Giving students a Boost

UITS-developed app sends just-in-time notifications for assignments

APP-PROVAL RATING. UITS' own Matt and Ben may not have any OscarsĀ® (yet), but together they've created a new tool for student success.

Not surprisingly, the number one predictor of student success is getting assignments turned in on time. Sounds simple, but today’s college students have an average of 70 assignments to complete per course, per semester, not including exams or group projects.

But before you start grumbling about the good old days when you kept track of your class assignments in your day planner and it was just fine, remember that in the era of smartphones, you’d be hard-pressed to find a paper calendar in any student backpack.

Enter Boost, a mobile app for providing assignment notifications created by Matt Mallon, online instructional developer in eLearning Design and Services, and Ben Motz, research scientist with the Department of Brain and Psychological Sciences and faculty fellow for academic analytics at UITS.

Ben Motz and Matt Mallon pose next to each other

Dynamic duo. Mallon and Motz are also the brains behind Quick Check, which creates integrated assessments within Canvas assignments.

According to Motz, while technology gives instructors the ability to create more low-stakes assignments for mastery of the material, the result is that students have more work to track than ever. “By creating this quantity of assignments, we’re also making it possible for students to fall behind in all sorts of ways,” he said. “It makes sense for there to be software that manages the risks associated with that.”

Mallon had been exploring sending student notifications based on Canvas data, but as a web developer, he knew mobile development was a whole new ballgame. Recent technological evolutions made it possible for him to use his skill set to create a prototype that delivered a good user experience—with that obstacle out of the way, the Boost pilot project was off and running.

The ability to proactively use Canvas’ wealth of data was exciting for Mallon. “Canvas has a very robust API that we’re allowed to access to find out what courses students are taking and what assignments are upcoming,” he said. “It’s a useful concept, to be able to intervene and make use of the data to notify students ‘just in time’.”

Piloting toward the future

Boost is currently in its second semester as a pilot program at IU, meaning instructors have to opt into the program for their courses, and students then consent to take part in the research project. There are 1600 courses participating in the project this semester, but student participation is completely voluntary.  

Once a student signs up, it’s up to them to determine what their preferences are for receiving assignment notifications. “They have a window from 2 to 24 hours,” Mallon said. “So they might have a lot of small assignments in one course and need a 4-hour window, but another course might have a lot of essays, so they’d want a reminder 24 hours in advance.”

Boost allows us to deliver a notification to the exact person who needs it at the exact time they need it.

But Boost isn’t a nag or a wagging finger. “It’s simply a due date reminder that says, ‘The deadline is approaching for this assignment,’” Motz said. “As a behavioral intervention, it might be described as an ‘educative nudge.’” And that nudge works—a fall version of the pilot program found that on average, students were nearly 4% more likely to submit an assignment when they received a reminder.

So what makes Boost more effective than Canvas notifications or instructor email? “Email can’t provide that just-in-time notification,” Motz said. “Boost allows us to deliver a notification to the exact person who needs it at the exact time they need it.”

The current iteration of Boost is just the beginning. Motz and Mallon have ambitious goals for additional features, including a recommendation system to let students know that there are class materials they haven’t accessed yet, and a daily digest of assignments coming up in the next 24 hours.

To those naysayers who may not see the need for a service like Boost, Motz points to other kinds of smartphone notifications we all use, like weather updates or reminders for upcoming bills. “Nobody would say to the bank, ‘You’re taking too good of care of your customers—they need to be allowed to make mistakes,’” he said.

Mallon agreed. “I would challenge anyone opposed to the idea of Boost to turn off their Outlook calendar reminders for a day and see how that goes,” he said.