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Buses, Not Sports Cars: The Case for Simplicity in EdTech

Would you rather travel on a bus or in a sports car?

A sports car is tempting, right? Alluring. Sexy, even. Makes you stand out from the crowd.

But sports cars don’t work for everyone. As the daughter of a midlife-crisis sports car buyer, I know this well. 

The dream: ‘Of course a sports car is a practical family car.’

The reality: You need serious abs to have the core strength to lower yourself in and out of them. Your hair looks terrible by the time you get wherever you’re going (think that Bridget Jones headscarf moment). There’s no space in the boot for any of your stuff. The complexity of their inner workings mean they break down often and are expensive to fix. And let’s face it, not much space in the car for the people.

Buses aren’t sexy. But they’re robust. And they get people from A to B. And - most of the time - that’s what we need.

Back in June I attended a panel at the fantastic EdTechXEurope event about changing and shaping educational outcomes, by creating learning habits; if we can create habits, we can change behaviour, and if we can change behaviour learning will be sustainable, lifelong, and impactful.

Murray Morrison, Owen Carter, and Lisa Short formed a great panel, with an array of different approaches to the issue, with their experience as part of Tassomai, ImpactEd, and ZSchools respectively. But it was one simple utterance from Murray Morrison, early in the session which has stayed on my mind over the three months which have followed:

‘Edtech has been building sports cars when we mostly need buses; simple products with effective outcomes.’

There is so much ‘sports car’ technology out there: virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, robots. And it’s great to embrace it, harness it, dream about what it could do. But is it always what our learners need in the here and now?

We have to start with our learners and not with how shiny our product is. For learners, unlike users of many other consumer products, it’s not all about what they want. As the inspiring Jo Sayers recently reminded me, normal user experience design is all about frictionless experiences, but for learners, we need the friction to facilitate learning; there has to be effort involved.  

This means we need to create simple, robust products, which are easy to use as far as possible, but facilitate progress by putting the friction in the right place. To do this we must ask ourselves some direct questions: what do students need in order to make progress; what learning outcomes do they need to get to; how can technology facilitate this in the simplest way possible?

That might seem boring, even a shame, when there are so many bells and whistles we could be adding. And we might get to the bells and whistles one day. But it has to be slowly, surely, as we see what the next feature is that will really build on the learning experience, not just make our product look more shiny. We need to know our learners inside out, observe them, listen to them, and then design products which work for them, so that the tech isn’t the focus; isn’t a distraction; isn’t confusing. Instead, it’s all about the learning.

This is easier said than done. But it’s something that we’re wrestling with at Bridgemark Education as we build our online products. Because even if a sports car makes me look great, in the world of EdTech I’d rather have a bus. A product that gets our students from A to B reliably, effectively, simply. 

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Sports cars may be alluring, but buses are practical. EdTech should prioritise effective outcomes over flashy features, focusing on learners' needs. Bridgemark Education aims to build reliable online products that help students progress simply.

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