The Best Education Software Isn’t Education Software

How long have well-meaning adults undercut things that kids enjoy? Exchanging chocolate chip cookies with wheat germ bars (c’mon!), for example, or replacing neighborhood play with kid-friendly yoga. So it doesn’t surprise me when classroom software tries to combine arcade style gaming with skill building, or adds big buttons and garish colors reminiscent of Fisher Price toys.

I suspect that software designers already know what their marketing departments do not: that the best tools stay in their own lane. For example, Google Docs don’t need a goofy zebra named “StrataZebra” decorating it. Nope, Google Docs just fulfills its purpose—being the simplest and most effective way for two or more brains to collaboratively write.

Education software designers deserve respect. Awhile ago, I asked a programming genius if he was irritated by the slow pace of software improvement. He looked at me like I’d bitten his dog.

“No,” he said. “Coding software is complex. It takes an army.”

While understanding these constraints, I’d like to offer my sense of software features that would benefit teachers. Classroom software becomes most valuable when it takes care of the fundamentals. The next classroom software tool should…

  1. Be device agnostic.
  2. Target it’s audience (more visual for younger kids and a bit more text heavy for older students)
  3. Work online or off.
  4. Allow multiple students to sign in and out to promote shared use.
  5. Include specific information on how it fulfills content area standards.
  6. Invite education researchers, kids, and teachers to help the design team.
  7. Allow for student choice and creativity.
  8. Protect student data.

Other Considerations

Classroom Software Should Be Frictionless

Software should be intuitive enough for instructors to learn quickly. More importantly, the tool should not add to students’ cognitive load. It should also be kid-proof. When click-happy students press the wrong button, their decisions should be reversible.

It Should Always Be Assessing

Classroom tools should always be analyzing student performance. And hey, let’s make it easy for student completion information, errors, and reflections to be exported to digital grade books and students’ portfolios.

We shouldn’t forget about parents. Research by the U.S. Department of Education found that once children reach the age of 14, the rate of parent involvement is only 55% and continues to drop throughout high school.” (Source: Education Digest, Dec 2015) As kids get older, parents need software that can communicate student progress in real time. And enough with the reports that only an MIT statistician can comprehend.

Ed Software Should Take Advantage of New Technologies and Literacies

Software tools should be able to leverage devices’ improved capabilities and be prescient about changing literacies. What does that mean? Let’s have the software interact with an iPad microphone and support voice typing. And since all literacies are inherently social, let’s allow students to customize the look of the interface to reflect their identities.

Too often, classroom software is a sleepy polar bear—lumbering and crashing. In fact, the best education software tools and apps are not educational software; they’re tools like Google Drive, Google Earth, Voxer, Blab, and others… all designed for everyday consumers to tackle problems, create stuff, and change the world–the kinds of activities that students crave.

Todd Finley

Edutopia Blogger and Asst. Editor || ECU Ed Professor || Founder of Todd's Brain at || Books: Dinkytown Braves and Rethinking Classroom Design.

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