Accelerator

Josh Owens, Co-Founder of BoostJosh Owens is the co-founder and CEO of Boost Education, a research-backed app that delivers automated nudges and praise to students. He’s a professor, activist, former candidate for Indiana Governor, and tireless entrepreneur. Boost is Accelerator at WGU Labs’ twelfth partner. 

Hello, Josh! First, a question about Boost: Your assignment nudges are just that: Nudges. You provide no further instruction on how students should behave. Why just the nudge?

The typical college student gets frequent guidance from instructors, academic advisors, career coaches, and even their peers. Most students are awash in useful information.

But they’re being asked to do so much on any given day — from work to family responsibilities to navigating new relationships — that they often need help staying on task.

Boost aims to solve one problem: Missed assignments, the top predictor of course outcomes. Our research has shown that students who turn in more assignments perform better in their courses.

We leave the advising and coaching and teaching to the experts. But we’re here to tackle one specific challenge that is the key to a student actually succeeding. And we’re reducing stress and anxiety along the way.

Your tool also sends students occasional messages of praise. How do these notes supplement the nudges? 

Praise is a vital component of our app. Our research found that giving simple notes of praise, like “nice work!” or “way to go,” increases the amount of assignments a student completes by a full six percent.

That might sound too good to be true, but when you consider the typical school journey, it’s an incredibly long timeline. It’s also not uncommon for faculty members to take weeks to provide feedback on assignments.

Students want to complete their assignments. But they also want to feel like their work is valued. Too often, their emotions are secondary to “did you get this done?”

We know from many environments, including the workplace, that immediate praise is key to development. And we know this well-timed praise is a huge benefit to students.

Fascinating! And a simple “nice work” has this much impact?

It does, and it’s worth noting that, in our research, value statements like “you’re on track to graduate” didn’t move the needle on student outcomes in a statistically meaningful way.

But messages of simple praise like “way to go!” drove meaningful improvements in course performance. These meet an emotional need that more tactical messages simply don’t.

Trust us, a “way to go” goes a long way here, too. One other curiosity: In your research at Indiana University, you found the average student has over 76 assignments a semester…

Ah, there was a massive standard deviation here. In fact, a surprising number of students have over 150 assignments per semester – almost three assignments due each school day!

That’s dizzying. 

Yes, it’s wild. To be fair, this has valid pedagogical roots, and most students prefer multiple assignments over a single, end-of-term exam. But the end result of more assessments is overwhelming for most students (and, frankly, instructors!).

And high assignment loads leave little room for surprise life events, right?

Exactly. In my experience as an instructor, it’s not that students lack executive functioning skills that they must improve through tough love. Life can just strike students when they least expect it.

I’ve watched gifted, dedicated students quickly lose traction if a life event happens mid-semester when the course load is heaviest. Think of today’s challenges, too. Many students are struggling with COVID, facing housing or family issues, working multiple jobs, etc.

It’s a difficult time to be a student. And those who are funding their own way through school face even more stressors. That’s why we believe Boost is especially helpful for working students.

One last question about your tool. You’ve found that automated nudges are more effective than instructor announcements. Why is this the case?

Students today have been conditioned to receive notifications across several platforms — notifications of texts and DMs, likes on Instagram, etc. They’re on their phones all the time. They expect these nudges to keep them up to date on what is important to them.

Contrast that with the typical instructor announcement through an LMS. It’s not that these efforts aren’t valuable. They often are. But they’re solely dependent on faculty having time to deliver an effective nudge at an actionable time through a platform students aren’t on all the time.

That’s a lot to ask of an instructor who also has to research, teach, and mentor. Boost is taking existing data within Canvas to take this burden off faculty’s hands and deliver quick, actionable nudges with direct links to the tasks students need to complete.

You’ve proven efficacy in the higher ed space. What’s next for Boost? 

We’re already piloting Boost at secondary schools to see if our tool has the same impact on sixth through twelfth graders as it does on university students. We’re excited to partner with WGU Labs to prove this out and expand Boost to more students!

We are too! Now, a few personal questions. First, you went to the London School of Economics for a graduate degree in economic history. What was more valuable: The curriculum, the competition, or the connections?

Probably the first two. I went to a small liberal arts school in Indiana, and while it was a great school full of smart people, it was hard to know where I stacked up against international competition.

Just proving to myself that I could hang with those students and do well was a life-changing experience. Also London is an amazing city, so that was a lot of fun.

You also ran for governor of Indiana. On his website, the current Governor (Eric Holcomb) claims to have “shot and made a basket in each of Indiana’s 92 counties.” Do voters respond to this type of stunt? Or are they more sophisticated than we think? 

Both are true. Voters are more sophisticated than we think. They want good information and better policies. But they also want to know that the person running is one of them.

I wish we didn’t put as much emphasis on heart-warming tropes that aren’t solving tangible problems. But there is a place in saying “I am one of you” in politics. So I have respect for what he did and I have to admit it was effective.

We’re curious to learn his free throw percentage, too. One last question, Josh. In a recent survey, Indiana was ranked 6th in “fiscal responsibility” and 48th in issues involving the “environment.” Can the state improve the latter without impacting the former? 

Lots of reports on “fiscal responsibility” make a very simple calculation across a short timeframe: How much is a state spending and how much is it bringing in? What it’s not considering is whether that spending positively impacts every single neighborhood, not just some. Or whether it’s building a better life and future for our children, not just today’s adults.

I believe Indiana has a responsibility to serve every neighborhood in every part of the state. And to ensure that every resident has a wonderful neighborhood school, clean air to breathe, and safe water to drink. This all costs money.

Indiana is sitting on more than $2 billion in reserves, even after the pandemic. If you’re going to have a rainy day fund, a rolling two-year economic disaster is a good time to spend it. We can’t build a better, more livable community tomorrow unless we make those key investments today. Reports that say Indiana is fantastic on its finances only tell one, very biased side of the story.

Josh, this is why we call you the Most Interesting Man in EdTech. Thank you for your time! 

Of course, we’re excited to partner with Labs and look forward to sharing the results of our secondary school pilot.