Design of Educational Technologies

Design of Educational Technologies


I love designing and I have a passion for teaching(I am not a teacher but I have great interest in improving the quality of education system ) , In this article I want to discuss how we can use some of the design principles in field of Ed-Tech , I will keep updating this article when I do more research / find more ideas

Simplicity : I introduced one of my teachers to the whole idea of E-learning and How to record video lectures, there was a lot to learn , so she took a long time to understand but she finally did , the idea is very simple we need to design systems that are very simple , Not all teachers are experts in technologies and not just teachers we want to design systems which students find easy and intuitive and not confusing , no one needs a dashboard with tons of functionality but no clear way of navigation etc

Evaluating Simplicity : We can perform a simple test for this . Say if we are introducing a new e-learning software to kids, we can initially allow them to explore what it does without giving them any details . If we find after some time kids easily figured out what it does and how to use it , It has passed the simplicity test easily . It holds equally good for books , lets say kids are assigned to read a new book , If the book is very simple and interactive and engaging , the kids wont ask what the book is about , they will be totally engaged in the book , slowly reaching the “flow” state. This book also passes the simplicity test.

Natural Mapping : Simplicity and Natural Mapping are generally related to each other , Natural Mapping refers to mapping between objects and our natural sense . This will be clear with help of this example , Lets say you are using an online testing tool and solving a question paper, if the shape and appearance of that paper maps with that of hand written question paper that we are used to naturally then this is an example of natural mapping . Maybe we can have ruled pages or same font or add a shadow or small amount of folded paper at bottom indication , Its a booklet and we can move to next page by natural gesture like swiping / sliding the page.

Evaluating Natural Mapping : This is very easy, first we take the natural object that we are trying to map , for instance in the above example , we compare the test booklet view of e-learning system with a real physical test booklet and find out if there are things that can potentially be added to the view but have not been added in order for the mapping to be more natural. If we feel that real physical object has totally different characteristics from the virtual one and there are a lot of potential improvements that can be done which author/developer has not explored yet , we provide him a feedback.

HCD: Human Centered Design , is a well known design philosophy which basically says that before starting the actual design process study the people , their requirements and then build systems on top of that, I think this is exactly what we need in education , for instance when we create books for students , we dont know their difficulties, what concepts trouble them, we dont ask them how would they like a particular thing, We just assume that our book will be perfect fit for students of say 8-10 year old age group. This is a bad design idea, If we instead ask from our target audience(teachers or students) , their difficulties , their challenges, their expectations etc our systems/books etc will be much more powerful,delightful and create a deep impact.

Some of you might suggest surveys , Let me ask you do you fill every survey form you see ? I am sure most of you will say no, this is because of many reasons like

  1. People have a general conception that most surveys are just for sake of taking surveys and their participation wont make a difference ( I think this is wrong .
  2. Some books include a letter head at the end indication the address at which user can send the survey letter for valuable feedback , some even include email account or website , but we know users dont like to do each of these .

How can we apply HCD effectively ? Imagine that you are writing a book for algebra students , You know your target audience (students and teachers ) , you can pick any random school and randomly ask students/teachers about their problems with the topic without revealing your identity , you should also secretly observe their behavior and problems , suppose they are assigned an activity that requires problem solving and involves algebra concepts , note their behavior , activities,experiences .

Here is a quote I kinda like

…pay attention to what users do, not what they say

-Jakob Nielsen

So How Can we done effectively do HCD in classrooms and for educational technologies ?

For this I suggest , Do It Yourself (DIY ) rule , The teacher or instructor should not just stand there staring at what other kids are doing and carrying high expectations , instead he should get involved in that same activity and do so from perspective of kids by making them comfortable and not scaring them , by doing this the instructor can open up on things they feel are difficult in a friendly way and know what other’s feel about it .

There is another way how we can get genuine feedbacks from kids . Sometimes kids are scared by teacher’s presence in an activity while they are comfortable working with other kids of similar age group, they might not ask questions or report problems out of fear of being ashamed in front of others . We can tackle this in two ways :-

  1. By selecting kids who have already excelled in the current topic / class and are of similar age group. Asking them to mix in with current kids and find out the difficulties they are facing . Maybe he is from some other school , just staying there for a week .  The selected kid shall be rewarded for his/work .
  2. We can ask them to go home and share their thoughts with a virtual character , who will ask them about their work and then store the recorded voice information, This should be done in guidance with parents and if parents feel necessary they can send this data to the teacher .


So How can we apply other core design principles in Ed-Tech ? Lets see

Conceptual Model : This is a general term in design that refers to highly simplified version of how something works, We humans build conceptual models of everything around us , everything we see , observe .

When Students are introduced to a new concept they try to build conceptual models of that concept , each individual has a different way of constructing conceptual models , they dont have to be the same but what we should aim for is that they should be correct , The instructor or designer of the book has their own conceptual model different from their readers, The designer of the book must not forget this, what they think might be simple might not be simply for students.

So How do we construct conceptual models ? We do so by observation, based on our prior experiences with similar things, reviews etc , We call all of these things combined the System Image

Its very important to provide students with more options to learn things , just the text from the book is not sufficient to create correct conceptual models for all students , We must show students simulations , share with them applications of what they are learning and share our own experiences.

One thing to note is that conceptual models are not static , they evolve as we develop them further with more learning , clues etc. For instance you would have developed a conceptual model about geometry when you were first introduced to it but after you learn calculus , your earlier model got evolved , because now you can view geometry with a new perspective etc .

Constraints : This is another design concept designers incorporate constraints while designing things to avoid errors , misconceptions etc . We can do the same while developing educational systems , We can design an exercise software with interactive components (much like K.A ) and in order to go to a new skill you must have completed all the problems of the skills that are dependent on the skill so we are deliberately introducing a new constraint , We can make sure there are no gaps and they can learn new concepts without trouble

A note regarding questions : Questions should be designed as 2 set of problem sets , one which is fundamental and mandatory in which each problem involves a concept that we have learnt , and it includes a problem that takes all the concepts learnt into account . So fundamental problem set will ensure that a student has mastered a concept and ready for the next one , and then there should be another problem set containing additional problems in case they would like to do even more practice .

Evaluating Constraints : Are these constraints necessary and relevant ? We can perform an activity by relaxing those constraints and looking at the results . Consider these examples , In some situations students might not understand a concept at low tree level but understand the concept at a high tree level, this might help him in understanding the concept at the low level , as it might reshape his conceptual model relating to lower level concept and he might get the right intuition . We must not neglect this possibility .

Sometimes students have the correct understanding but they face a lot of unexpected pressure while giving a test, we can try by relaxing time constraints , and strictness and observe how well a student performs , maybe a student performs brilliantly under these conditions , he/she might even complete the test in its original time , because now he only has to focus on the problems and not other constraints.

If the results are positive , we can slowly start adding friendly constraints and at last ask them to give a final regular test, if the results are again positive, we must relax constraints overall.

Constructionist and Activity Based Learning :  These both belong to educational domain , but they are very important and a “good and enjoyable” product/technology must incorporate these .

Conceptual Models : Making sure we transfer the right conceptual model is extremely important . For that I propose what I call Conceptual Model Analysis Technique.

It all starts from a teacher, teacher introduces a new topic by making sure students develop “her” conceptual model which is correct as she is a teacher (obviously) , but it might still vary from say a student who passed a test and a mathematician . Even though each of them are correct at basic level , we must look into details and find improvements . This will be clear in a moment.

Let’s say you are designing a new book for pre school kids which teaches them basics of math, the teacher teaches them some concepts , then she gives them a “constructive” assignment / activity on the same topic promoting creativity and without time constraints.

They are allowed to use anything to demonstrate their learning about a concept . This is usually after some time teachers teaches them ( not directly after teaching) . They use their creativity and imagination and come up with different things , they have to record an audio explaining their work and take a picture of their work / submit their work to the teacher . After this activity teachers individually pays attention to every kid’s work and finds faulty conceptual models , She also finds the “average conceptual model” and perhaps a different and unique conceptual model that explains things in an even simpler way which she never saw coming . This provides a lot of information to the teacher and she can show kid’s work to his/her parent.

After this kids have to take a test having real world problems and they have to get all of them right , even if one of them is wrong they should be asked to explain it with help of their earlier conceptual model /based on their submited work.