learning and flipped classroom curriculum, but often do so by replacing a teacher's’ existing organizational system with something new and in many ways more complicated. Software companies are creating products that provide personalized learning only so far as that personalized learning can be reduced to multiple choice questions in exchange for data and the potential invasion of student privacy.

With this, the “edtech” world continues to pat itself on the back while missing the single most important aspect of education: empathy. When you’ve met one learner, you know… one learner. It’s time for us to evolve better practices and tools to support this reality.

We’ve seen this before...

Consider the parallels in healthcare: people are beginning to understand the importance of empathy, of human-centered design... and no longer focused solely on making sleeker consumer-facing, user-friendly products for patients, or solely on making doctors’ record keeping tools easier to use. Healthcare experience design has lead to a deeper exploration and understanding of healthcare experiences and the entire service ecosystem from patients and their families, to providers and their support infrastructures, to employers and the messy world of health insurance. Health experience design applies a deep seated compassion borne of that understanding to identify the small tactical changes alongside the broader strategic efforts that can improve the healthcare experience for all-- not just those who can afford it.

Education is composed of a similarly complicated ecosystem where students and teachers are intertwined with, and directly influenced by, classmates, families, administrators, and policymakers. Designing “solutions” for students or teachers that look only through a narrow use lens at scheduling challenges or classroom management or testing software will be doomed to the same barriers to adoption and influence as we’ve seen in other sectors.

While early hopes were pinned to technological advances like electronic health records, virtual doctor’s visits, and more recently on wearable devices, these innovations have not “solved” healthcare and still face hurdles when designed without careful exploration of the context of their use. When different provider networks use incompatible EHR systems, when rural patients cannot access internet connections that support virtual visits, we see a perpetuation of the poor experience that healthcare represents to so many people.

Meanwhile in education, consider that much of the record setting investment in edtech last year was directed at tutoring and test-prep technology-- two areas linked strongly to a very narrow swath of the socioeconomic spectrum who have the luxury of disposable income and access to these services. Unlike healthcare, education is funded largely by taxpayers, and because the financial incentives for innovation flow through more diluted channels, monetizing innovation in edtech has been stuck in first gear, hampered by the same early assumptions we saw in healthcare: “If you build it, they will journal/log/record it.”

Of course, this is rarely the case. In fact, if you build it, they may ignore it entirely, or they may try it but give it up in six months. And the same challenges apply in educational settings. Parachuting ipads and other technology into classrooms without the necessary training and advocacy is similarly doomed. Even the best solutions struggle to overcome the very real hurdles to adoption that that are created by the constraints of time, funding, motivation, and tradition.

We’ve certainly observed the very real challenges in understanding even a small subset within a broad service ecosystem, let alone gaining perspective on the whole system from a bird’s eye view. But there are many ways to approach the challenge: from a systems thinking perspective, we can employ service design and transition design to broaden the problem space. And we can employ participatory design methods to empower those within it to continue improving their own experiences rather than waiting for designers to come along and do it for them.

Like healthcare, education is a wicked problem: one that can’t be “solved” with incremental changes, and yet we still are compelled to design education experiences that serve students on an individual level. When applied with genuine empathy, human-centered design can improve the experiences not only for students in their growth to become lifelong learners, but also for educators-- who are pressured to meet the impossible triple task of providing individualized instruction, following rigidly constrained curriculum, and meeting quantitative success metrics that are often at odds with this very type of human-centered design.

Of course, as the promise of ed tech salvation has become a familiar tune in recent years, human-centered design existed within education well before the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs came knocking, and experience designers can learn from the educators who historically embraced human-centered, constructivist approaches well before “experience design” became a job title. Ever since the work of John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky in the 19th century, student-centered learning represented an alternative to more hierarchical teacher-centered methods. But, as the needs of learners changed over time, the human-centered design practices that educators developed organically within their classrooms has not evolved to match. The recent influence of design thinking has already begun influencing the educational experience: from the proliferation of instructional designers-- trained as designers first and educators second-- to experimentation in the design of schools themselves.

And yet, what’s old becomes new again: Universal Design, which aims to create products, spaces, and experiences that are usable to the greatest number of people possible, has become a "new” focus in design thinking. Meanwhile, Universal Design for Learning has been a cornerstone of educational design for decades. With the evolution of the No Child Left Behind Act, signed in 2002, to the recent Every Student Succeeds Act, universal design may well be the bellwether of educational design as a means of creating learning environments and experiences where everyone’s needs are accommodated.

So, what does the future hold for education experience innovation?

The skeptic might answer: As an entrepreneurial space, edtech is near the bottom of the tech world hierarchy. It represents relatively low stakes investment and a ladder to other tech ventures. As a field with relatively low status to investors, there’s less impetus to do extensive research or invest in human-centered design methods for many newcomers to the field, while historically important education players struggle to compete with flash-in-the-pan tech ideas. What it does offer as a value to almost everyone invested in edtech is data: about students, about teachers, about learning and behavior, all of which can be used, of course, to create personalized learning experiences, but which can also be manipulated and sold.

But, the hopeful designer will answer: As a design space, education represents a tremendous opportunity for designers who genuinely care to use their unique skillset to empower teachers and students-- to help them solve their local, contextually relevant problems, to create tools that let them continue innovating even after designers have left the building, and to facilitate growth and lifelong learning as a way of being. What’s missing from much education innovation at present is exactly that which experience design can deliver: agency. As edtech journalist Audrey Watters writes, “there is a profound lack of care and justice in the work we do in education and education technology.” Experience design begins with care.

Building empathy through direct connections with students, educators, and other stakeholders helps create products they will actually use, and reforms that may actually work because they’ve participated and co-created them. Education Experience Design, or EdXD, helps educators and students build the tools they want to use, helps them understand how and why they need to use them, and helps them both fight for important top down changes necessary when those co-designed tools are not enough.

Mad*Pow’s deep expertise in healthcare experience design and human-centered methods more broadly equips us to lead innovative efforts in EdXD as well-- we understand the breadth of the field from its gnarliest institutional roots to its complex policy branches. We know that real change requires more than just “usable” or “intuitive” digital tools, more than “smart” or “personalized” learning platforms. It requires an intimate knowledge of the education ecosystem, its pillars and dysfunctions, combined with a commitment to human centered and participatory design methods that empower the players in that system to improve the education experience for themselves and everyone they influence.

As with any wicked problem, a true “solution” for education’s problems would need to be a singularly monumental operation involving a great number of people changing mindsets and behavior across a diverse nation of stakeholders. We certainly can’t expect a single app or policy to achieve that, but we can shift our philosophy to be one of working toward better experiences within the current system while advocating for change beyond it.

EdXD is that philosophy.