Differ is a member of the first cohort of LearnSpace, an accelerator that provides promising European edtech startups with access to researchers, educators, and business experts who help them to refine paths to scale.
Differ Chat is on a mission to make all students passionate about helping each other. They want students to feel the freedom to be in charge of their own learning. To ask questions without fear of ridicule or shame. To contribute an incorrect answer and see that failure is nothing more than an integral step to the learning process. To dare to differ.
Differ proposes to accomplish this mission by creating a messaging environment designed around research-based strategies of helping students to feel comfortable in their online learning community. Specifically, Differ addresses students’ need for social approval and fear of ridicule by creating groups of like-minded peers, facilitating engagement within those groups, and encouraging positive reinforcement for actions, like asking and answering questions, that represent a break from one’s comfort zone.
Returns so far are promising, as Differ has shown the ability to both increase student engagement by up to 19x (5% -> 85%) and increase course completion by up to 3x (22% -> 67%) after just one year’s use. Not only is this great for the students, it is also excellent for institutions. Helping students to ask and answer each others’ questions — whether administrative or content-related — allows for more efficient use of professors’ time. In fact, Differ estimates that it can save up to 50% of teacher-preparation time.
In addition to traditional measures of academic achievement — read, grades — Differ looks to determine how well students help each other. In other words, they track the ever-famous soft skills. As the thinking goes, good grades are, at lease in part, a byproduct of socio-emotionally healthy classroom environments in which students feel supported and, therefore, safe to inquire, be curious, and ask questions that help them to better understand a given topic. By asking questions, they see that, often, their questions are also similar to the questions of their peers. So they are not weird or unintelligent. And that, often, their questions are not met with ridicule but with gratitude and relief from their peers. In the long run, Differ hopes that creating such digital spaces will allow students to achieve better which will, in turn, help them grow the confidence to tackle other things that they personally define as “failure.”
The proposition is intriguing also when considered in context of the future of work. If predictions about 21st Century work environments are to be believed, corporations are looking to hire employees who can communicate well in collaborative settings in order to create new products and services. Differ offers the possibility to create a profile of various students’ collaborative abilities. By looking at the frequency and quality of a student’s activity, they can attempt to discern that student’s desire and ability to offer their peers with useful feedback. A “Differ Score” could become an integral way for employers to determine how well a potential new hire could work in team settings. Immediately within the context of universities, tracking the helpfulness and promptness of response-time, the tool can also be used to help institutions to decide which graduate assistants are best for students.
An ability to pivot: the origin story of Differ
If it seems like Differ is obsessed with providing students with safe spaces to fail, it may be because they themselves have benefitted from such learning environments. Differ was formed in response to a request from the BI Norwegian Business School. BI provided two years of space, money, and a mission to fix how the school uses technology to teach and learn.
After 1.5 years of interviewing students, teachers, and administrators, the team arrived to a conclusion that BI needed to provide students with a safe space to fail and share what they learn. Version 1 of Differ was born as a content-based business with proprietary educational materials developed to inspire dialogue and conversation amongst students. The hypothesis was proven wrong. Course content did not drive engagement.
Inspired by Facebook, Version 2 was developed as a newsfeed where conversations about content could happen in a way that was transparent and visible to all students, even those too shy to contribute. Version 2 saw a 20% increased in activity, yet Differ was still not satisfied.
So, Version 3 was born as a pilot using Slack with over 3,000 students. While the engagement rates were the highest to that point, they also saw issues with regard to the lack of user types and permissions that fit with the hierarchically of classrooms, problems with file-sharing, and lack of proactive outreach to integrate students.
Finally, the current iteration of Differ was born.
How does Differ work
Differ’s process is simple and straightforward:
- Build a personality profile for each Student (User Type 1)
- Group them with similar peers
- Encourage “icebreaking” via trained Mentors (User Type 2), who catalyze and facilitate conversations in which students introduce themselves within groups
- Train Learning Community Managers (User Type 3), who keep care of the ecosystem as a whole by reaching out to students with low engagement to see how they can feel safer in participating.
- Show Teachers (User Type 4) pressing class-wide issues and allow them to hold office hours within the application to address these
The processes of group-making process and identifying mentors, both currently done by the Differ Team, are being automated. The process of incentivizing engagement through badges, points, or other measures is also under immediate development. Through building these features, Differ hopes to align its short-term goal to incentivize helpfulness, collaboration, and general prosocial behavior with its long-term goal of monetizing these traits via paths to employment.
To learn more about Differ Chat, please go to www.differ.chat. If you’re interested in using Differ, please use the code: LEARNSPACE to get free access for the Fall 2018 semester (Note: first 10 universities only, claim your spot now!).