A Spotify for Lifelong Learning

What I want from the edtech industry

Mr. Wrenchman book end reads in our library

It’s no secret that there is an engagement issue in edtech. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most online courses have 3–7% completion. There’s also a large mismatch between consumer expectations (“I will become an expert in Python in a few hours”) and what these platforms deliver. Hopefully, as awareness grows about the immense value of lifelong learning and the commitment it deserves, this latter problem will disappear. Meanwhile, how do we build a more engaging learning experience online?

Like many others, I have registered on several online platforms and downloaded many apps for courses, skills and languages I would like to learn more about— Coursera, Udacity, Udemy, CodeAcademy, Duolingo and Stanford Online just to name a few popular ones. I also read weekly newsletters on design, analytics and entrepreneurship that often add up to the knowledge base of a course or a book over time.

While most of these platforms do some hard things well, they often fail to impact a vast % of self-selected users who want to learn X, sign up for X and yet don’t — including myself.

Here’s what I think they should do — they should think more like Spotify. Let me explain how.

When we are not just consuming Spotify passively like an old mixtape, we use it actively in three different ways:

  1. Search: You are looking for one specific song and can search by the keywords
  2. Discover: Spotify recommends music based on what you have already played
  3. Master: For super users, Spotify’s API allows for integrations to DJing apps, clients that fetch lyrics, change tempos for runners, get guitar chords/tabs and hundreds of other apps I have yet to try

Similarly, a great online learning experience needs to be able to serve me the same content in different forms, in different sequences with different layers of integrations I can opt into based on what/how much I’m looking to do. This is extremely hard but a great problem to solve!

Here are three important product design lessons edtech can learn from Spotify. Here they are:

Lesson #1: The perfect bite size of content

Luckily for Spotify, songs are already designed in perfect bite sizes for our attention span. They can also be put together in many arbitrary sequences without completely killing the experience. How do we create a perfect bite of content in edtech? Content creators should keep three things in mind:

  • Short but complete: Each individual video/reading time should ideally be in single digit minutes with complete and essential content.
  • Meta-data for searchability: There’s no point creating content without meta data! Each concept should be rich with the meta data of creators, associated topics, associated communities, practical applications, pre-requisites and the hierarchy of the knowledge tree it sits within.
  • Anticipate pre-requisites: If I end up on a video/an article, help me decide if it’s the right one. Have I watched/tested out of the pre-requisites on your platform? If I haven’t, can I stop midway to explore how I should navigate it?

Lesson #2: Personalized UX and content marketing

If it will help me learn better, I’m happy to share my dreams and existing skill sets. You can see who I am on Linkedin and recommend what I should try:

  • Let me set my own pace: Even now, most platforms have a fairly regimented weekly schedule of how much they expect me to cover. Perhaps that’s what I’m looking for because I am not currently employed or need to learn a new skill for my current job. Perhaps I am a really busy front end developer and just want some design tips so I can use a new graphics tool.
  • Help me discover what to learn: Maybe there is no point in trying to learn Python for me — my needs are better suited just learning SQL.
  • Recommend new things: Maybe I’m tired of learning how to join tables in SQL and need a break. Perhaps you could bring my vagrant butt back with an email about how to create cool visualizations in Periscope. There is a whole real world of practical applications out there and we can connect them better to what we are learning.
  • Goal-oriented content marketing: “Programming with R and 5 other specializations start Thursday!” is not an engaging subject line. It’s also not goal-oriented — it’s telling me I can choose to do some work.

Instead, check out this weekly email I got from Product Hunt where they focused on one new thing I might want to learn — how to use newly released Siri better. There is a video embedded in the email that allows me to take a peek at what they are pitching and I can decide how interesting or useful it is for me. It also tells me what I can do if I learn all this. One thing is for sure — they have my attention.

Lesson #3: Seamless tools and communities for creators and learners

Spotify provides artists with tools that allow them to analyze their listeners as well as promote their concerts and merchandise. Similarly, listeners get tools that allow them to make their own playlists, move seamlessly between devices and spend at different levels based on their budget. Here are tools the edtech industry needs to build:

  • Tools to create great digital lessons: Most online platforms are some unwieldy combination of slides and people talking. There are exceptions like CodeAcademy, which jump into a console without ceremony (which I love!). It’s very hard to build a great digital course with seamless content, testing and discussion. I think this is the single most important investment players in edtech need to make today — a set of tools that will allow good teachers to create great content.
Codeacademy: Learning Javascript, Screen #2
  • A platform for seamless learning: The user flow of consuming learning content is far from seamless today. Lectures are broken up into videos I need to both see and hear, tests I need to solve on other tabs, files I need to upload on to very quiet discussion forums explicitly created for each course — it goes on. And if you’re like me, you might also have a notepad to support your doodling habit.
  • Access to real world communities: Especially for adult learners, an isolated classroom community of a few dozen active participants is less useful than access to the real world community of practitioners in the topic they are trying to learn more about. Whether it’s to help me learn, help me find that new job or figure out how to use what I have learnt to build something — I want to be plugged in to the real, effervescent world out there with some filters for the people who will put up with my questions.

Of course, there’s a pertinent discussion to be had here about pricing and monetization — micropayments vs courses vs subscriptions. B2C vs employer-sponsored. Marketplace or closed. We will leave that to others for now. Let it suffice to say all existing models can clearly be improved upon!

While this is far from a perfect analogy, it highlights the degree of innovation in creation, curation and consumption of media that’s all around us. Yet, the edtech industry hasn’t been the source of it and worse, hasn’t been able to take full advantage of it.

This is probably due to the lack of resources (more VC funding needed?) and because we are idiots and would rather pay for Spotify, Netflix, Hulu and HBO than a monthly edtech platform fee to learn what’s good for us. Or perhaps that’s a chicken and egg problem (I’ll pay if it’s good!) and we are on the cusp of a new generation of edtech startups that will finally birth a Spotify for Lifelong Learning.