In late April, more than a month into COVID-induced school closures, Matt Goodwin, senior director of product management at Instructure, the company behind the Canvas learning management system, explained how the pandemic was upending his company’s development process. “We threw away our [product] roadmaps and said that we will get back to those things. But we needed to look at the biggest challenges that our market is facing right now.”
For Canvas, that meant focusing on backend engineering efforts to ensure that the site stayed up amid unprecedented traffic, and focusing on strengthening features such as videoconferencing integrations that would be used heavily during periods of remote learning. In all of these efforts, speed was paramount.
Over the last year, EdSurge Research has been working on a project to understand how K-12 educators and edtech product developers are leveraging research to shift practice and development processes. As part of this project, we interviewed product leads from 12 edtech companies during the spring and summer of 2020. (Learn more about this EdSurge Research project.)
Across these interviews, we found many company officials who echoed Goodwin’s comments about how the pandemic—and the resulting transition to remote and hybrid learning models among their customers—has changed their product development process. Some expedited planned updates and rolled out features that were previously less of a priority on the product roadmap. Others focused on creating features, products and partnerships they had never previously contemplated, such as creating communication tools for teachers and students, or bulking up security for interactions that previously happened only inside school buildings.
But whether they were tackling something new or reordering existing priorities, all agreed that the pandemic has changed both what features they are developing and the process through which they’re making those adjustments.
Supporting Changing Needs
As schools transitioned to remote learning in the spring, edtech companies noticed a significant increase in the usage of their products. Some reported seeing spikes of 500 percent in mid-March.
Hilary Scharton, vice president of K-12 strategy at Instructure at the time of our interview, described the growth Canvas saw. “Overnight, essentially, Canvas usage doubled—everything from the number of users to the number of assignments to the number of videos uploaded.”
As a result, the focus of the product in the early days of school closures was to “make sure [the site] stayed up.”
After putting the mechanisms in place to keep the site stable, the product team began to think about ways to help educators make the most of their product while recognizing that providing the usual multi-day teacher trainings was nearly impossible. This meant creating videos, FAQs and other training resources that would help new users make effective use of the product in quick fashion.
It also meant developing features that would support fully online learning. For example, Canvas pushed out a “celebration” effect designed to offer encouragement for students who were physically isolated from their teacher and classmates and who were completing many assignments asynchronously.
Many of the developers stressed that product changes in the spring and summer also corresponded with what they were seeing in data about how schools, educators, students and families were using their tools.
Many companies noted that changes in how their products were being used informed changes in their development priorities. In the early days of school closures, Sara Romero-Heaps, the vice president of product strategy at Nearpod, a lesson delivery system, estimated that prior to school closures, around 80 percent of teachers were using the tool for live lessons. But after the pandemic hit, 80 percent of them were using it for asynchronous instruction.
That flip spurred Nearpod leaders to “create a quick-to-access teacher dashboard for a student-paced lesson,” according to Romero-Heaps. The dashboard allows educators to monitor student progress in real-time when students complete asynchronous assignments on Nearpod.
Staff at PowerSchool, which owns learning management system Schoology, also built new features and beefed up existing ones in response to changes in usage.
With state testing requirements waived, PowerSchool saw greater demand for its mastery learning reporting features, which lets educators align assignments to learning objectives and view student progress toward those objectives, instead of relying on test scores as a measure of progress. As a result, the company worked to support this increased usage.
Some were able to anticipate the surge in demand for functionalities like video communication. Schoology co-founder Jeremy Friedman described how his team followed the spread of the pandemic overseas in early 2020 and recognized that they would need to introduce “immediate changes in conferencing options, making sure that we were built for scale and that we supported a variety of vendors that districts might use” by the time the coronavirus hit the U.S.
Schoology had previously offered integrations with videoconferencing platforms, but few K-12 schools had taken advantage of this functionality. When we interviewed Friedman in June, that had changed dramatically.
Knowing that many schools and districts would be using a variety of products—many for the first time—product developers also said they made interoperability a priority so that the different tools could work with one another.
In response to hearing “a desire for more interoperability” among BrainPOP customers, Karina Linch, the chief product officer of the digital curriculum provider, said her team has prioritized supporting this request. Among their efforts: rolling out features that allow teachers to assign BrainPOP lessons through different learning management systems.
In addition, officials at BrainPOP noticed that while more school customers were adopting Clever, a single sign-on and rostering service, their users weren’t taking advantage of the ability to access BrainPOP through Clever. In response, BrainPOP began to offer additional resources about that functionality.
As the pandemic continued into the summer, product developers went beyond supporting increased usage of existing features. They began to consider other ways that their products could be used during remote and blended learning. Many began to assess which features made sense for the long-term, and which were short-term fixes.
Laura Oppenheimer, the senior director of marketing at Quizlet, which provides student study tools directly to teachers and students, explained that her organization was trying to take a long view by asking: “How much is COVID-19 a moment in time, versus a new normal?” As a result, in its product development process, Quizlet prioritized features that would be equally beneficial for remote or in-person learning.
Many products in our interview group developed new functionality to support online learning. Justin Chando, a principal group product manager at Microsoft who earlier this year worked on Teams, a communication and collaboration platform, described how his group developed hand-raising functions and breakout rooms to support more effective synchronous learning. But Chando also explained that the product aimed to serve a variety of use cases. “What’s really become clear is that synchronous learning is not always the answer, not always the place where students are able to give their best thought or work,” he said. As a result, Chando’s group aimed to develop better ways to support group discussions in asynchronous environments.
Chando explained that Microsoft Teams’ efforts to support asynchronous learning were also driven by a desire to “make sure that we have equity in access” between students with reliable internet and those without. Similarly, the company prioritized optimizing the user experience on mobile devices to accommodate students who had only a smartphone to access digital learning.
In many ways, the process for making such changes to products resembles what companies had done in the past. Staff analyze usage data and requests that they’ve received from users. They might consult researchers on staff or from outside of the organization to try to understand which functionality will be most effective.
But in some cases, particular sources of information used to inform product development are now missing. For example, Linch at BrainPOP explained that the lack of standardized tests prevented her organization from measuring the effectiveness of certain parts of their product in the ways they had planned.
Perhaps the biggest change is the warp-speed pace at which product developers are moving, and the myriad use cases for which they are now designing for in a dramatically altered learning environment.
Steve Jordan, the chief product officer at Istation, a curriculum provider, explained that early in the pandemic, his organization focused on providing engineering support to ensure basic operations remained up and running during increased usage. Since then, he says, “we have shifted the focus to what’s next. We don’t believe that this is a short-term thing.”