EdTech’s Next Mountain: User Experience

Nearly 75% of US college students joined part or all of their classes virtually in the fall of 20201. These online education statistics won’t hold as most students are back in-person after the height of the pandemic. But remote education has been normalized and its landscape forever broadened. EdTech software must rise to meet this challenge not only in its functionality, but also in the user experience.

Video quality is no longer the issue

The initial reservation to online learning was that the audio and visual technology was not sufficient for students to have a quality educational experience while remote. Certainly we have all said, “Can you hear me now?” enough times in a virtual meeting to understand how disruptive that can be in a classroom of 30 students.

The quality of audio and video has improved dramatically in the last few years, so this particular issue is no longer as valid as it may have once been. This is especially true because as a society, we have largely adapted to the idea that the quality of online video will never be perfect. But it can still be good enough to make the experience worthwhile.

Synchronous vs Asynchronous video experiences

One of the biggest decisions someone building a remote education solution makes is whether to use synchronous or asynchronous video. Synchronous video basically means live video. Asynchronous video generally refers to recorded videos.

According to StreamingMedia’s “The State of Education Video 2022” report, synchronous video is on the rise in the classroom. It seems logical that this is primarily because it’s easy to just bring up Zoom on a laptop and point it towards the instructor. But that doesn’t make it the best way to learn.

The EdTech experience varies based on use case

Education is a very broad industry. Not all online education should use the same tools. Elementary school students are very different from graduate university students or executive education students. This should be reflected in the types of software they use.

Little ones

For our youngest students, remote education has probably been hardest. Social dynamics are critical to their growth, and such, they should not spend their days on a corporate meeting tool. When remote learning is required, applications that provide better engagement or game aspects would be more beneficial.

Teens and young adults

For older students, like my high school and college-age sons, the benefits of remote learning have been more obvious. My eldest goes to a California university on the other side of the country from my wife and I in Virginia. Thankfully, his college experience is largely back in-person, though many classes still allow students to join remotely when necessary. On the downside, he’s admitted to falling asleep while watching a class from bed. But most of his experiences have been very positive, and the remote option has been tremendously helpful when he is ill or traveling. He’s been able to maximize the long trips home because he can join class remotely.  

Continuing education

My wife Lauren has had yet another type of remote learning experience. She joined an online executive education program at a major US university. It is wonderful she was able to enroll in a very prestigious program without having to incur the cost or hassle of traveling to that University. She joined a cohort from around the country with very diverse backgrounds, all while balancing the rigors of her regular job.

However, the student experience and software used in this program left a lot to be desired. She started with a six week data analytics course. Most of the course content was delivered asynchronously via recorded videos. There was one optional live synchronous video session each week called “Office Hours.” During Office Hours, students could join a video chat room with the professor and ask questions. The professor would frequently share his screen and use a whiteboard application to draw on powerpoint slides and sketch out answers to student questions.

Where the problem lies

The Office Hours and pre-recorded videos are both offered to students through a learning portal. The User Interface (UI) of this portal is where most of the problems happened. The screen sharing recording was a different file from the professor’s video. This was not made obvious through the UI, so the first couple of presentations that Lauren watched were very confusing. The default video stream she saw was the professor’s camera. Lauren would desperately flip through the PDF of the professor’s slides trying to figure out which slide they were on. Later, she realized there was a hidden tab she had to click on in order to see the screen sharing portion of the recording.

UI problems can also be unrelated to the video experience itself. This particular learning management solution had a calendar showing when future office hours sessions would be. However, the timezone of this calendar was not made obvious. She missed some office hours while we were traveling (another benefit of remote education!) because the times were all shown in GMT, without actually saying which time zone it was being displayed in. This lack of clarity led to multiple confused students in her class. They assumed the calendar was being shown in their local time zone. To make matters worse, there was no way to change the time zone used.

As Lauren’s experience shows, remote learning can be negatively impacted by aspects of the video/audio experience (how screen sharing and recordings are handled in her case), as well as more general user experience (UX) aspects of the application design (calendars and time zones in her case). Proper UX design would have alleviated these issues, and just a few user surveys or user research sessions would likely have uncovered these issues.

Be better than Zoom

The challenge now in online education is crafting an experience for students and teachers that better supports learning. Early in the pandemic, tools like Zoom saw a huge increase in adoption by schools at all levels. Those classrooms had to adapt to how that particular meeting tool worked, rather than crafting an experience that works best for their type of classroom.

As we move forward into a more permanent and personalized model of online education, this learning experience becomes crucial. Within that space, there is still lots of room for innovation.

I hope we will never create another verb like “Zoom.” Zoom morphed from a proper name for a company and product into a generic adjective for a meeting (“let’s have a zoom!”), or a verb indicating that we will meet virtually (“let’s zoom!”). This change has happened because of how dominant a meeting tool it has become. It would be a shame if we always consider it and others like it the default tool for virtual meetings in the future.   

Instead, we should be building customized online education solutions. WebRTC is great for e-learning. Working directly in the browser, it’s easy for students to access the classroom or one-on-one meeting using any device. With no downloads or installations, there’s less room for confusion and technical difficulties. Additionally, encryption and security measures prevent unauthorized users from entering secure sessions.

But as we’ve seen, it’s more than just the tech. It is how easy it is to use the tech.

The future of online education

The complicated truth about the future of education is that it will be more and more hybrid. Some students will be in the classroom in person. Others will join remotely via a live video connection. Still others will watch a video recording after the class.

A hybrid approach offers significant public health benefits since students can join a class from home if they have had a COVID exposure or if they are actually sick, rather than infecting others. It can be more inclusive because it allows students from remote geographical areas to join prestigious university environments. It also allows students to travel, both recreationally and if there is a family situation. 

For the instructor, however, the hybrid approach brings more work. Cameras must be turned on, materials must be prepped and uploaded in advance, and the classroom experience must take into account all the various ways a student might attend. Most teachers don’t need more to do in their jobs–they are busy enough as it is! Nonetheless, hybrid teaching will ask more of them. The more we can ease that burden via good software design, the more bearable it will be for these important people.

User experience is the next differentiator

We can all agree that remote and hybrid learning are more important than ever. Whether we like it or not, e-learning in some form or another is here to stay. The technology is not perfect, but continues to improve and is more than good enough to provide benefits to student demographics and situations that benefit from remote learning.

The technology is no longer the differentiator in online learning. It’s the user experience. That starts with not coalescing on lowest common denominator solutions. We should not be choosing Zoom and its counterparts for all situations, otherwise the educational experience will suffer. We need to build easy to use and engaging online experiences for both students and instructors. This is how we craft a better education system that is more resilient to pandemics and offers the best benefits to the entire student population.

At WebRTC.ventures, we’re experts in the video tech behind online education. We can build a live video education platform with features like whiteboards, annotations, screen sharing, file-sharing, offline messaging, and more. But the tech is not enough. We also have a talented team of UX designers to make that experience as intuitive and easy to use as the students – and the teachers – deserve it to be. Contact us today!

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