Edtech and the (Persisting) Motivation Gap

Edtech and the (Persisting) Motivation Gap


Khan Academy’s announcement last week that they had launched their new SAT Prep program in partnership with the College Board was seen by the media as a watershed moment in the history of test prep. It’s obviously a big deal: The official maker of the exam has partnered with an education organization to give high quality test prep to students—for free! And it is objectively a good thing for all students to have access to quality test prep materials.

But there is a real risk that, as we laud the College Board and Khan Academy for working to provide access to everyone regardless of means, we may end up convincing ourselves that the problem is solved. Edtech has long been hailed as an equalizer, but several years into the latest edtech revolution we aren’t much more equal. Free SAT prep from Khan Academy—while wonderful—isn’t enough to truly level the playing field or to meaningfully close the gap in SAT scores between rich and poor. If technology is to be a force for reshaping American education, then we need to start recognizing this fact: In the US, the problem isn’t that students don’t have access to educational content, it’s that many lack the basic support necessary to use it.

(Full disclosure: Magoosh, my employer, also offers an SAT prep product that students can purchase. Our CEO, Bhavin Parikh, has written before about our support for the College Board and Khan Academy partnership, and I don’t want to rehash it. The TL/DR version is this: we welcome anything that helps students and that promotes the effectiveness of online prep.)

Before coming to work at Magoosh, I spent five years teaching in low-income public schools in Washington, DC. In that time, I learned a ton about great teaching (mostly through my own failures), much of which translates to e-learning as well. One of the most important things that I learned is that improving education in the US isn’t just about the content—it’s about the context. I taught in underperforming schools in very rough neighborhoods. These schools were under-resourced in nearly every way. And yet every teacher I worked with was a content expert; they all really knew the math, or history, or science they were charged with teaching.

The problem wasn’t getting academic content in front of students—it was getting content in front of motivated students. Even the best material, even if it’s free, isn’t going to make a difference to students if they aren’t motivated to use it. That word “motivation” can be a tricky one to really understand, but it’s extremely important. I’d like to unpack it a bit.

We tend to think of motivation as something that comes from within each student. But my experience (and the scholarship on the topic) shows that this isn’t always the case. It is possible for great teachers to motivate others, to create learning experiences that encourage students to work and achieve.

There are two theories relating to motivation that I think are particularly relevant to ed-tech.

The first is Vroom’s Expectancy Theory, which says that people will behave in a certain way if they are motivated to do so by the outcomes they expect from that behavior. More specifically, if a person can see a clear relationship between their effort and an outcome (their ability to do something), and if that outcome is desirable (it’s something they actually want), the the person will be motivated to act. Put even more simply: I Can + I Want = I Will.

The second relevant theory is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. PhD’s have been written about this topic, but the gist of the theory is that when people’s basic needs aren’t met—they aren’t well fed or well sheltered, they aren’t safe, and they don’t feel a sense of belonging—then they can’t be motivated to develop higher level skills. You require some level of stability in order to grow.

The problem for educators and technologists (and, especially, for education technologists) is that too many students in this country are not motivated to use the resources they have. If either their basic needs aren’t met or they can’t see a clear connection between their effort and a desired outcome, then they simply won’t study. Khan Academy’s free prep (or Magoosh’s paid prep, or any other set of materials students get their hands on) simply will not get used.

We see this playing out in nearly every aspect of the modern edtech revolution. Less than one in ten students who start a MOOC actually complete it. Many edtech products that schools spend money on aren’t being used. We’ve even seen large school districts cancel orders or sell their stock of some devices. All are examples of the dangers of thinking that putting content in front of students is enough.

While it’s great that so much attention is focused on Khan Academy’s SAT content, we should be careful to not expect that the work is done. Even as we make admirable progress towards connecting every classroom and creating great content, we must also turn our attention to getting students to use it. Khan Academy and the College Board are partnering with Boys and Girls Clubs of America to provide in-person tutoring, but only time will tell if their efforts translate into student engagement.

What we need in edtech is a paradigm shift. We need to abandon the notion that simply getting content—even great, free, fun content—in front of students is enough. We have to design products, services, and tools that help students see connections between their efforts and desired outcomes and that allow schools to meet the needs of students. And, in the US at least, those needs don’t involve more teaching—It’s all about motivating.

Peter Poer works as the content lead for Magoosh, an online test-prep company in Berkeley, CA.

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