I feel lucky that my past roles gave me insights into building community -- whether it was community organizing in a rural community in Kenya or testing a new app to engage students and teachers in discussion groups similar to WhatsApp.
Through my role as Director of Virtual Learning & Community at Teach For All, I helped grow communities and engage them in learning experiences. In 2020 amidst all the school closures across the world, a group of educators and I launched the “Teaching Without Internet Alliance.” What started as a single WhatsApp group, blossomed to 10 groups in English, Spanish, French and Arabic spread across different regions. While this group had less utility after the first few months of the pandemic, the dedicated group that created workshops and now leads the community have taught me a lot about how we can better use community engagement in edtech products.
Learning is social. Both adults and children learn best when they are able to learn alongside other people, discuss what they are learning, and teach others knowledge and skills they already know. This leads to a higher level of learning outcomes on Bloom’s taxonomy and a higher level of happiness with learners.
While individual, solo learning has its place, (reflective time enables you to process what you learn and apply it) you cannot deny that some of the most impressive things you have learned or contemplated or concluded came from a discussion or connection to another human, whether it be a teacher, a peer or an expert. The gift of humankind is that we build on the ideas of others.
How do we see community learning show up in edtech products?
The intention behind community engagement in edtech is to promote multi-directional learning. The whole philosophy behind multi-directional learning is that everyone is a learner. The student has the ability to engage with teacher, peer, external experts, and even inward introspection and discovery. In turn, the teacher, peer, expert are also learning from and with the student.
What kicks off multi-directional learning? Discussion. Especially in an authentic way. Here are a few ways I see community engagement and community learning used in and with edtech products these days:
Edtech products engage children / students to interact with each other inside the product itself.
Often, this is through a secure, social messaging app to connect in a synchronous way, by allowing students to comment on each other’s work through an asynchronous course, or simply, live synchronous courses to build relationships the old fashioned way. Some examples:
- Outschool allows students to learn in a small group setting through live virtual courses.
- Some apps allow children to discuss and comment on each other’s work, sharing feedback and questions with each other.
- Some metaverse-based products enable children to connect (safely) with each other through a social messaging platform. It reminds me a bit of Discord, but embedded within a fun learning app.
Edtech products for adults engage communities through similar tactics but in a more self-directed, individualistic way.
- Duolingo, for example, is great at creating competition through leaderboards and challenges.
- Udemy leverages the good ol’ discussion forums to allow discussion with the instructor and other class participants. The best instructors respond quickly to student questions. I’m not sure how much multi-directional learning actually happens, but the teacher <> participant interaction is usually strong in the highest rated courses.
Edtech products engage communities of teachers outside of the product through offline training and social media groups.
- Remind has a suite of tools and tips for teachers on its popular Facebook private facebook group. They post about events and other ways for teachers to engage around the product as well. I find this FB group and many like it to be primarily tech support for teachers using the tool and admin posts announcing features / events.
- Class Dojo seems to have a vibrant and active FB community: https://www.facebook.com/groups/classdojoambassadors.
- Numerous edtech products engage teachers through synchronous trainings. These trainings are usually considered “PD” and are bi-directional. While there is some room for teachers to interact with each other, the design of these sessions is usually to pile information onto teachers without much time to reflect, practice, and discuss. (Not the best in terms of adult learning principles…)
Edtech products engage communities for parents on social media.
- Some products / companies try to use their public Facebook page (i.e. Khan Academy, or Epic) to engage parents on how to use their products and give info about interesting features. Similar to the communities I see for teachers, these pages often feel like the products are advertising their features and promoting their brand images rather than providing a space for parents to connect. This is really under-leveraged.
- I honestly didn’t find too much to be excited about when it came to parent communities talking about and sharing how they use edtech products. Can you send some my way if you do? I’m sure they’re out there, and I’d love to take a closer look.
What are the opportunities for better community engagement?
It feels like there’s a lot of room for improvement when it comes to better community engagement on edtech products. Here are 3 opportunities I see:
Edtech products for both children and adults can beef up the multi-directional learning in-product by leveraging the power of 1) safe peer interaction and 2) community leaders.
Rudimentary AI can help those scared of allowing students to engage in an online environment. We shouldn’t make learning unsocial with thoughts and ideas only being discussed between teacher and student asynchronously just because we (the adults) are scared. Like in the classroom setting, we can use community leaders to help engage peers and make them feel supported. A little pre-planning in this department makes for a much more vibrant community. There needs to be more than two roles (teacher & students) in a learning community.
Edtech products should leverage better tech and tools to foster better communities.
I mentioned the use of real basic AI to ensure social messaging in edtech apps is kept safe. But what about using old school tools like Facebook private groups to enable better communities for teachers and parents? I see very few edtech products engaging adults outside of a product brand page. Having more private, thoughtful spaces for teachers to discuss and talk about better ways to use a product. I know that some brands are worried about complaints being forever captured online somewhere, but shouldn’t we be more worried when teachers cannot connect and share insights with each other? It’s important to remember that a true community manager is also needed to dedicate time to the community to grow and shape it. Some structure and leadership is needed.
Edtech products can generally create more dynamic parent engagement through the use of parent communities.
Since I started building edtech products over 11 years ago, the trend that has remained constant to me is that parents are almost always left out of a multi-direction discussion. There is so much potential to engage parents through virtual communities. I have seen some edtech products try to do this, giving parents tips and technical support through social media groups. But authentic communities related to edtech products are few and far between. Starting to prioritize parent communities is the first step, especially if edtech companies are direct to consumer.
Have any other ideas about how we can embed community engagement into edtech products? I'd love to hear more!