New app from IU helps college students stay on track to graduate

BLOOMINGTON – A year ago, former SupplyKick CEO and 2020 Indiana gubernatorial candidate Josh Owens was getting ready to fly to Italy for an extended trip.

 Then COVID struck, the flight was canceled, and Owens found himself back in Indianapolis. In the tight-knit Hoosier entrepreneurial ecosystem, word of opportunity spreads fast. A few months later, Owens was contacted by Cy Megnin, the Entrepreneur-in-Residence for the Velocities region and Jason Whitney at Indiana University (IU) Angel Network, about a new edtech startup called Boost developed by Ben Motz.

It was helping students stay on top of what they needed to do that day and increasing the number of students who were completing a class and staying on track for graduation. As a former faculty member at IU and Butler University, Owens immediately understood the problem that Boost was trying to solve.

And that’s how in the middle of a pandemic, Owens found himself back in the startup world, as CEO of a new venture that elegantly sidesteps one of the biggest problems for edtech: adoption.

Josh Owens

“Most solutions in the education space require a lot of faculty or teacher input to manage it,” Owens says. “And Boost was inadvertently solving this problem: it was focused directly on the student, using existing data.”

Boost is a lightweight solution that doesn’t add to the instructor’s burden, and yet it still provides substantial results in student learning. In the age of COVID and massive shifts in education, this advantage is even more critical, for overwhelmed teachers and for struggling students.

The Boost app pulls data that’s already in the learning management system (LMS) and then repurposes it to empower students to control the notifications they receive about assignments.

The premise sounds simple: can reminders really make a difference? Shouldn’t students already know what they have to do? Learning today looks different, Owens argues.

“For a lot of students, college involves transferring schools, changing majors maybe three, four, five times,” he added. “That might set them back a year or two. Now that schools are flipping between online, hybrid, and in-class learning, things are changing dynamically for students. They might also be working two or three jobs to help pay for school, on top of family obligations and other things.”

The base-level assigned work at typical universities works out to just over one assignment per school day, so one “bad week” can quickly take a toll on academic performance.

“It’s not unreasonable for students to simply not be able to stay on top of all the things that are due in their classes, things that do add up to missing points here and there.” said Owens. “It can make the difference between staying on track versus being at a really difficult decision point of, are their grades in a place where it’s even worth continuing at school?”

As a research scientist and director of the eLearning Research and Practice Lab at Indiana University, co-founder Ben Motz studies the intersection of student psychology and behaviors. The origin of the research project that led to Boost was one simple question: How can we make an impact on students turning in assignments?

The first route Motz and his team explored was email reminders. But students, like most people, receive so many emails that reminders get lost there. The solution lay in harnessing an existing student behavior: checking their smart phones.

Students’ Canvas accounts already held all the relevant information on assignments and due dates; all that was needed were optimized push notifications. The research project led to an alpha test across 200 students and a beta test across 5,000 students. Boost increased the number of students who were submitting assignments by 6 percent, increased the overall course grade by 4 percent, and increased the number of students who would pass the class by 3 percent.

“All of those success metrics were coming not from faculty members having to put more hours into it, or the school having to find the students who were having troubles,” Owens says. “The success came from giving students more control over understanding what was due that day, when it needed to be done, and how they needed to do it. And that support turned out to be incredibly powerful.”

IU quickly saw the potential in commercializing the technology and spinning it out into its own company. From mid-2020 on, the focus was first on building the team, then fundraising, and now expanding the pilot into many different universities and ultimately into K–12 schools.

Boost was developed in close communication and now has a partnership agreement with Canvas.

Owens developed domain expertise in elearning in the summer of 2013, when he helped develop Butler Lacy School of Business’ online classes in economics and statistics.  

“I’ve used Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas, many of the major learning management systems. They are incredibly powerful, but you do need a vision for what you’re trying to build, time, resources. . . . What we’re asking of faculty members today is to not just be great at teaching students, but also to become technology experts,” Owens added.

Boost is only a few months old but is already active at Indiana University and IUPUI. Owens and Motz are hoping to get Boost into about a dozen more schools before the start of the 2021–22 school year, including some K–12 schools.

“From a business perspective, you have to make some bets. Hopefully, you’re doing enough testing and having enough conversations around the underlying product to think through,” Owens added. “Is it the right solution at the right time for the right people? And then if that’s the case, are you getting it into the right people’s hands at the right time? And do you have a pricing mechanism to help pay for it, but not get too much in the way of scaling the solution?”

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we have been able to put a lot of those pieces together quickly. We’ve been lucky to have a lot of really great people along for the ride: Cy from Elevate, Jason at IU Ventures, Pat East and the community at The Mill, the Flywheel Fund . . . It’s just been really helpful for me as a founder,” he said. “It’s also been really rewarding to be going back through this journey as a startup leader and to have so many Hoosier leaders and entities along this journey with us.”

Boost recently closed a round of funding in January 2021 and will soon be hiring an additional technology leader and a few sales and marketing positions.

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