EdTech's One Thing: Student Experience

There are many things to take care of while building a startup. All entrepreneurs like to think that all the components of the business will get equal attention and hence it will lead to growth. But the reality is: a few things will always take precedence over others, whether you try it or not.

Accounting, invoicing, customer support, HR, legal, etc. are hygiene tasks in a startup. These things cannot be overlooked, and if ignored, will always demand a heavy price later on. If you don't attend to it when it shows up, you have to attend to it when it blows up.

However, there are things that can be ignored, though they might look mandatory.

For example, social media is a waste of time. Most companies try to spend a lot of time and energy focusing on social media and try to "get their name out there". We decided not to have a "social media marketing team". I randomly post here and there, and so do my team members, but we mostly ignore the noise of social media.

I have seen how platforms come and go since the age of Orkut and I know for sure Instagram, Facebook and YouTube will not be as relevant as it is now, if not completely disappear at some point in the next decade.

For us at Team LearnToday, social media followers don't matter that much. The only real user growth metric that we look at is our email list.

As a founder, I could be tweeting out all day and responding to other tweets but I choose to write on this blog, with a set of subscribers and followers who have the patience and focus to read 500-1000 word blog posts. Nothing else matters to me.

[Quality > Quantity] 1,000 Blog Readers > 100,000 Social Media Followers. Any day. 

I want a few hundred to a few thousand readers (potential team members and investors) who have the attention span to read posts on this blog. To say something meaningful takes time. Unless one is a social media celebrity CEO, a lot cannot be said in 140 (or 280) characters.

In the act of elimination, one thing takes precedence over the other. We all have just 24 hours in a day and there is no way to prioritize something important without eliminating something relatively unimportant.

What is the most important thing in business? What's the 1-thing in EdTech?

It is undoubtedly: The Student Experience

Why does an education business exist in the first place? Does it exist to make money for the founders? Does it exist to create income for its team? Does it exist to bring returns for investors? Or... Does it exist to put a dent in the way education is delivered and consumed?

The one thing for an EdTech startup depends on why the startup exists in the first place. The purpose of LearnToday.com and my life's work is to put a dent in the way people upskill. That means that the primary focus of our organization is the deliver a great student experience. (That doesn't mean I don't withdraw a salary from my startup!)

What are the things included under the umbrella of Student Experience?

What makes for a great student experience?

  • Quality & Relevancy of the Content
  • The Medium and Delivery of the Content
  • Driving Results from the Consumption of the Content

That's it.

Nothing else matters.

Yes, of course, we need to have:

  • A smooth onboarding experience
  • A great UI/UX for the product
  • Student analytics of course progress
  • Community and Interaction (Online and Offline)
  • Learning Support (Live Q&A, Mentorship, etc)
  • Technical Support (Payments, Access, etc)
  • After graduation support network
  • Access to freelancing and job opportunities

And so on and on.

Everything else exists to support content, delivery, and results for the student. Without these three main components, things will fall apart. Remember it as CDR. Content, Delivery, and Results.

It might look like it would be enough just to focus on Content, because, they said, content is king. But in this post, you will understand why content alone cannot get the job done. And Delivery is not just about uploading the course videos to a learning management system. And Results are not gonna happen unless they are triggered.

Let's go over each of these aspects in detail.

1. Content Quality and Relevancy

The phrase "Content is King" is thrown around a lot nowadays and the origins of it have been missed. It is true that content is king. Without content, you have nothing to talk about, no one to talk about it with, and nothing to post on any content platform.

Here's an essay from Bill Gates (1996): Content is King by Bill Gates

"Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting."

In that essay, Bill has predicted back in 1996 that:

  • Everyone can become a content creator as the cost of distribution of content on the internet becomes next to nothing. The Internet will reduce the barrier of entry.
  • Content creators need to be paid for their work. This can be either via advertising or subscriptions.
  • Traditional publications will find a hard time competing on the Internet because of competition and outdated monetization methods.

A lot of people attribute coining the phrase "Content is king" to Bill Gates. But it was originally uttered by Summer Redstone. Long before the Internet era. He goes on to say "People don't want a TV channel, they watch what's on the TV channel."

It might be easy to conclude that if you have great content pretty much everything is sorted. But back in 1996, Bill Gates couldn't predict one thing that is too obvious today. The lack of attention span and information overload that people experience on a daily basis.

So delivering a great student experience cannot be limited to content. Because good content takes time and patience to consume - which is a luxury in today's social media age.

"Content is King, and Distribution is Prince." - Summer Redstone

Everyone knows that we need good distribution to make sure the content reaches the right people. Distribution is actually easy to achieve if you have a good product with healthy margins. Most of the profit margins can be reinvested into direct response ads to crack distribution.

What is really hard to crack is the delivery. Even if the content reaches the right audience with good distribution, what makes sure that the target audience will actually consume the content. If they do not consume the content, they are not going to go down the funnel to buy higher-cost products. Unlike physical goods, the usage of content takes time, patience, and determination.

Thinking about delivery is mandatory in today's social media world. Newspapers, Magazines, and Radios delivered content in such a way that people can focus on one thing at a time. They can "sit back, relax and read a newspaper".

But social media and mobile devices are not for "relaxed content consumption" anymore. You never sit back and relax with your phone. You hunch over it and frantically go from one post to another, doom scrolling forever until the battery dies out.

Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, and the rest of the content platforms, either user-generated or produced, are mostly in the entertainment space. Facebook doesn't care how much time you spend on a single video on Facebook. They only care how much time you spend on Facebook - so they have the most opportunity to show you the most number of ads.

However, an EdTech platform cannot measure performance by the amount of time spent on the platform. An in-depth content video will be anywhere from 20 minutes to 45 minutes long, sometimes more.

A student has to watch the entire video to absorb the concepts. There are no laughs, thrills, and entertainment in such content. Just like there is no fun doing 20 reps of pushups in the gym. If you have ever joined a gym before and didn't use it fully, you would understand the biggest challenge with EdTech.

Buying a course is like buying a subscription to the gym. The course alone cannot get you results just like paying for the gym alone cannot give you 6-pack abs.

That's why Delivery is very important for EdTech than other content businesses. You have to figure out a way to "force-feed" the content into the students, else they are going to YouTube to watch the latest cat video or Netflix to watch the next episode of a stupid soap opera they have been hooked on.

2. Delivery of Content

Think about schools and colleges. There was attendance. There were exams. There was homework. If students didn't perform well in the exams, there was some level of reprimanding. They talked about it in parents-teachers meeting.

There was an element of "force feed" of content to the students of a specific course. Even if students bunk a lot of classes, there was a higher level of accountability.

Most of the EdTech startups struggle to replicate the effectiveness of school and college in the online medium. At one extreme you have entertainment. At another extreme, you have student transformation through a course.

Many online education companies fall somewhere in the middle. They are more like an "infotainment" products. Such content is not designed to create a transformation in the student.

MasterClass.com and similar companies are somewhere in the infotainment space. With MasterClass courses, you just need to sit back, relax and watch the "show" on TV. It is an educational show with enough video production value to make it look like a movie.

The biggest challenge with such platforms is that it is hard to charge on a per-course basis. They usually charge on a monthly basis and give an "All-Access Pass" to all the content that is there on the platform. They are just like Netflix, they don't care what course you consume. They only care if you consume enough to probably renew the subscription for the next year.

Let's admit it, recurring revenue business models are extremely lucrative to investors because of the predictability it brings with them.

There are a number of copy-cats of MasterClass.com across countries and languages and pretty much all the companies have a similar pricing model... charge them per year or per month, and give access to the entire library of content.

In this case "Delivery" is just putting a lot of content on a single login and letting people access any video from their library. The "product" is the content and the platform which might have a semi-decent recommendation engine to recommend to you what shows you should be watching next.

On the other hand you have websites like Udemy which is like an e-commerce store for courses. Most of the courses are priced around $10 and there are 1000s of courses. Lynda.com was similar to Udemy and after it has become LinkedIn learning, they have switched to annual pricing.

The problem with yearly subscription is that in the content business, it is difficult to become a winner take all player because some of the content that you need will not be available in a specific platform.

In India, we have Disney+Hotstar, Sony Liv, Amazon Prime and Netflix as the most used streaming services. I have a Netflix account, but I just subscribed for Hotstar for a month to watch one show. Same thing with Sony Liv. Just one show. In such business models, the churn keeps happening unless you keep adding new content on the platform. A focus on quantity will invariably reduce the quality over time.

An education company can sell paid newsletters, ebooks and self-serve courses, but they will not help in transformation.

Transformation happens with cohort based courses with an active community. And I would like to keep the pricing of cohort based courses on a per-course basis. Every course has a possible result, and the perceived value of the possible result is different for different courses. The pricing needs to reflect that.

To create a good student experience, one needs to:

  • Host quality and relevant content for the student to watch
  • Create weekly or bi-weekly live Q&A sessions with mentors for the students to clear doubts
  • Gamify and reward the progress of the students within the course. Else the course will become like a book which was bought but never read more than a few pages.
  • Drive the community so that people can help each other, get to know each other and seek support from each other. (Both on online discussion groups and live meetings)
  • Reward top students for their actions and activities. Conduct hackathons.
  • Give an opportunity to stay connected with the community after the course.
  • Organize offline meetups (when it is safe to meet outside).

When most of the elements of offline education can be done online, the student experience goes up. The only element that probably cannot be brought into online education is to punish the students for non-performance. But anyway, for startups focusing on professional education, that is not an option anyway. When sticks won't work, use carrots.

If there is one metric that I would like to track to determine the student experience, that would be course completion rate.

Course completion doesn't mean that the student has watched all the videos and marked them as done. The student should implement what they have learned, week-by-week and the implementation alone will drive the results of the students.

Any course content, that is not followed by an implementation module with enough motivation for students to implement, will eventually be forgotten and added to the clutter of content that the internet is already.

3. Driving Results for Students

Once students complete the course, they have to be guided to progress further. This comes mostly in the form of a career consultation call. This call can happen during the course of the program, or at least by the end of the program.

  • If the student wants a job, he would need access and visibility to recruiters.
  • If the student wants to become a freelancer, he would need access to clients.
  • If the student wants to start a business, he would need access to a mastermind of other entrepreneurs.

A resume make over, a recommendation, a consultation call goes a long way in establishing trust with the student and completing the 3rd stage of the student experience.

After good content, after good delivery, only upon the achievement of some results, the student is going to be satisfied. This will drive reviews and word-of-mouth referrals. Such positive customer feedback needs to lie at the foundation of an edtech startup.

Education is a sensitive service area. They are provided by governments and education is responsible for upskilling and to some level the GDP of the nation itself. Predatory sales of education products with average content, no delivery and no focus on results will be damaging to the brand in the long term so much that all the "brand building" activities will eventually backfire.

There is no single metric to quantify student experience. However, if none of your students (customers) refer the program to other people because they had an awesome experience, something needs to be changed fundamentally in the business model.

I hope this article gave you an insight on how to build an online education brand that stands the test of time. And this article probably gave you some insights on how we approach this exciting space of online education.

Deepak Kanakaraju

CEO, LearnToday.com