Education App Development 101: What to Consider When Building a Custom Edtech Solution

Thinking about building a custom edtech app? In this piece we cover everything you need to know from design and feature considerations to the pros and cons of white labeling and API usage.

If edtech tools were important to school systems and educators before 2020, they are now essential to engage students in remote or hybrid learning models. A new era of technology-dependent education calls for improved solutions to manage exponential user growth.

This guide is a comprehensive roadmap of how to build an effective edtech product from the ground up. It reviews essential features edtech requires to remain competitive in an increasingly crowded marketplace, and it provides insights on validating the market, how (and why) to rapidly integrate onboarding best practices, API integrations to add advanced features such as in-app messaging, and more.

K-12 teachers, school districts, parents, universities, and professional development establishments are realizing edtech’s critical role in society. Here’s how to make a product that serves education stakeholder needs now and in the future.

Overview of the Edtech Landscape

Modern classrooms look different from classrooms of yore. Interactive, WiFi-enabled Smartboards have replaced old-school overhead projectors. Teachers and parents alike can monitor students’ individualized, AI-enhanced coursework by glancing at their mobile device. Such classroom tools are made possible by the education technology industry, referred to as edtech.

An umbrella term for the hardware and software aiming to make learning more efficient and effective both in and out of the classroom, edtech has boomed over the past several years. According to Gallup, nearly 90% of students in the U.S. from third to 12th grade use digital learning tools at school a few days per week — impressive figures representing edtech use before the massive shift to remote or hybrid learning in early 2020.

The global pandemic served as fuel to rocket the edtech industry forward. Much of this growth is powered by generous investment. In 2019, edtech investment reached $1.66 billion across 105 deals, and in the first half of 2020 alone, U.S. edtech companies raised a whopping $803 million.

Experts anticipate this growth will continue for years: analysts at Grand View Research say edtech will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18.1% from 2020 to 2027 — big bucks for a sector that didn’t truly exist before 2000. The U.S., U.K. and Germany are driving edtech growth, with countries like India, China and Japan also expected to see usage spikes in the coming decade.

Opportunity Beyond Academics

Edtech, also called e-learning or online education, is most commonly referenced as helping students, teachers, school districts, and universities perform and connect better.

Leaders in continuing education, such as Coursera, Udemy, edX, and Udacity, offer affordable or free classes sometimes referred to as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), which are built for scale and can serve thousands of students or professionals at the same time. According to the market research firm Technavio, MOOCs will grow even faster than the edtech sector as a whole, with 40% CAGR from 2020-2024.

MOOC popularity could represent a threat to your app if you’re planning on building a subscription-based model, as they normalize free or low-cost products. However, massive open online courses lack individualization and community, making MOOC class abandonment rates exceptionally high. Edtech entrepreneurs can add value to their solutions by heightening what MOOCs lack: highly customizable courses and platforms, student-to-teacher and student-to-student connection, and innovative functions that heighten motivation for greater course completion rates.

There is a clear white space for easy-to-use, effective, collaborative, and smartly designed edtech tools, and app developers should focus on creating research-backed solutions to help educators do their job better. Here are the top considerations builders of edtech products should keep in mind when developing for the modern classroom.

Deciding What Type of App to Build

Whether it be an app to connect teachers with parents or a streamlined learning management system (LMS) to help teachers organize lesson plans, there are myriad edtech tool types. Here are brief descriptions of macro edtech categories, along with notable example companies.

Virtual Classrooms/Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs)

Software that aims to replicate the experience of being in a classroom, virtual learning classrooms or virtual learning environments (VLEs) enable students to ask questions, join discussions, and take part in polls and group work. Virtual classrooms represent synchronous learning — learning where the whole class participates at the same time.

Essential features for virtual classrooms include: video chat, in-app messaging, screen sharing, a digital whiteboard, attendance tracking, secure cloud-based storage, and breakout rooms for group discussion. Successful virtual classrooms easily integrate into learning management systems, and some products are hybrid virtual classrooms and learning management systems.

  • Vedamo: A collaborative online conferencing tool designed for synchronous teaching. Vedamo can support up to 25 video chat participants, breakout rooms for group work, and integration with the learning management systems Canvas, Moodle, Schoology, Brightspace, and Google for Education.

  • Top Hat: Described by the company as a “perfect partner to your LMS,” Top Hat supports video conferencing, live exams with a dedicated start and end time, live chat to foster discussion, polls, labs and more. Uniquely, Top Hat also provides access to digital interactive textbooks for more dynamic learning.

Learning Management Systems (LMS)

A learning management system (LMS) is software that allows educators to create, manage and deliver curricula, coursework, and track student progress. Used in both education and business settings, LMS is often associated with asynchronous learning — in which students work on coursework, practice skills, view recorded lectures, submit assignments, and ask questions on their own time. LMS platforms frequently involve moderated student forums or discussion boards, too.

Many LMS either integrate with virtual classrooms, or have built-in virtual classroom capabilities such as video and messaging chat, polls, and quizzes.

  • Kiddom: A centralized platform that is both a learning management system and virtual classroom, Kiddom users can conduct live video classes, store coursework, and keep parents and guardians informed of student progress.

  • Canvas: One of the most popular learning management systems in the U.S., Canvas has an open LMS API, and prioritizes interoperability. Google products and custom applications can be integrated, too.

Online Program Management (OPMs)

Online program management (OPMs) companies are third-party organizations that help universities, colleges, and other education establishments develop and deliver both degree and non-degree or certificate online programs. Typically, higher ed professors create coursework and content, and OPMs are involved with instructional design best practices, market research, e-learning development, recruiting and marketing, support services, alumni engagement, and more. Many online program management organizations share revenue with the higher ed institutions that hire them.

  • Noodle Partners: Noodle Partners online program management company that blends in-house development with third-party providers to provide higher ed guidance on course design, SEO-based marketing, and data management.

  • Keypath Education: Keypath Education is a global OPM specializing in career-relevant online university certifications and degree programs.

Immersive Technology (AR/VR)

Augmented reality or virtual reality apps provide students with a deeper experience of a place or subject. Often involving a mobile device, augmented reality overlays tags, photos or text over the real world (think: Pokemon Go-style). Virtual reality implies the user is fully immersed in a digital world, and requires the use of a VR headset.

Given the costliness of VR hardware, AR software downloaded onto a mobile device is more common technology in traditional school settings.

  • Human Anatomy Atlas: Designed for med students, doctors, and human anatomy students, Human Anatomy Atlas displays a 3D version of the human body. Users can rotate models 360 degrees, and “dissect” organs, muscles and microanatomy such as blood vessels, nerves, inside the ear canal, and more.

  • Apollo’s Moon Shot AR: Created by NASA and the Smithsonian Institute to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, Apollo's Moon Shot AR enables users to virtually explore the moon, launch spaceships, and play a “Lunar Landing Challenge” to gently land a rocket on the moon’s surface.

Identify Core Users & Customers (And Their Values)

Being razor-focused on your core users and customers will help your engineering team develop an indispensable edtech product. Edtech is uniquely different from most other technology platforms because, as Jaweria Sethi, founder of the startup Village Square explains, “Edtech users are often different from edtech customers.” While edtech users are typically students, children, teachers, and professionals, it is individual schools, school districts, administrators, families, and businesses who usually have the greatest sway when deciding which edtech to adopt.

Your product’s functionality will vary depending on the sector of education your edtech aims to target. For Tade Oyerinde, founder of Campuswire, university professors who lead large lectures are both the customer and user. For them, efficiency is their priority. So Campuswire’s product includes features such as notifications and announcements, in-app messaging, and topical chat rooms. “Professors are the most reliable group to focus on because they care most about quality,” says Oyerinde. “They will evangelize your tool to other professors.”

Edtech builders must cater to all stakeholders, and deeply understand the needs and motivations of both their users and customers. Find below a summary of what users and customers in the edtech universe value most.

  • School Districts/Universities: Tasked with finding edtech tools that many schools or programs under their jurisdiction will use, affordability, reliability and scalability are top values. Administrators also value price stability, as they need budget for tech use far into the future. For universities, best-in-class, feature-rich edtech solutions will help attract students, as well.

  • Teachers/Professors: Teachers and professors who have the agency to choose their own edtech tools value high student adoption rates, as they want their whole class to participate in forums, online Q&As and more for optimal engagement. Intuitive onboarding and exceptional UI/UX will enable less tech-savvy students to easily adopt new tools. Motivators such as badges and celebratory markers when turning in assignments, and mindful notifications are also key.

  • Students: Rarely edtech customers but primary users, students are an important demographic for your edtech solution. Especially in remote or hybrid learning environments, communication capabilities that keep students connected with their teachers and peers are most valued. Examples of communication features include live messaging and video chat, polling, hand raising, and emoji sharing.

  • Parents/Guardians: Typically not a customer, parents and guardians do influence edtech decisions. Parents and guardians value strict data privacy policies and measures, and in order to track their child’s success, access to performance benchmarking (so they can monitor if homework is being completed, and if assignments are being turned in on time).

Value Proposition & Validation

In order for any edtech industry app to succeed, it must present a strong value proposition that competitors do not address. App builders must survey the field to examine existing edtech solutions (of which there are many), and identify the core problems not being met.

These considerations may feel arbitrary or elementary. But it’s a crucial step in the app development process that is often overlooked. Missing this step can have a detrimental impact on your business down the road.

Do your market research due diligence prior to building your app or LMS by examining the top-performing products already available, identifying key opportunities, and querying educators about what tools they need to help them do their job better. Also examine the potential market for your product by exploring the population of potential customers.

White Label or Custom: Pros & Cons

Builders of edtech apps must decide whether they are going to outsource their app build via a white label solution or a custom build. A white-label app is an app built by a private company that is rebranded and resold to a different business. White-label apps are typically built by app companies specializing in clearly-defined functions, such as a consumer rewards program or ride-hailing from a local taxi service.

Custom apps are built from the ground up by an internal development team. Developers often include external tech stacks such as APIs/SDKs to efficiently incorporate advanced functionality into apps.

Find below the pros and cons of seeking a white-label solution versus a custom one to help better guide your app building decision.

White-Label Build

Pros:

  • More affordable, as your branding is added to an out-of-the-box solution
  • Rapid time-to-market
  • White-label SaaS provider handles maintenance and fixes bugs

Cons:

  • Limited customization beyond rebranding
  • Customer data may be stored in the cloud by white-label app builder, outsourcing your data security
  • Scalability challenges
  • Less control over code quality/backend architecture

Custom Build

Pros:

  • Highly customizable architecture and appearance
  • Improved data analytics
  • Better scalability
  • Bespoke functionality to serve your unique needs

Cons:

  • Requires more investment
  • Typically longer time-to-market
  • Requires knowledgeable development/engineering team

You’re Going Custom! Product Flow & Design

Wireframing & Testing

Wireframing your product — and tweaking your design based on user feedback — is the first step to developing a minimum viable product. Top wireframing tools include but are not limited to Adobe XD, Sketch, Figma, and Cacoo.

Whether your product is web only, or serves both iOS and/or Android, once you have developed your product’s wireframe and core competencies, test your edtech’s layout and flow with potential customers and third-party users to gain confidence in your idea, and ensure your app is a tool that customers will want to pay for and users will want to incorporate into their learning systems.

It’s a good idea to conduct edtech user interviews to understand use case friction, and watch testers interact with your wireframe to gather detailed information and pain point feedback.

Intuitive UI/UX for Seamless Onboarding

As 2020 marks the first time many students and educators are using remote learning platforms, seamless onboarding should be a top priority for all users, including less tech-savvy demographics such as older educators and younger students, who may require more involved tutorials and guides.

Simply put, if a user’s first experience with edtech is clunky, confusing, or boring, user abandonment will skyrocket. Unfortunately, app abandonment is a common issue. After just one month of downloading, 60% of app users either delete apps from their phone or never open it again. After three months, this figure spikes to 73%. Such figures may be one reason why so many schools before 2020 paid for edtech solutions, but didn’t use them.

Edtech builders should strive for seamless onboarding and UI/UX best practices to encourage teacher, student and parent/guardian adoption, and to create a strong first impression.

Onboarding best practices include:

  • Option to Skip: Consider providing an option to skip onboarding flow such as tutorials so students, teachers, and continuing education professionals can start using your edtech right away. Encourage onboarding actions the next time a user opens your app through push notifications and in-tool announcements.

  • Minimal Information: The more personal information required when users first enter the app, the less likely they will be to continue using it. Consider SAML single sign-on (SSO) capabilities via Google or Facebook to minimize onboarding friction, and negate the need for yet another password and username.

  • Baby Steps: Break onboarding into smaller steps to avoid overwhelming users. Also consider providing step-by-step tutorials to guide new users around your platform, pointing out notable features as they navigate your product.

API Integration for Advanced Features

When building a custom edtech platform — whether it be a learning management system, virtual classroom, or an AI-enhanced mathematics quiz — many developers choose to integrate APIs (application program interfaces) to rapidly add advanced features. In short, APIs allow your app to interact with an external service using a simple set of commands.

APIs enhance your app’s value proposition by adding features such as in-app messaging, push notifications, resource libraries analytics, and much more. Developers can easily install third-party APIs into apps via a language-specific software developer kit (SDK), and benefit from the company’s API maintenance. Without SDKs or APIs, building certain app functions can be a pricey and lengthy process — potentially taking up to a year. APIs/SDKs exponentially reduced time to market: it’s one reason why 90% of developers use APIs.

Increasingly more edtech tool builders are recognizing the value of API integrations from companies who are experts in their unique area of focus. For example, in order to add sophisticated features such as messaging and video chat to bridge the remote learning communication divide, edtech builders are incorporating APIs such as Stream Chat, a scalable chat with edtech-perfect features such as moderation, threads, direct and group chats, attachments and more, and Dolby Audio + Video, which provides crystal-clear audio and video chat. Together, these APIs can be leveraged to provide a superior communication experience.

Adhere to Learning Principles

Edtech apps can do many things. They can allow students to have immediate access to their teachers while struggling with homework. They can benchmark student success with pinpoint accuracy, and offer specialized lessons to close the educational gap.

But in order for edtech apps to optimally support teachers, they must adhere to the deeply researched learning principles that contribute to effective learning. These principles include:

  1. A student’s prior knowledge can help or hinder learning.
  2. How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know.
  3. A student’s motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do learn.
  4. To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills and practice integrating them.
  5. Goal-oriented learning paired with targeted feedback fosters learning.
  6. Teaching climate impacts student learning.
  7. Students must learn to monitor and adjust approaches to learning.

It’s worth bringing on a small advisory board of trusted and engaged teachers or professors with formal education training to ensure these learning principles are implemented into your edtech design.

Incorporate Motivators

According to the core learning principles as outlined above, motivation is a proven way students stay engaged in their education. Ultimately, educators bear the responsibility of keeping students motivated. But edtech builders can assist by incorporating celebratory features into apps when assignments are turned in on time, if students receive an A, or if they participate in group discussions.

For example, in April 2020, when many students were migrating into remote learning settings, the learning management system Canvas added celebration indicators for one-time submissions to boost student motivation and satisfaction. In the below image, note two motivators: a green bar indicating that assignments were successfully submitted, and animated confetti/balloons. Pleasing sounds (think: bells, applause) and bright colors can digitally replicate in-classroom motivators teachers embrace, such as public praise and small gifts.

Gamification, also called game-based learning, with “prizes” such as digital badges or gold coins, is another way edtech tools can boost motivation. “Game-based learning gives students the opportunity to play games with goals that are typically tied to the curriculum,” explains researcher Marc Fortier in The Power of a Gamified Classroom. “Through this process students decide on actions to take, while experiencing consequences when the wrong action is taken. It also allows them to make mistakes by experimenting in a risk-free setting.”

Apps such as GimKit, which enables students and teachers to run game show-style quizzes with in-app cash for correct answers, and the language learning app DuoLingo are two examples of edtech apps that prioritize gamification.

Verifiably Secure

With more attention — and therefore more scrutiny — placed on edtech than ever before, privacy concerns are at a fever pitch. Strict security features will be baseline requirements for edtech companies now and beyond, and product managers must build security and privacy into their products. Edtech builders in the United States must adhere to federal laws such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA), and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

FERPA requires that parents and eligible students have the right to inspect and review the students' education records maintained by a school. PPRA requires schools to obtain written consent from parents before minor students are required to participate in any U.S. Department of Education-funded survey that reveals sensitive information, such as political affiliation or religious practices. COPPA ensures parents remain in control of personal information collected from their young children online.

Achieving verification from third-party certifiers like iKeepSafe is one way edtech creators can ensure practices comply with FERPA, PPRA, and COPPA legislation. Widely used platforms such as Blackboard, ClassDojo, and Clever have pursued this certification to prove compliance.

Mindful Notifications

Ample research confirms that distractions are a detriment to learning and memory retention. However, opt-in push notifications, text messages, and announcements designed to remind students of upcoming deadlines help increase engagement and assignment completion. “Interventions like text message reminders can successfully support students and families at each stage of schooling,” reports a J-PAL North America report analyzing 126 edtech studies.

The onus is on edtech builders to strike a balance between minimizing in-app distractions to prioritize learning, and using mindful notifications to drive greater student engagement. Push notification APIs can help set an optimal schedule.

Stay Critical

As teachers, students, school systems, universities and parents start to embrace your edtech app into their educational toolbox, it is important to remain critical of your product. Continue to analyze your user’s pain points, and strive to continuously improve your platform to encourage greater engagement and adoption.

Edtech builders have a responsibility to help solve the larger issues impacting the edtech industry as well. Despite the hundreds of edtech platforms in the market today, critical examination of their performance and usefulness is in short supply — especially when edtech is regarded in a vacuum, separate from the socioeconomic forces that govern edtech adoption. “The academic study of technology and education should be developing as much along the lines of critical social science as it does in the guise of a cognitive learning science,” writes Neil Selwyn in Critical Perspectives on Technology and Education.

As edtech requires the use of devices such as laptops or tablets and WiFi connectivity, edtech inequity is a persistent problem that plagues the entire industry. Edtech builders should be involved in the conversation to lessen the digital divide between user communities. This is one chief way edtech platforms can help improve learning efficiency and effectiveness for all.