Personalized Digital Rewards Are the Future of EdTech

Sean Oakes bio picture Sean Oakes

“I’m missing basketball,” a student called out, interrupting our demonstration. I was with my design team at the Boys & Girls Club of Hudson County in Jersey City, N.J., piloting a web-based learning program called My.Future. Designed to bolster the beloved national organization’s after-school offerings in STEM and career-readiness, My.Future helps Boys & Girls Club members follow their passions, set goals, and earn badges for their accomplishments.

As you can tell from this student’s reaction, not everyone was on board with the learning tool. But once students had a chance to scroll through potential badges they could earn for computer science, leadership, and media making, the dynamic in the room changed. “What’s that?” asked the same student, pointing to a badge with glowing, golden headphones. “How do I get that?”

Well-designed digital badges and rewards, like the golden headphones from My.Future, engage students and their imaginations. But digital rewards in EdTech are most powerful when they’re used to help students set personalized learning goals. While I’ve long believed that educational products can harness digital reward systems to make self-directed learning more fun, our round of beta testing at the Boys & Girls Club confirmed what the research suggests. Combining learning incentives with self-directed learning makes digital education tools more effective.  

Giving students the opportunity to set learning goals makes education more fun, teaches students about the importance of persistence, and most importantly, improves student learning outcomes. In a recent study conducted by RAND Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, researchers found that personalized student learning improves outcomes, regardless of student ability. In other words, give students the opportunity to choose and track personal learning goals, and their outcomes in both math and reading will skyrocket.

When edTech software gamifies learning by offering students levels to conquer, points to accumulate, and badges to earn in pursuit of a goal, it gives students more opportunities to engage and delight in their education. Students report that they enjoy the learning process more when activities allow them to take an active role and engage directly with material. Higher engagement rates also make students more persistent when they encounter setbacks—helping them to develop more grit. Simply put, students work better and harder when they feel like an active participant in the classroom.

But edTech wasn’t first to figure this out—teachers were. Both project-driven learning and student-centered learning give students more autonomy in the classroom, allowing them to drive discussions, pursue their interests, and set meaningful goals. When teachers combine personalized instruction with incentive-driven in-class projects, they tend to see benefits like improved student motivation and better learning retention, too. Some research even suggests that teachers who prioritize goal-setting also experience fewer disciplinary problems, simply because their students are more engaged.

This is the research driving our most recent project for LIteracy Pro, a Scholastic reading tool that helps students choose their own books and set their own reading goals. Students swipe left or right on book covers, matching themselves to books that seem interesting. The software then offers a simple prompt: “How many minutes will you read each week?” Students can track how well they’re doing against their goal, perhaps even deciding to read more and more each night—ultimately blowing their goal out of the water without effort.

edTech can—and should—be designing more goal-driven software that helps teachers achieve learning outcomes, even as we continue to experiment with eye-catching, personalized rewards. There are a few products on the market that do this well—like, Khan Academy, and offerings from Amplify—but we can do more as an industry to embrace and enhance what works in the classroom. And it would be relatively easy to implement, too. Digital products already designed to personalize a user’s experience can extend this idea further, rewarding learners when they achieve a goal. Rewards can be simple, like the ability to customize an avatar, “unlock” new content, or play a mini-game. Learners connect with what appeals to them most, deepening both engagement and delight.

Now, more than ever, it’s crucial for edTech to foster trust with educators by listening and responding to their concerns. In a recent Gallup survey, many educators expressed a reluctance to adopt technology in the classroom because they don’t believe edTech products meet student needs. But our industry has the capacity to design software that helps teachers meet national standards and drive student learning outcomes.

In my view, the most successful of these products will effectively combine self-motivation with personalized digital rewards — and harness all the positive outcomes that come along with increased student engagement. Personalized goal-setting software also offers compelling solutions for educators who need technology that adapts to learners with disabilities, or that scales effectively in the classroom. In fact, personalized digital rewards powered by student-driven goal-setting could be what finally wins teachers over.

It’s time to help teachers empower their students, and for students to engage and delight in their own learning. We already know that a badge with golden headphones can capture the attention of a reluctant learner—it’s what happens next that might at long last fulfill the promise of edTech.

This article was originally published in Crain’s New York.

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