As VP of Product at The Flatiron School, Mat Balez often gets asked: what does “Product” even mean at a school that teaches people to code? Here are his thoughts on approaching education as technologists and designers approach building products.
It’s a great question and to answer it properly requires stepping back and thinking about the challenges and opportunities in education as well as the role technology and technologists are playing in its continued evolution.
Educators have the scary important job of shaping people, of turning them into whoever it is they’re going to become. It’s a heavy responsibility with an outcome we all share—who doesn’t wish for more, and better, learning happening in all corners of the globe?
It has been said that the tools we create shape us; indeed, perhaps nowhere is this more clear than in the world of education. Teaching tools shape the learning process, which shape students, who in turn shape society itself.
At the same time, our ever-more-technologically-advanced world presents us with the interestingly self-referential challenge of figuring out how best to educate the very toolmakers (i.e. technologists) who will create the next generation of tools that will shape the next generation of people. Around and around this goes. And so it cannot be escaped: to create better people, we must create better tools to educate them. If that is plainly obvious, the next question is less so: what, then, do better learning tools look like?
The question is a fascinating one, particularly because educational tools are increasingly digital and online—thus increasingly powered by software. It should come as no surprise then that technologists have taken up arms, with educators, to re-shape learning for our modern age.
And so it is, that “user experience” in learning has come to matter.
The new set of tools we, as a society, are creating for our fellow humans to teach and learn anything at all (yes, certainly like computer programming like we teach at The Flatiron School but really anything and everything under the sun) these tools will almost certainly be computer-based, and will involve people staring at, and using, software applications to mediate their learning experience.
This means that from the student’s perspective, beyond simply having teachers teach curriculum, software itself will be a huge part of what learning is all about: it will help them explore and ingest knowledge, stay motivated, find and interact with other students, remain connected with teachers, practice concepts, and demonstrate mastery. If we, the toolmakers, can make educational software that delivers a great user experience—beautiful, fast, responsive, super effective at communicating knowledge, simple to understand, genuinely fun and inspiring to use—these new tools will shape us all for better.
So we might think of this as the “productization of learning”. Which is an exciting way to look at things because it means we can throw everything we technologists have learnt (and are still learning of course) about human-computer interaction (HCI), psychology, visual and interaction design, software architecture and engineering, reliability, data analysis, project management, lean thinking, scaling etc.—in other words, the full weight of our modern product development machinery—at the challenge of making education not just incrementally better, but orders of magnitude better. That should collectively be our goal: nothing less than building learning tools that leap us forward in previously unimaginable ways.
Sounds fanciful, but we technologists, designers and product people at schools should take stock and realize that we’re actually super well-positioned to help make this happen. Why?
Because we are still so early in this phase of figuring out how to fully embrace the significance of the web and other online technology to rewire the way we deliver curriculum to students. A leap forward is possible simply because there is still so much possibility and room for new, creative approaches.
Because the distance between us and our users is unprecedentedly small. Where else could you find hundreds of users (students!) actively banging on your app in the same building, just a few tables away? Want feedback? Just wander around! Push a change that was bad? You’ll hear about it immediately, literally. Need to user test something? Easy. Being co-located with students in such a use-rich environment makes it possible, unavoidable even, to be laser-focused on your user—and like Google suggests, all else should follow from that.
Because education is highly measurable and what you measure matters. Changes to the product can be tied back to real changes in user (student) performance that can be tracked, not only while at the school, but beyond—and related to real changes in peoples lives. There’s no fooling around when “life transformation” is your metric.
But technologists can’t get there alone. With a product-mindset, I think everyone can help change the education game. Here’s how:
If you’re a parent, consider your child’s education from the perspective of their user experience. How might it be better? Be a voice for constant improvement and find the product outlets at their school for being heard. If those outlets don’t exist, try to create them or consider more forward-thinking schools.
If you’re a product person or engineer in the tech world out there, give some thought to getting involved in remaking education. There is so much to be done and the time is ripe for putting your product skills to work to have learning be a killer user experience.
If you’re a school administrator and don’t have product people and engineers on staff, why are you still reading this post and not building that part of your team?
If you’re a teacher, keep making people who they are. Try to look at learning, particularly when it intersects with technology, under the lens of “user experience” insofar as it promotes better learning. Partner with product thinkers around you, where ever they may be, to keep making improvements big and small.
If you’re an employer, make sure you’re hiring passionate, life-long learners. The education system is broken if it is not producing people that will enter your ranks full of love for what they do and a desire to keep learning.
If you’re a student, you’re probably already savvy in user experience, having grown up surrounded with so many technology products in your life. Try to make the most of the learning tools (and content and people) at your disposal. Suggest improvements, I’m sure you’ll have a ton. Try to break things and reassemble them and improve them. Learn to love to learn, really try to understand things, apply what you learn to useful ends. Become you. <3
Make yourself useful.