Some Thoughts on Software for Teachers

John Parris researches and designs software and prototypes for science, social studies, and interdisciplinary curricula. Currently, he oversees the technical development of the Electronic Teacher Guide (eTG), a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded effort to provide an exemplar of a cybertool that would support the implementation of a curriculum and enhance its educative impact for teachers. In this post, John suggests that if educational software designers broaden their conception of usability they can develop more useful and effective products for teachers.

I’ve been thinking a lot about usability lately. Usability as broadly defined on Wikipedia is “the ease of use and learnability of a human-made object.” More specifically, software usability is defined by the Nielsen Norman Group as “a quality attribute of the user interface (UI), covering whether the system is easy to learn, efficient to use, pleasant, and so forth.”


Illustration by Christoph Niemann

At EDC, I have worked on many projects that combine research and software development to create applications for teachers. This audience has gotten me thinking beyond software interface usability, which is relatively well understood if not always achieved, to considering two other dimensions: classroom and professional usability.

My colleagues and I always begin a software development project by defining the primary audience and the outcomes we desire from the use of our product, whether it’s a prototype for research or an application aimed at the marketplace. However, it is not uncommon over the course of a project for development teams to get lost in competing priorities relating to content, design, and functionality. Since the context of much of our work is educational reform or improvement, we often view technology as an opportunity to introduce our innovative instructional materials and strategies. This can lead us to develop “double innovations.”

For example, we create a website that offers a rich collection of interactive web applications that help teachers enhance their students’ media literacy. We want all teachers to be able to use the apps, but we realize that not all teachers will know about media literacy or know how to teach it well. Without content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge about media literacy, teachers could use the apps in ways that are not helpful for students. So we add professional development components—about media literacy, how to use the apps in the classroom, how to customize the apps for different curriculum areas—to the website. At this point, with all good intentions, but without careful consideration, we could easily overburden our users with too much change at the same time.

With this context in mind I’d like to briefly lay out three dimensions of usability that, considered together, might comprise a framework for developing more useful software for school teachers:

  • Interface usability
  • Classroom usability
  • Professional usability

Interface Usability

As I mentioned above, this is the most widely understood practice. From classic PC productivity programs to websites to mobile apps, software developers all aim to create tools that are easy to learn and simple to use, and that are also unique enough to stand out in the crowded marketplace. The priorities of good software designers include carefully considering the user’s needs and goals, keeping information architecture straightforward, and creating visual design that focuses users on the tasks at hand.

Steve Krug’s popular book on Web usability, Don’t Make Me Think, is a good place to start for people new to software design. Since building websites is often the gateway to software development, this book offers an excellent overview of usability design practices and methodologies for testing. But the title also points to a paradox: While most software interfaces strive to support smooth and efficient user actions and to minimize user thinking, in education it’s often precisely the thinking we are trying to encourage. Consider the ATM: you want to get some money out or check your balance, not spend time studying the relationship between your withdrawals and your deposits over time. The effective interface designer starts from a basic question, “What goal is the user trying to achieve?”, and goes about making the achievement of that goal as straightforward as possible.

The funny thing is, many of the websites and applications we educational media designers produce are created because we want people to think and we want them to change the way they think. We want users to learn, teach, and think in ways we believe are better, richer, more evidence-based, or whatever, than what they do now. So instead of the user’s goals being king, our goals loom large. We want to entice users to slow down, tinker, reflect, adapt a resource for classroom use, etc.  From this perspective, a focus on usability as only a set of short-term screen interactions  does not get us very far. Teachers have notoriously little time in their day to learn or prepare to execute substantially new methods or materials, and no perfect interface design can solve this.

Classroom Usability

This dimension considers the constraints of managing time, space, materials, and students. We all say we know that teachers are pressed for time. But when designing software for teachers, it’s imperative to really understand and keep in mind the realities of the teacher’s work life. Most importantly, what teacher need are you providing for? Do they really need your software? Once you’ve determined (or convinced yourself) that teachers need your software, you must ask even more questions:

  • Context of Use: When and where are you expecting a teacher to use your software? After school? On weekends? During the summer? Five minutes before class? During class? At each of these times, teachers have different constraints, priorities, and access to tools and information. You must design your software to address their need in relation to the time they have to receive, absorb, and use what you are providing.
  • Type of Tool: What device are you designing for—a laptop, a desktop, a tablet, or a smart phone? What access do teachers have to the device, and at what times of the day? 

Creating “use cases” that take into account teacher’s time, context, and equipment is a good starting place to explore how your tools and messages might best be useful. (Learn more about how to create a use case.)

Professional Usability

It seems obvious to state that not all teachers are the same, and in our work we usually target specific domains and grade bands—for example, middle school science teachers or preschool teachers teaching early mathematics.  But we often fail to understand how our products will be perceived and used by teachers at different points along a continuum of professional development.  Many teachers who are in the early stages of their careers are hungry for a variety of supports, from classroom management to pedagogical strategies to assistance with subject matter. Their response: “I need all the help I can get.” Many veteran teachers, on the other hand, are less likely to seek out or even consider advice in matters on which they feel they’ve achieved mastery (especially if it comes in the form of a website or app). Their response: “I know my stuff, why do I need this?”

The introduction of new technologies can be the thin edge of the wedge for pedagogical change across the spectrum of the professional experience. Teachers pause to ask “Is this useful to my practice?” And during that pause they may reflect and be open to new ideas and approaches. So how do we address this wide variety of experience within a website or application? One approach is to develop materials that are highly targeted to specific points in the continuum.  Another is to create software that helps teachers identify their place in that continuum without seeming to pass judgment on their skills.  In this way they can self-select how they will use the software based on their self-identified professional learning goals. Personalized learning is all the rage in online learning for students. But even algorithmically driven software for teachers would require deep knowledge of all of the possible classroom cultures and professional trajectories of teachers.

Steps to Tackling Usability in All Three Dimensions of Usability

  • Revisit the goals of your product. Where do they match expressed needs of teachers? Can they be attuned to meet teachers' day-to-day needs?
  • Analyze the workflow and habits of your target audience. Identify teachers' key moves. How do they use the tools they already have to accomplish their aims? What gaps emerge and which of their needs are unfulfilled?
  • Engage teacher users early in the iterative design process—the cycle of prototyping, testing, analyzing, and refining. Bring teachers into the lab and go out into classrooms.
  • Develop use cases and/or personas (a persona is a fictional person who represents a major user for your product). Make sure that your use cases and personas reflect teachers who are at different points on the professional continuum. 
  • Don't make usability an afterthought. Consider including a usability analyst early in your design phase, not just for testing functional prototypes.

In this post, I sought to introduce the idea that we might gain from broadening our conception of usability as we design software for teachers. I welcome comments about efforts that are delving into these workplace and worklife dimensions.