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Edmentum’s Commitment to Simple Technology: Designing the Student Experience

Wednesday, November 8, 2017 -- John Bowie

At Edmentum, one of the ways we fulfill our commitment to creating successful student outcomes is by striving to make the student experience simple, engaging, and effective. We understand that students who enjoy learning are more likely to achieve academic growth goals. That’s why user experience (UX) is a priority to us, and why I so enjoy my role leading Edmentum’s UX team. Using proven techniques of motivational design, my team focuses on crafting age-appropriate student experiences that meet the expectations of today’s digital natives.

Experience Design Begins with Research

Designing the student experience within our online programs is an ongoing challenge, so we regularly conduct research with learners and educators to gain insights into what’s working, where the pain points are, and how we can take the student experience to the next level. We do this in several ways:

  • Classroom Focus Groups. We share early program mockups with students to help start conversations, and then ask them questions such as:
    • What motivates them to learn?
    • What do they like and what don’t they like about learning on a computer?
    • What online games do they like to play and what makes them fun?
    • What kinds of lessons do they find most interesting?
    • In what ways do they want to track their progress on learning goals?

    As students share their personal experiences and expectations of their learning environment, we’re able to quickly uncover insights into how we can infuse these elements in our programs.

  • Observational Research. We visit classrooms to observe students directly as they use our programs. Students, especially the youngest learners, can’t always articulate their experience in an interview, so watching them as they are at work helps us find ways to make our program more engaging, easier to navigate, and simpler to use.
  • Teacher Interviews. Teachers have their finger on the pulse of their classrooms and can describe the most common questions students are asking while working through their assessments and lessons. This helps us identify areas in our programs where we can provide students with additional supports to help make their experience trouble free.

Design and Prototyping

Research reveals features that students and teachers particularly enjoy, as well as pain points, inconsistencies, navigation difficulties, and confusing labels. The next step in the experience design process is to use these insights to inform the look, feel, structure, navigation, and behavior of our programs.

For example, our research with kindergarteners and first-graders has shown that students need a simple way to log in to our programs. In response, we’ve created an easy login process for our K-8 individualized learning program, Exact Path.

After logging in, kindergarteners and first graders need an extremely simple interface that can be navigated by nonreaders, so we keep words short and simple, and provide recognizable icons. We also ensure that all assessments and lessons can be taken on a tablet, since many young children find it easier to use a touchscreen than a mouse.

To make learning fun for older elementary students, we provide colorful, animated backgrounds, “cheerleader” characters that pop out and offer encouraging messages, and trophies that students earn as they work through their assignments.

Of course, one size does not fit all when you are designing educational solutions for students. We experienced this earlier this year when making plans to enhance our K-12 practice and preparation program, Study Island. When we showed our elementary student interface to middle-schoolers, we got feedback that the artwork was too “cartoony,” although they, too, enjoyed the gamification elements and the lesson formats. In response, we added the ability for Study Island teachers to choose from among five different backgrounds ranging from an animated version hosted by our “Taco Crab” character to a simpler version with a plain background. Students can choose also now their own background if the teacher allows them to; giving them a little more control over their personal learning experience.

By the time students get to high school, they require fewer extrinsically motivating features and rely more on intrinsic motivators like progress and achievement. For these students, our 6-12 digital curriculum program, Edmentum Courseware, provides an elegant but unadorned user interface that puts the focus on pacing, assignment completion, and mastery.

When testing this concept, students commented: “I think it’s always cool when you get to see that bar fill up…seeing your progress over time.” Being able to visualize the gains they’re making keeps older students motivated to continue putting in the hard work that more advanced course work requires.

Usability and Preference Testing

After initial rounds of research are completed, Edmentum’s Product, Technology, and Experience teams begin creating mockups and building prototypes based on what we’ve learned. We build multiple concepts and go through several iterations before converging on a solution that we believe will best meet the needs we’ve identified.

Multiple rounds of testing on candidate concepts are performed. We complete “field testing,” often returning to classrooms we observed during the research phase to test our design assumptions and determine whether we have responded correctly to the suggestions we received.  We also test concepts with the children of Edmentum employees, and perform usability studies in a laboratory setting in which students from across the K-12 spectrum are asked to perform common tasks with our prototypes. We log how long it takes test subjects to complete these tasks and whether outside assistance was needed. When we find a task that is difficult or confusing, we go back to the drawing board to revise the design and workflows as needed. 

Looking to the Future

Today’s students are savvy technology users, and their expectations for how they interact with educational technology are constantly changing. The trends are toward more interactivity, more student choice, more student-to-student collaboration, more project-based instruction, more gamification, more rewards and encouragement, and richer progress monitoring. It won’t be long before virtual reality and voice-activated technology (for example, Apple’s Siri, or Amazon’s Alexa) find application in the classroom.

As all of these trends come to fruition, Edmentum is committed to remaining at the forefront of student experience design. It’s an exciting and rewarding endeavor to see students respond to our current efforts, and to imagine what will be possible in the near future.

Interested in learning more about how we’re putting students first when designing our online programs? Check out this blog on Digital Curriculum and Generation Z: The Research Behind the Learning Style of Today’s Students.