DRIVING LEARNING THROUGH ENGAGEMENT IN EDUCATION TECHNOLOGY

In Brief

Most schools teach students a fixed body of knowledge, but young people need to become lifelong learners if they are to equip themselves for careers in a fast-changing work environment. Learning apps have been touted by the education technology (EdTech) sector as a way to help children become motivated self-learners, yet their results fall short of their claims. 


We investigated how children felt about school classes and how they actually used learning apps. On the basis of what we learned, we created a ‘Engagement Blueprint for Self-learning’ to help EdTech designers develop better apps that engage learners for longer and help them become self-learners.

We have expanded the application of the ‘Engagement Blueprint’ with over 22 EdTech entrepreneurs, across K-12, teacher training, vocational training, and adult learning in India, Vietnam, US and South Africa. These interventions have resulted in a significant increase in rention rates, session lengths and course completion.Our blueprint is applicable across a broad range of EdTech, regardless of the subject matter, to help people develop a lifelong learning mindset. 

CLIENT:

Gray Matters Capital

COUNTRY:

India, Kenya, Vietnam, USA

YEAR:

2018-2021

FOCUS AREA:

Education Technology

We need a learning mindset

How and where do we learn? For many people, the answer to that question begins with school – and ends there, too. Learning is often synonymous with formal education, at least for those fortunate enough to have one. So there’s naturally a focus on what we learn – the curriculum taught in schools, particularly at young ages. Yet it’s been estimated that two-thirds of children entering primary school will end up in careers that don’t even exist yet. How can we teach children the knowledge and skills they’ll need if we’re not sure what will be relevant? And how do we prepare them for a job market whose shape is hard to foresee?


One solution is for people to become lifelong learners. Behavioral science has studied the “learning mindset” – an attitude of curiosity which leads an individual to constantly find opportunities to learn. A positive outlook and the belief that one can think critically for oneself make people more inquisitive and motivated to keep learning. Learning becomes part of a person’s identity.

We need to motivate children to become life-long learners, to keep upskilling themselves to adapt to a future filled with uncertainty.

Unfortunately, many schools prioritize instructional learning and evaluation of skills and knowledge, rather than turning people into self-learners. This type of formal education – teach, test, and grade – can provoke a long-term avoidance of learning in later years.

Finding windows of opportunity for self-learning

What would it take to create self-learners – young people with a lasting appetite for learning who will go on to be lifelong learners? To identify some opportunities for self-learning, we partnered with our client, Gray Matters Capital (GMC), and took a look at the K-12 sector in India, specifically through Affordable Private Schools (APS), a system that operates 300,000-400,000 schools and thus plays a significant role in developing the Indian workforce. 


Rather than trying to change particular aspects of the APS system, we chose to look at smartphones as a potential tool to foster self-learning. Given their ubiquity in India, smartphones seemed to offer a window of opportunity for APS students to experience content and learning methods that could help make them self-learners. There is already an abundance of educational technology (EdTech) apps, but despite significant levels of investment and grandiose promises of improvements in learning outcomes, they have had very little impact on educational outcomes. The main reason for this is their low rate of adoption and use. In many cases, the rate of learning completion is below 15%. 


To gain insights into why EdTech apps are unable to sustain, or even create, high levels of retention, we used our EthnoLab approach to research attitudes toward learning and self-learning apps among 195 students from the 6th to the 10th grades, as well as 40 parents and 16 teachers, all from APS schools in the cities of Mumbai, Meerut, and Nashik. We wanted to understand their preferences and decision-making processes around self-learning apps, and to evaluate which behavioral science-based principles would have the greatest potential to change those preferences. We allowed the children and their parents to explore several apps and choose one to use at home. The students were provided with an internet-enabled tablet and a free subscription to the app. Their usage was then tracked for two weeks. 

Everything other than studies happens in school, like grandfater day, then they expect us to finish the whole portion.

- Teacher

“”

Not much time on a regular day for self learning. They need some free time to refresh.

- Parent

“”

We go to tuitions to understand whatever we haven't understood in school.

- Student

“”

We discovered that the formal education system has strong emotional stability built into it for both students and parents. Because they experienced no dissatisfaction or distress about school, they felt no need for additional learning with EdTech apps outside school. APS students were either unaware of – or simply uninterested in – many of the self-learning apps that could help them with their coursework or give them relevant skills, despite the fact that most apps were free and easily accessible. When we gave students the opportunity to use the apps, they expressed interest at first, but their actual usage was no more than 10 mins over the two weeks that we tracked them!

In behavioral science terms,
there was an “intent-action gap”– and in this case,
it was a gaping one!

Engineering engagement with self-learning apps

Many of the entrepreneurs developing EdTech apps had seen this lack of engagement as a content problem, but many apps have high-quality content. Improving content further had not closed the intent-action gap. It was clear from our research that engagement with these tools had to be created rather than assumed, irrespective of the type and quality of content on offer. This meant using behvaioral science and deisgn interventions to develope a road map for engagement, with a step-by-step journey to move the student from shallow engagement driven by simply having access to technology, to a deeper emotional relationship with self-learning.

Need to engineer engagement in ed tech platform by designing a step-by-step journey to move from shallow interactions to a deeper emotional relationship with self-learning.

Working with GMC, we created an Engagement Blueprint for Self-learning, , to help EdTech entrepreneurs identity gaps and engineer engagement using behavior science principle in their apps to drive greater time spent, higher retention, more active learning and therefore better learning outcomes. The blueprint consists of a framework to assess engagement with an app through a behavioral-science lens, and a set of design templates to showcase how to drive engagement in self-learning apps.

The Engagement Blueprint for Self-learning

The blueprint consists of seven principles derived from behavioral science which should underlie an effective and engaging self-learning app. For each principle, we developed one or more design templates (depicted in each column) to show how the principle could be put into action within an app. The blueprint aims to drive learners’ commitment to their goals, provide a safe environment that encourages learning, and drive motivation through feedback, learning progress, and rewards systems. It gives the learner control over their learning experience, with meaningful social interactions that drive learning and boost the learner’s sense of investment and ownership. It uses strategies from the science of learning to encourage more “active learning” and thought to ensure participation in learning, resulting in better outcomes.

The Engagement Blueprint is independent of content – it can be applied to any kind of subject matter.

Goal Setting

After successfully drawing small commitments, boost perseverance by getting the student to make a larger commitment such as articulating a learning goal. Provide ‘implementation intention’ - a break down of achievable tasks to ensure progress.

Example of a detailed design template

Application of the Blueprint

Demonstrating Impact Using the Engagement Blueprint in K-12

Through the Calibrator accelerator program funded by GMC, we worked with six K-12 EdTech entrepreneurs across India, Vietnam, and Kenya to understand, identify, and apply a selection of design templates from the Engagement Blueprint to help improve course completion, increase time spent (session length) and ensure students returned frequently to the application (retention rate) 

The Companies We Worked With

To illustrate the application Engagement Blueprint and the measurable impact delivered, we worked with ‘Freedom,’ an app for children aged 5-12 years, to encourage the habit of reading. Interventions implemented included driving alignment between parents’ goals and the platform during onboarding to ensure that the parent saw value in the app, encouraging a commitment to a certain duration each week, meaningful feedback to encourage the reader to complete their book, and a library feature to build investment in the app.

For Freedom, The 4 engagement interventions created a significant measurable impact of 26% increase in retention rates and a 50% increase in session length for the application. 

Giving parents a choice between two goals for using the application (bonding with their child or helping their child read independently) on onboarding helped drive goal alignment to ensure that they perceive value in the applications.

Expanding from K-12 Students to Teacher Training

We expanded the application of the Engagement Blueprint to the complex context of EdTech apps for teacher training in India, in collaboration with four EdTech app companies.

The Companies We Worked With

The role of the teacher is critical in a student’s learning journey. More than 8 million teachers work in K-12 education in India, and many are not rigorously trained. Teacher-training apps aim to bridge this gap, offering updated tools and content to teachers and school leadership, with more relevant pedagogical approaches, in order to foster activity-based classrooms that are more engaging and deliver better learning outcomes for students.


Our research indicated that teachers often felt they were already experts in their field. Teacher-training apps therefore seemed to contradict their identity. The result was low adoption and engagement with the apps. We needed to position the apps as a way of helping students learn better, rather than helping teachers learn themselves. 


Another issue was the lack of rewards and recognition, pressure from school administration and parents, and a heavy workload – all of which resulted in a “satisficing” mindset among teachers – doing just enough to get by, and maintaining the status quo even when knowledge about better teaching techniques was available. Many teachers felt they didn’t need to use anything other than textbooks to prepare for a class. It was clear that to be accepted, EdTech apps would need to be reframed in line with teachers’ goals, rather than as effortful “extra” exercises. 


Working with four teacher-training apps used by government-school teachers across India, we made them easy to use to minimize the interaction cost, clarified how their content aligned with teachers’ goals, and improved the information architecture, for example through better categorization of information. For one of the apps, these changes resulted in a fourfold increase in the average session length. 

For Chalklit, implementation of the engagement interventions resulted in a 4X increase in the average session length. 

Aligning the app with teachers’ goals of quick tips for class preparation helped build motivation to invest more effort and provided the teacher with the quickest path to seek the content that they desired.

Expanding the impact
beyond K-12

We have expanded Engagement Blueprint to other sectors within EdTech, such as vocational training, government job test preparation, and adult learning, working with 12 EdTech entrepreneurs across India, Kenya, Vietnam, and the USA.

Vocational training

Vocational skills and training is an essential sector in India, where many students drop out of school or are unable to afford college education. There is a large skills gap which vocational training has the potential to solve to provide better employment and standards of living.

The Companies We Worked With

From our research with vocational students, we learned that their main goal is to get a job, rather than to secure high grades. Students are anxious about gaps in their job knowledge and communication and presentation skills. They will only engage consistently with EdTech apps if these are aligned with their goals of getting employment and acquiring practical skills that will help them earn a livelihood. Aggregating the skills learned as users progress through the course can be a motivator and morale-booster. 


Another factor to consider is that most students have had a negative experience with the formal education system and thus are reluctant to engage in learning. We must therefore provide a safe and motivating learning environment to make the apps appealing. 


Working with two skills apps, we introduced career goal-setting and commitment tools to ensure that the user felt motivated to engage. We proposed components to give users feedback on how well they were hitting their goals. This helped increase the length of users’ sessions and the course-completion rate. As these were blended vocational-training and study courses, we suggested connecting the outputs from classroom activities to the app content to create online “investments” that would drive use of the app. 

Creating a Skill Building Dashboard, with an aspirational and professional tone that aggregates progress, earned rewards, showcases feedback and brings offline investments (ie portfolio) online helped build motivation to use the app more and fill their dashboard.

Government job test preparation

Government jobs are aspirational and in high demand among young Indians, with millions applying for them each year. In order to qualify, they must take a nationwide competitive examination, widely considered to be the most difficult examination in India. We worked with two test-preparation platforms that aimed to drive scalable and effective support for test preparation.

The Companies We Worked With

Our research with government job aspirants showed that they have a strong sense of scarcity about these highly coveted positions. This leads them into a “cognitive tunnel” in which they focus exclusively on information aligned with their goal of passing the entrance test, and reject information outside this frame. 

 

Test-preparation apps must align with the user’s goal of passing the test. With a competitive landscape of coaching classes and online tools, the apps must showcase their differential value compared with the existing ecosystem. We proposed that the apps break down learning tasks into smaller, more manageable milestones to reduce the anxiety leading up to the demanding tests. In addition, they should highlight that unlike a physical learning environment, the apps can make assessment a moment of learning, rather than purely evaluation. We worked with mad guy labs to align to the users tunnnelled goals and helped differciate value from users competitive context (for tuition classes), and increased payment conversion byreduce procrastination around joining a batch after free trail.

Driving urgency to buy a subscription and by showcasing time constraints on the final exam date and social proof of theirs following a plan reduced procrastination

For MadGuys Labs, implementation of the engagement interventions saw a 15% increase in the number of daily active users, and a 20% increase in revenue.

Adult learning

Given the dynamic shifts in the future of work, driven by automation and technology, learning cannot stop at school and college. Adults need to upskill themselves continually to improve their job prospects. Online platforms and mobile devices can play a critical role, given that people may not be able to leave existing jobs to enroll in full-time courses but can learn on the go, during their free time. We worked with an adult-skills app to driving engagement in learning.

The Companies We Worked With

From our research with adults, we learned their mental model was that they were “too old to learn”. They believed that learning was for children and therefore irrelevant to them. This meant that adult learning tools would need to align with other salient goals like job progression or getting a bank loan, or provide a gamified experience that moved away from conventional learning. Since work consumes most of adults’ time, effortful courses were out of the questions. Instead, they needed learning that could fit into small pockets of time in their day. 


For many users, especially those in blue- and grey-collar jobs, familiarity with technology was low and they had low confidence in their ability to achieve learning goals. We created familiar, safe, and motivating interfaces that provided a sense of progress to help them continue. 


We worked with an English-language learning app aimed at blue-collar workers which suffered from low rates of course completion. Our interventions helped create a more familiar environment for learning, encouraging a commitment to a certain duration each week, providing a sense of progress toward the overall language-learning goals. This led to a 10% decrease in drop-off rates, and a 30% increase in active users. 

Engineering a usage related Small Commitment by asking the user how long they would like to spend learning helped drive perseverance, especially when trying to get adults to learn a new language.

Reflections

Driving a self-learning mindset to build life-long learners is core for the future of education and work. 

If young people and adults are to be prepared for careers in a rapidly changing world, formal education will not be enough. They need a learning mindset – curious, motivated, and lifelong. 

What behavioral challenge can we help you with?

EdTech offers the potential to enable learning across a vast range of content and of learning styles. We believe our behavioral-science based interventions can help EdTech provide a better future for both children and adults.

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