Skip to Content

5 Tech Design Principles to Promote Equity in Education

By June 30, 2021

By: Amy Guterman, Director of Impact Labs and Susan Morrow, VP of Product Management at Education Cloud

Inequity in our educational systems is a deeply-rooted and longstanding challenge, one only exacerbated by the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past six months, Impact Labs has convened a cross-disciplinary team of experts to identify ways technology can drive equitable experiences in education.

The cohort is focused on supporting students from Black and Latinx heritages who are juggling more than classes. They may be the first in their family to go to college, over the age of 24, working full-time while attending school, or taking care of children full-time when enrolling in post-secondary education. The U.S. Department of Education refers to these students as “nontraditional” learners, although they make up the majority of the student population at 74%. Through interviews with students, faculty, and industry experts, the Impact Labs cohort sought to understand ways technology can support these students in getting to and through their first year of post-secondary education so that they can thrive in school, graduate on time, and feel ready for the workforce.

In a research report released today, the Impact Labs cohort outlined five technology design principles to drive more equitable student experiences. Here’s a quick look at the five principles from the report.

Download the Report

Student studying while sitting on a bed
Five Tech Design Principles to Promote Equity in Education report cover

1. Meet Me Where I Am

Meeting students where they are means being empathetic and designing for the whole student, supporting all of their needs whether academic, social-emotional, financial, or health oriented. In the recently published second edition of the Connected Student Report, 40% of students say their institution can best support their wellbeing by providing more flexible learning options. Student support solutions should be easy to use, offer real value for the student, and be flexible enough to accommodate juggling responsibilities across work, family life, and academics. For instance, self-service chat tools can help students find answers 24/7, but for most students, these aren’t readily available.

Outside of technology, Dallas College and Hampton University are evolving to support students with “nontraditional” characteristics by recognizing and prioritizing meeting basic student needs and filling gaps to promote lifelong learning and entrepreneurship.

2. Teach Me As I Go

Getting to and through post-secondary education is full of complex processes, such as applying for financial aid and admissions, deciding where to go, and determining what classes to take. Students who are navigating these processes with little support from family members or advisors face an even steeper learning curve. Adriana*, a 24-year-old who is first in her family to go to college, spoke of these challenges in an interview with the Impact Labs team, “My freshman year was very challenging. I was out of place; everyone had someone guiding them and I didn’t have that in my family.” Support these students by providing relevant and bite-sized information so that they can make informed decisions along the way, without getting overwhelmed by the process.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy

3. Help Me Stay On Track

Juggling full-time work or being a primary caretaker for their family while attending classes means that attention is often split across multiple priorities for “nontraditional” learners. Having multiple responsibilities outside of school makes it hard to stay up on deadlines. With so many important deadlines to juggle — from financial aid to registering for classes — it’s critical to help students stay on track by providing proactive reminders and actionable nudges for essential requirements. Don’t forget to consider the first principle, Meet me where I Am, when determining the best channels for nudging students.

4. Be Clear And Concise

Many students with “nontraditional” characteristics are faced with navigating these complex processes on their own and may have the added hurdle of speaking English as their second language. Breaking down complex jargon with easy-to-understand terminology can help students make more informed decisions. This is especially true for complex financial aid applications. Maya*, a 29-year-old mother who is working full-time, said in another Impact Labs interview, “With the loan process…if you’re 18, don’t have parental support, you don’t know what you’re doing…and the financial aid office is often not helpful. Information needs to be put into layman’s terms.”

*Name has been changed to protect privacy

5. Design for Collaboration

Often, support systems are designed with the assumption of a nuclear family. Yet, many learners with “nontraditional” characteristics find themselves with different experiences. Family members may be working long hours or might be going through these complicated processes for the first time alongside the learner. Make it easy for families and advisors to help students by designing experiences that include them — and are communicated in their preferred language. Consider asynchronous collaboration opportunities that allow for flexible schedules and support networks to collaborate whenever it is most convenient.

Woman holding a baby while writing at a desk
Learner juggling caretaking with school work.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated the need for change. Leveraging these five principles when designing new or reinventing old technology solutions will help meet the evolving needs of learners with nontraditional traits, specifically those from underrepresented minorities. Through purpose-built solutions like Education Cloud, institutions are enabled to personalize the learner experience and capture actionable insights, further tailoring support to the ever-evolving needs of students.

Download the full report to learn more about principles to consider when designing and implementing technology solutions to advance equity in education.

About the Authors

Amy Guterman, Director, Impact Labs
Amy Guterman
Director, Impact Labs
Amy believes in the power of human-centered design and technology to create positive change in the world. Her career has centered on using design thinking for social impact, tackling challenges that range from reducing violence in Chicago to improving health information systems in low- to moderate-income countries. Her work has been featured in publications such as Forbes, FastCo, Wired, and Design Observer and recognized internationally by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


Susan Morrow, VP of Product Management, Education Cloud
Susan Morrow
VP of Product Management, Education Cloud
Susan Morrow has focused her career on the intersection of technology and social impact, currently working with a talented team of education technologists to lead product management for Salesforce Education Cloud. She previously served as Vice Chancellor of Innovation for a nonprofit university system, and prior to that, Chief Operating Officer for a social-impact venture providing affordable, accessible higher education to working adults. Other education tech experience includes serving as a development executive for Pearson, Chief Product Officer for Reading Rainbow and VP of Products for Leapfrog educational toys.