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Behavioural Science for EdTech Companies

Ever since the pandemic, the Global EdTech market has experienced a significant boom, with expectations of annual growth of 12.48% from 2024 to 2032  By 2032, it's anticipated to burgeon into a $661 billion industry (Source). This surge has given rise to innovative startups that have matured into unicorns in the e-learning sphere. The market now boasts a diverse array of platforms, from online learning providers like Coursera, Udacity, Udemy, and EdX to interactive learning and gaming platforms such as Kahoot! and BrainPOP. It also includes online studying and tutoring services like Chegg,, Khan Academy, and language learning platforms like Duolingo, Babbel, and Rosetta Stone.

Despite this expansion, digital learning platforms face significant challenges. Engaging and motivating learners in a virtual environment, without any physical interactions and traditional classroom dynamics, is a major hurdle. A study looking into Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS), found the dropout rates to be as high as 96%. That’s almost an assurance that people will NOT complete an open online course. This is where behavioural science can step in, offering frameworks and principles to better understand student attitudes and behaviours. By applying these insights, e-learning platforms can develop strategies to enhance learning outcomes and boost engagement.

This article will broadly touch upon the two major challenges of - a) Creating an engaging course and ensuring completion and b) Acquiring new students. Each of these challenges are an ocean in themselves and we’ll just be giving a birds eye view on how behavioural science can help understand the hurdles and provide effective interventions to overcome them.

Increasing Course Completion Rates

If you work in the e-learning space, I’m sure you often dabble with the question “Learners are enthusiastic and excited when they enrol for the course but they do not actually finish it!”. At a biological and psychological level, this is equivalent to starting a new diet, only to fall back to old habits within a few weeks. That initial burst of excitement fades away over time (much like how my shiny new Oculus is now gathering dust in the corner).

Now how do we address this? There are various ways but the easiest ways that have been tried and tested include asking the learner to set learning goals before they start the course, providing continuous positive reinforcement, introducing friendly competition amongst the learners and providing rewards at milestones. Research has shown that helping students with study planning can increase course completion by 29%. In my experience, simple visual progress trackers seem to do the job! Brownie points if you make the tracker more innovative and fun.

Encouraging Consistent Learning Engagement

In addition to course completion, consistent learning is essential to actually grasp concepts. Many learners lose steam halfway through a course and take breaks from their learning which slows their progress. 

The key to sustaining that initial spark of engagement is by ensuring continuous excitement in the learning process. Gamification is a huge player here. Turning learning into a game, complete with points, badges, and leaderboards, definitely helps in most scenarios! Include time-sensitive elements that games use - daily rewards, weekly goals, weekly leaderboard, etc. Also, don't underestimate the power of storytelling. When learners connect with the content on a personal level, they'll come back for more. Interactive elements like quizzes or group discussions, creating learning cohorts and throwing in a couple of live sessions are also very effective! Keeping at least one interactive activity, either a game or group activities daily will go a long way in helping students follow their study plans.

Reducing Cognitive Overload

Cognitive overload is when we are presented with too much information or have to perform too many simultaneous tasks, which results in not being able to properly process the information or perform the tasks. When the course is too hectic for the learners, they tend to face cognitive overload (too easy isn’t better either! It causes boredom). Balancing the cognitive load of the course content is key to increasing consistent engagement and ensuring completion.

To prevent information overload, it is important that the course is structured in the right way, with the content targeting the right kind of audience. We recommend strategies such as breaking down information into smaller, manageable chunks and integrating regular breaks within learning sessions. This approach, known as spaced repetition, helps in better retention of information and prevents burnout.

Real life examples and case studies, forums, practical activities, projects, etc also help a lot.

A surefire way to reduce cognitive load is by designing your platform UI/UX to be intuitive and easy to digest. Clean UI with no distracting elements makes the learning process smoother, easier and more enjoyable. It’s not just the content that matters, but the way that it is presented also makes a world of a difference!

“Design is more than just a few tricks to the eye. It’s a few tricks to the brain.”

 — Neville Brody (Graphic Designer)

Building a community

Online learners tend to feel isolated sitting alone trying to learn. Most of us have experienced education in a communal setting where we went to a physical location surrounded by people all learning the same thing together.This encouraged not only learning inside the classroom but outside, through peers and seniors. It is essential to create a virtual environment which also encourages peer learning and engagement. (remember all the times your friends have helped you study for a test!). 

Courses should include collaborative projects and assessments. Let the students make their own groups and forums.  The instructors can host one live session every fortnight or so to boost morale and get people to build a community of learners. You can also create buddy systems where students can learn in pairs.The learners won’t feel like they’re on their own and will make learning a lot more fun! Let your course be a virtual “Classroom”, and encourage daily discourse. People will be far more motivated to learn when they are enjoying themselves and learning from each other.  

Building a relationship between instructors and learners

We all remember that one teacher from school who we really liked and who made even maths and history the most interesting subjects ever!

Often, digital learning platforms have very little actual interaction with the instructor of the course. To ensure actual learning people rely on external accountability. Someone whom they feel is keeping a track on progress, who will help with doubts, who is there throughout the learning process.Instructors building a rapport with the students can be a great way to keep them motivated and committed to their learning goals. One can create the environment for better student-instructor interactions by integrating personalised support and feedback mechanisms into the course. We tend to perform a lot better when we feel like there’s someone who cares and supports us. There could be a live one on one or even group interaction sessions with the instructors where students can voice their concerns, ask questions and even just generally chat. Personalised feedback can go a long way in increasing students’ satisfaction from the course. This could be a unique value proposition which can set you apart from the sea of generic online courses which offer no personal touch.

Increasing Student Acquisition

Okay, done you’ve made the course interactive, with gamification elements and study progress trackers. Now how do you get people to actually sign up?

Behavioural science can guide you to create marketing and outreach strategies that resonate with potential learners. This includes understanding the motivations and barriers of prospective students, and tailoring marketing messages to address them specifically. Humans are social beings and we’re often driven by “Ooh is that what people like? I should get that too!”. Use the power of this social proof and highlight success stories and testimonials on your course page and social media. People want to follow the path of least resistance, we would avoid anything which isn’t a quick and easy decision. Offering free trial courses and making the registration as simple as a “One-click” sign up will set enrolment as a default option. Personalisation of the marketing content as well as the landing and home page are also powerful hooks to get prospective learners to sign up. Your platform UI design can greatly determine whether people will sign up or not. The UI is what will draw people in. If the students feel that your design is more interactive, fun and easy to understand;  they will choose your platform over others!

Standing out amongst competition

With a fast growing market, comes a lot of competition. Coursera, EdX, Udemy all seem to offer very similar courses and formats of courses and there’s a host of other platforms which do the same. There’s way too many fishes in this sea and what can set you apart is having a very unique proposition. Now this can be something as small as your instructors providing actual personalised feedback or having a few live sessions to foster peer interactions. Once you have formulated a USP it’s time to leverage scarcity principles and peoples fear of missing out (FOMO) to get people to choose your platform over the competition. Highlight your unique value and frame it in a manner that makes the consumer feel like they would miss out if they didn’t choose your course. Maximise on social proof by creating a waiting list. People are likely to sign up if they feel like a lot of others are also in the “waiting” list for the course.

Building Credibility for Certification

Not all certificates are the same. Some are proudly and widely shared while others are silently added to one’s CV. Learners’ propensity to share their certifications on social media is dependent on the pride, recognition and potential for external validation.

How do you ensure your certifications are more than just a piece of digital paper? Align them with industry standards, involve experts in the creation process, and showcase success stories. The framing of the certificate, the way it’s sent to the learner, the design and look of the certificate - everything matters!

Nudging Students to Take More Courses

Let’s say a learner has successfully completed a course with you. What do you think would motivate them to take more courses? The quality and experience with the previous course - sure, what else? Bundled course packages, loyalty discounts, yes. Think deeper!

Personalisation is again very powerful here. Recommending courses based on an effective algorithm that takes into account their past behaviour, interests, and learning goals is key. I’ve personally observed over and again how powerful a good recommendation algorithm can be at upselling everything ranging from a SaaS product to retail products to tech gadgets.

Recommending the Platform to Others

Looking to enhance word-of-mouth referrals? Many platforms have tested out referral programs that reward both referrer and new enrolee - this seems to work quite well. Again, in this scenario, learners are more likely to talk about the course if they are “wow”-ed by something. Explore the peak-end rule and create various memorable peaks for the learners.

Wrapping up...

These are just scratching the surface of the ways in which Behavioural science can help optimise digital learning platforms. Online learning is a whole new wave educational format and involves significant behaviour changes on the part of both the learner and the instructors. These guidelines are a great starting point however, to actually build a course which gets adopted and grows a learner base one needs to truly understand the learning segment. For that,a thorough investigation is required to uncover motivations and barriers of the target segment and build strategies to address them specifically. 

Being a player in this expanding Ed-Tech market could potentially be quite lucrative and by utilizing behavioural science principles you can make a platform everyone seeks to learn from!

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