Want people to learn? Make education a painkiller, not a vitamin

Selling learners on abstract benefits down the road isn’t as effective as solving something that hurts them now.

The book Hooked has a great framework for creating addictive products. Addictive has a negative connotation, but in a sense it means that the product has become something the user depends on, that has become a habit. Which means you are serving a consistent need. Making a product addictive can be used for evil (like slot machines and other games that use variable rewards to hook us), but it can also be used for good.

Nowhere is this more true than in education. Getting people habituated to using a product that creates the potential for personal and professional growth is a good thing (if it doesn’t somehow become compulsive).

A core distinction in Hooked is vitamins vs. painkillers:

“Painkillers solve an obvious need, relieving a specific pain and often have quantifiable markets. Think Tylenol, the brand name version of acetaminophen, and the product’s promise of reliable relief. It’s the kind of ready-made solution for which people are happy to pay.

In contrast, vitamins do not necessarily solve an obvious pain-point…When we take our multivitamin each morning, we don’t really know if it is actually making us healthier.”

In ed tech, we can sometimes focus too much on the vitamins aspect. Learning is good for you! You’ll be expanding your mind! You’ll get incrementally better at this one thing! It makes sense that we fall into this trap — if we’re in online education, usually this argument is compelling to us. It just isn’t as compelling to our learners.

So let’s focus more on the painkiller aspect. This was huge for us at UniversityNow’s Patten University, when students were struggling to complete coursework. And it’s huge for MOOCs, with their well chronicled low completion rates.

How can we focus on the painkiller aspect?

  1. Understand the problem users are actually trying to solve with an educational product. In the case of a MOOC, it might just be curiosity. It might just be a person wants to be conversant on a topic at a level slightly deeper than Wikipedia so she doesn’t feel out of her league at a dinner party. At what point is that curiosity satisfied, or that dinner party anxiety removed? For a MOOC, It might be after a lesson or two. “I just want to learn a few things about this and then I’m gone.”
  2. Recognize good intentions (vitamin seeking) may not be enough to stay motivated. If somebody joins for a vitamin reason, can you convert it to a painkiller reason? If they just had a little bit of curiosity about a topic, can you use the answer to that initial curiosity to create more curiosity, so that they just can’t get enough of the topic? Or show them how this topic impacts their lives in surprising ways?
  3. Admit that sometimes, people don’t even want to be there. When it comes to compliance training, the painkiller is “I won’t get fired.” Or maybe it’s not quite so aggressive — instead of emailing an employee to tell them it is legally required, tell them “finish it now and we will stop bothering you.” The painkiller is avoiding annoying emails. This isn’t meant to disrespect compliance training, but it does reflect reality for many people.
  4. Structure interventions in a painkiller fashion. A lot of online learning uses extrinsic motivation (badges, completion, certificates) to bring people back to the platform. These can help, but for some they aren’t enough. Instead, go after pain. A feature I thought about at UniversityNow that, sadly, never got off the ground, was asking new enrollees “why are you trying to get your college degree?” and note which pain they were addressing. Then, when they slow down or struggle, student advisors could invoke that reason to keep them motivated.
  5. Going deeper on #4, focus on jobs to be done. Most of our students didn’t really value learning as an end in itself. They didn’t even really value the degree. They just wanted to get a job. Or to get promoted. Or, on an emotional level, they wanted their parents, or spouses, or children, to be proud of them. In the intervention feature I talk about in #4 above, when students lose momentum, we could’ve sent them an email with a picture of their grandmother saying “I’ll be so proud when you complete your degree.” That’s more powerful than “finish your term paper on the war of 1812 so you can move on to American History Part II!”

Hooked has lots of other frameworks I’ll go into some other time, but for now, it’s got me thinking about one of the core problems of online learning: we can take more advantage of the same concepts that make consumer products addictive to make learning addictive, and use our powers for good. As much focus as there is on lifelong learning these days, it’s easy to forget that “learning is good for you” is a vitamin. “Learn more or a machine will take your job and leave you unemployed” is a painkiller.

Ed tech product enthusiast, focused on higher education and career pathways.