Unsolicited and ill-informed advice on how experts should do their job rarely lands well. Bearing that in mind, unless you’ve spent years in classrooms full of students, working against the demands of curriculum mandates, IEP or 504 modifications and state testing requirements, I implore you—each of my colleagues in edtech proffering your solutions to schools—to begin conversations by asking teachers what they need.
Just because edtech companies work outside of the classroom doesn’t mean they can’t position themselves as a support system inside the classroom; however, doing so means taking deliberate measures to involve classroom leaders. As teachers are the main users of our products, and more importantly, the people who hold the brunt of the responsibility for learning outcomes, the only way to create successful products is through close collaboration with them before, during and after product formation.
The Current State of Edtech
There are some consistent steps that most edtech companies take to involve users in their product decisions—surveying teachers and students who will use the product and filing feedback into a backlog, for example. These actions allow companies to say that they’ve listened to teachers, but they aren’t adequate for truly understanding what would make their products transformative for teachers.
By investing resources in products that constantly need to be redesigned or rebuilt, rather than getting it right for teachers from the start, edtech companies waste time and money. Teachers then waste precious time and energy on inefficient flows and insufficient functionality, and learning suffers. Taken to the extreme, when edtech willfully makes product decisions that are not in the best interest of educators and their students, it only serves to contribute to the brokenness of a system that too often fails at providing the basic human right of education to learners across the world.
What Duolingo Did Differently (and How You Can Do it, Too)
Duolingo for Schools had been around for a handful of years when the pandemic hit; however, the company hadn’t invested resources in maintaining the product. With the escalation of online teaching and learning in 2020, Duolingo leadership noticed that product usage was steadily increasing despite the shakiness of the platform. They knew we had to do better for teachers but didn’t know exactly what that might look like.
Bring Teachers in Early
We began with preliminary roundtables to simply ask teachers about being teachers. This allowed team members to better understand teachers’ challenges. In a series of open forums, we asked questions about how teachers used our existing tools, as well as other edtech products, to help us understand what functionality to add, keep or improve.
In addition to a legacy product, Duolingo had a latent teacher community that was languishing on Slack. One of my first orders of business was to move this group to an online space where teachers were already gathering: Facebook. This group became, and continues to be, a collaborative forum where our team can get immediate feedback on their work and teachers can proactively provide input.
Bring Teachers in Often
We worked with teachers through every step of the development process, ensuring that what we were planning resonated with them. And then, we opened the new version up for teacher testing in advance of launch to gather feedback on the high-fidelity experience.
Post-launch, we’ve continued to build collaboration opportunities and processes. We A/B test everything we can, which makes teachers the primary decision-makers for much of what we do. We have regular roundtables and interviews to discuss whatever work is top-of-mind. Our support team files bug and feature requests, and those issues are regularly discussed and prioritized. We hold weekly community events to bring our teachers together and to solicit feedback when needed. We field phone calls and text messages from teachers. Our engineers fly to conferences to talk to teachers in person. And the whole team shares updates with teachers before sharing with other audiences because we understand that the impact in a classroom is so much greater than it may be for any individual Duolingo user.
This early-and-often collaboration with teachers has had a real impact on our product and its future. We added features like simplified login options and multi-classroom assignments prior to launch, and when teachers told us that they needed downloadable CSV reports and assignable stories, we immediately prioritized these additions. We’ve responded to teachers whose biggest pain points were engagement and bandwidth by adjusting our roadmap to more appropriately prioritize features like in-classroom experiences and LMS integrations.
This is what it takes to prove to teachers that you’re listening and to inspire ongoing collaboration. We do our best to make sure that every decision is made not with teachers in mind, but with teachers—period.
We Haven’t Won Yet
Building a product with a community can be hard. Collaboration isn’t generally written into a company’s goals, so the resources that it requires often aren’t prioritized. Even with the right resources, turning this into a habit and a mindset takes real investment from everyone on a team. And these relationships require a commitment to continual work. That said, it’s worth the effort. The alternative, mentioned earlier, is simply unacceptable.
One thing that we’ve seen proven time and again at Duolingo is that the best way to accomplish growth is to provide an excellent user experience. And something we know about excellent experiences for teachers is that a community-focused approach is the only way.
There are big changes coming to the Duolingo app that are going to dramatically impact the Duolingo for Schools product and its community of teachers. Having built a culture of collaboration, we’re now able to head into this challenge with confidence. We know that our community trusts that we’ll strive to do what’s in their best interest, and they know that we’ll rely on them to hold us to that commitment.