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The Technology of Motivation

We aren’t really in the education business; we’re in the motivation business

– Evgeny S, CEO and Founder of Makers Academy (an education start-up)

Motivation is hard.  Despite having a rational grip on the importance of pacing myself, every end of year at school and university was a mad dash of cramming for me.  Similarly, despite knowing (and being told) that I was heading for an early grave with a bad diet and lack of exercise when I was a startup CEO, I found every trick I could to avoid morning runs, gyms and salads.

Interestingly conversations I’ve had in the last few weeks have started to convince me that two of the key technology waves of the last few years – mobile and cloud – can play a big role in solving the problem of motivation.

Motivation isn’t an obvious feature focus for technology.  It’s a very human thing – intimate and social.  Peer pressure plays a big role (people don’t miss team sports because of the social negativity of letting the side down), as does relationship intimacy (a friend, overweight his whole life, changed diet overnight when he realized his five year old was convinced he’d die young).  So can tech do intimacy and peer pressure?

Intimacy via Mobile

Today, the way technology does intimacy best is, of course, through your phone.  Phones are insanely intimate devices. You sleep with them, you have them in your pocket at all times, you whip them out when on the loo, they are your best friend when you’re bored waiting for a bus, etc, etc.  When we recently met Pablo and the rest of the 8fit team – an app that helps you get fit by changing both your diet and exercise regime – a lot of the focus was on all the amazing content they’ve created, the nature of their exercise regime, the science behind their approach to weight loss and other more complex topics.  When I used the app, however, the thing that struck me the most was the motivation.

Put simply, 8Fit embarrassed me into action.  I’d tell it that I was thinking of working out on Tuesday morning and, on Tuesday morning, as I actually sat down to an indulgent breakfast, my phone’d vibrate and I’d get a “You should be exercising now” notification.  If the app was forcing me, it’d be obnoxious, but it wasn’t – I’d explicitly told it to tell me this.  It even gave me the opportunity to change the schedule, reduce my commitment, etc – all that control meant I ran out of excuses very quickly.  After a while I gave in and started to exercise when it told me to exercise.  Predictably, I’d feel good after working out and so, in time, I learned to look forward to the app’s nudges.

Social Contracting and Peer Pressure via the Cloud

Less obviously, I think the immersive connectivity of the cloud can also provide social and peer pressure.

Last week I was catching up with Evgeny Shadchnev, a co-founder of Makers Academy.  Makers has been teaching people how to code for two and a half years now and has successfully graduated over 300 people, with only 9% who want a job in software development still looking.  Makers has historically run as a physical ‘school’ with a batch of students at a time coming to a classroom and going through an intense period of working together on projects that leads to them learning to code.  Evgeny is proud of what his team have done, but worries about the sheer number of programmers the world will need in the next few decades and how scalable a physical school can ever be.  As a result, Makers recently completed their first fully virtual, cloud-delivered program.  8 students, all in remote locations with tutors based at Makers’ HQ in London.

Going into the test, a key observation byt the Makers’ team was that the information one needs to learn to code is all already available online. Yet, left to their own devices, at home, with no real imperative most students fail to focus with the necessary intensity to really learn the subject matter.  The team believed the social setting of their program (vs just the content itself) was the real key to their success. Using a variety of cloud-based tools, they set about creating a classroom atmosphere (Cloud Makers students log in using Google Hangouts at 9am every day and stay connected till the evening and use Slack to maintain constant inter-team communication).  Through these and other measures, the Maker’s team captured that mix of social inclusion and the peer pressure that drives motivation.

The experiment appears to have been a success.  Results are near identical to a regular class – similar graduation and satisfaction rates and, although early, Evgeny believes the employment outcome of the group will also be similar.  While discussing the success he neatly summarized their key learning for me: “we aren’t really in the education business; we’re in the motivation business.”

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