I’ve presented papers at conferences over the years in which I’ve argued that design (definition: the marriage of aesthetics and functionality) is integral to high quality digital education; that “look and feel” matters. To put it mildly, the response to this argument has been muted. In the world of digital education, the focus is overwhelming on other matters – such as connectivity, professional development of instructors, and subject-matter expertise; the field doesn’t yet seem to have room for design.
Nevertheless, I’ve kept my eyes open over the years for people and organizations that share a belief that design must play a fundamental role in digital education. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when one of the very few places that I found this shared vision of design was from youth – people fully outside of the current “establishment” of digital education.
Alain Meyer, a 17 year-old high school student in Zurich (Switzerland) and Nick Howell, a college student in Indiana (USA), have built a learning management system that reflects the importance of good design. But, SmartlyEdu is about more than design. It also assumes the Net is, first and foremost, a social environment. And sharing of content is part of the system’s basic architecture. I invite you to read and comment on my interview with Alain.
Keith C. Hampson, PhD
KCH: What do you see as the limitations of the current LMS model?
The main issue is that current learning management systems are developed primarily by people who don’t use the software. They’ve designed their systems around the idea of having as many features as possible while still not getting the fundamentals right. Moodle, Blackboard and the other leaders in the space, focus on feature checklists rather than aiming for the features that people actually use. They just put in everything to accommodate everyone. Smartly may not be optimal for people who want very fine customization and setups, but for everyone else, it will be an unrivaled experience.
Design is important. Learning platform creators tend to neglect how their system looks, making design their last priority. Bad design discourages teachers from creating content and frustrates students who are used to a much higher standard from all over the web. This is the first, and most urgent problem that needs to be addressed.
Current learning platforms have very weak notification systems. In order to know what’s new, a lot of the time one has to drill down into each class to see. With Smartly we’ve added a tab that allows you to see an overview of all of your classes. It’s so comprehensive that it’s not necessary that you go into an individual class if you don’t want to. It easily increases people’s productivity while using the software. Everything is also tracked with customizable notifications that let the system tell you what is new instead of you asking the system what’s new.
I’ve written about this before, but many learning platforms are pivoting towards news feed support. However, nobody that I’ve seen thus far has done it well. They’ve taken exact replicas of Facebook’s news feed and haven’t thought enough about its implementation and how it could best fit education software. In fact, I’ve seen an example of one company shamelessly ripping off Facebook not only functionally, but also in terms of design.
Self-hosted software is another very weak aspect of current offerings. One of the reasons education software is so far behind the rest of the web is because system administrators aren’t quick to update software for their servers. We believe the future of education software is in the cloud, where system administrators are almost unnecessary. This allows the software to be up to date all the time, ensure that it has the latest security updates, and can keep up with the latest trends.
KCH: What segment of the market will you focus on first?
We’ll be spending most of our time pitching to high schools, as they are usually the most willing to adopt cutting edge software. There’s nothing really stopping us from selling to higher education, though. If someone from higher education were interested, we’d still be more than happy to speak to them about setting up Smartly. The application is neutral and doesn’t favor one segment of the market over the other.
KCH: You’ve written about how other LMS systems require (allow?) individual academics/teachers to configure their own courses. But you contend, “teachers want to spend as much time organizing their online class as our parents want to spend fiddling with Google Chrome Extensions.” What do you propose as a solution?
To elaborate on the analogy, to our parents, Google Chrome is perfectly capable as it. They don’t care what more they can do beyond the bare minimum: browse the web. With most non-tech savvy teachers, it’s the exact same. They want to get the bare minimum done as quickly as possible; Smartly enables that. We’ve also taken care of the problem that some teachers don’t want to use the system whatsoever. One of Smartly’s primary goals is to distribute the work of setting up and maintaining the system equally among administrators, teachers and students. Current platforms rely too much on the teacher being active, and the system has close to no value unless teachers add their own content. There are two untapped ways to circumvent this: automation and student content creation. Students can engage in dialogue, ask questions, share media and links all while the teacher is spending their life offline. Also, Smartly automatically creates as many pages for the teacher as possible and limits the amount of information they need to enter to have a beautiful course homepage. However, this simplicity can also be leveraged very powerfully by those who embrace technology.
KCH: You and I have discussed your plans to incorporate functionality in the LMS that allows educators at different institutions to exchange content. Will this be limited open content (OER) or are you also envisioning the exchange of commercial content as well?
Publishing companies are no longer the only major content creators for education, and we want to recognize that with Smartly. Both companies and individuals will be able to sell their content to other schools and teachers easily. In fact, we’re trying to set Smartly up in such a way that there is no reason not to publish your lessons on the build in lesson store, as you can only receive benefits doing so. Teachers set the price, with free of charge as a possibility, and the market will give them money for their work.
KCH: What are your long-term hopes for SmartlyEdu?
We have a lot of features planned for the future of Smartly. The first version that we’ll be launching in the coming few months will mainly contain features that other learning platforms currently have, but done how they should have been done in the first place. That is, in an easier, more logical and functional way. Of course we have many of our own great features to add to the mix from day one, but features like the lesson store won’t be there on launch.
Then, for the weeks following the launch, we’ll be rolling out our more innovative, original features that haven’t been seen in online learning platforms as of yet. We will polish our existing feature set as much as possible before moving on to unveiling newer features, because one of our core beliefs is that doing the fundamentals right is essential. As Smartly develops, we plan to make it increasingly live and connected. By that I mean, we hope to see Smartly become a tool that people use in the classroom instead of just at home.
Alain Meyer is a 17 year old student attending the Zurich International School in Switzerland. Has been working on web projects since the age of 12 and has always had a passion for helping his school improve their technological offerings. Alain previously did contract work for an iPhone game company based in San Francisco.
Nicholas Howell is a 21 year old student attending Indiana University East. He’s been a partner in a family owned business since 2004 and in May, he will receive his Bachelors in Management Information Systems. Nick does contract work for many businesses in his area and hopes to be able to work on education software for a living.