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Edtech tools that focus on students’ deficits make them feel isolated and less resilient-- leaders can identify and model asset-based design.

Why education leaders should prioritize asset-based edtech

Edtech tools that focus on students’ deficits make them feel isolated and less resilient--here’s how education leaders can identify and model asset-based design

Key points:

  • In schools, an asset-based approach encourages partnership by celebrating progress and growth
  • Shifting away from this deficit-based approach requires leaders to change the way they see their students
  • See related article: How to focus on classroom accessibility

Since the pandemic began, the number of technologies districts use has nearly tripled, but not all of these tools have been effective. As education leaders review the utility and effectiveness of those solutions, an asset-based approach is an essential criterion in the evaluation process.

Leaders should be wary of products that convey urgency and impact through deficit-based design. A deficit-based approach emphasizes the weakness of groups or individuals, calling attention to negative outcomes such as falling behind or missing out. Although it is a pervasive advertising tactic, studies show that a deficit-based approach can affect students’ long-term resilience and lead them to feel isolated when they are seen as “the problem.”

Shifting away from this deficit-based approach requires leaders to change the way they see their students. Rather than highlighting students’ inadequacies, an asset-based approach values their existing competencies. Rather than asking, “What’s wrong with our students?” it empowers educators to ask:

  1. What are our students doing well?
  2. What opportunities exist to strengthen what they’re doing well?
  3. What is within our scope of control?

When evaluating products to support an asset-based approach, there are a number of clues education leaders can seek out in companies’ research methods, copy choices, and design solutions.

What an asset-based approach sounds like

To identify which approach a company uses, start by asking:

  • What problem is the product designed to solve?
  • Who is it designed to serve?
  • How does this product meet the specific and diverse needs of this audience?

The answers to these questions will provide important context clues that you can piece together to identify the approach. A deficit-based product might uncover a problem such as,“A student is not proficient in English.” An asset-based product would instead discover that “a student is bilingual; their primary language is Spanish and secondary language is English.”

An asset-based design prioritizes the user above all else, focusing on how to optimize user flows, the user interface, and interactions. A deficit-based design might prioritize activity time, forcing students and families to increase usage by making exit routes hard to find.

When it comes to content and copy, a deficit-based approach uses language that shames or pressures users into doing something they would rather not do. (“Don’t let your child fall behind! Start your lesson today.”) An asset-based approach, by contrast, uses encouraging and exciting language focused on abundance as opposed to scarcity. (“Help your child get excited about learning by practicing their math skills. Start this week’s lesson.”)

Once the design, content, and copy have been implemented, it’s time to test the solutions to make sure they are serving users. At this “evaluative research” phase, a deficit-based approach focuses on talking to users who used the product because they “get it.” Asset-based research takes a wider view by talking to users who used and didn’t use the product to get a holistic understanding of the user experience.

What asset-based products do for schools and students

An asset-based approach encourages partnership by celebrating progress and growth. Products developed with an asset-based approach also support equity because they focus on the learner’s strengths and unlocking their potential.

These products are built on the belief that when students are supported by both their families and educators, they become more enthusiastic about learning, have greater academic success, and feel an improved sense of well-being.

While adopting and sustaining an asset-based approach requires systemic change, it has invaluable long-term outcomes on student success, learning, and development.

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