After spending several years working to make content more engaging, Soomo Learning's Founder and Course Designer David Lindrum realized it was the immediate application of new knowledge that led students to be successful. In this podcast, David talks about how Soomo's data-driven approach helps faculty identify which students need the extra help and the best time for that intervention.
Welcome to the MBS Direct Podcast where we talk with some of our partners who are doing interesting things with content and education. I'm Carrie Watkins, the senior digital consultant with MBS Direct, and today we are talking with David Lindrum, the founder and course designer at Soomo Learning. Thank you for joining us, David.
David Lindrum: Thank you, Carrie.
Carrie: Soomo Learning has been around for a little over ten years now, so you guys have been in this space for a while. Tell me a little bit about how you got started, what was the impetus behind building Soomo Learning, and where have you grown it, and what do you see Soomo Learning becoming in the next couple years?
David: In 2004, I had about ten years in education technology, creating technologies primarily for major publishers. At first, we were introducing [people] to the web and talking about the idea of digital textbooks at all. That was a company called Meta-text. We helped them put their books online. We found that just putting the book online actually didn't help all that much. What books needed were a lot of enhancements around them. Let's take advantage of the web and all the interactivity that's possible. We started building companion websites. That was a company called Shadow Box. We built a lot of the companion websites at Cengage and McGraw and a lot of the Mylabs at Pearson.
Towards my mid to late thirties, I felt like ten years in, we had figured out how to do educational technology effectively and attractively, how to make compelling things, and how to do it in a profitable way. That wasn't a meaningful way to spend a life. What we really wanted to do was increase learning and increase student success. We stopped asking publishers what we could do to help. Though I adore publishers and loved helping them, we started asking faculty and students "What would really help you?"
It changed us in some really important ways.
One thing we found was students who don't succeed typically don't use the learning resource.
If it a student isn't going to open your website or your book or watch your video, it doesn't matter how good your book or website or video are, you are not going to help them, right? We started to attack that problem. How do we get the students into it? Then we found a lot of faculty knew that students weren't succeeding, but they weren't sure why. I went, "Okay, well before we can address the problem, we are going to have to figure out what the real problem is."
There's some really fascinating things to be learned by looking at the behaviors of students who almost pass a class. They put in a lot of effort. They really try all through the last week of the course, but they do not pass. Where do they fall down? What can be done to address those particular weak points? We found that instructional interventions ... That you could do things that enabled students who would otherwise score 65, 67, 69, and get them into the seventies and eighties. We were hooked.
What Soomo was created to do was work with faculty and schools to analyze where your students are struggling and then brainstorm strategies that could help them, build them, roll those strategies out, test them and see what works, and through that process to incrementally improve student success.
Carrie: You've had some schools use this to great success. Can you give us some examples of how you've seen faculty use Soomo to help students and reach students who maybe are struggling a little bit?
David: Typically our corporate mandate is to create something that costs less and works better than a traditional textbook. We take that very seriously. Often when we start talking to a school and they are like, "We love your approach. What kind of course can you best help us with?" I said, "Say one where the traditional textbook is not getting the job done." If your traditional text is working, rock on! If you are happy with your student results, keep using it. That's fantastic. We can't be the next Pearson. We don't want to have all of your classes. We want to help you increase success in a few where you are experiencing problems.
We will look at something like, here's a concrete example, a history course where students were in fact using the textbook and they were doing well on reading quizzes, but the final, the summative assessment, was around having students write a paper in which they analyze primary sources and make an argument, in fact, doing history. The papers were awful. Many students were doing all of the textbook work and not even turning in the paper. Can you help us? I'm like, "I think we can." Right? One of the things we started doing was structuring that assignment because nowhere in that course was anyone teaching students how to make a historical argument or how to analyze primary artifacts or having them hit milestones along the way. They felt like "I just have to do this work each week." They would do the work each week. Then at the end there was this mammoth step of okay, now turn in a 12-page paper where you do this thing we've never taught you how to do.
That is a case where a school came to us and said, "The textbook isn't creating the results we like."
We were able to diagnose the problem, put in the instructional interventions, and student success immediately jumped.
Carrie: Yeah, absolutely. The students with the traditional textbook weren't asked to analyze the information or apply it in anyway, so when they got to that summative assessment they really had no clue. Soomo addresses that in a couple of different ways by making the content a little bit more engaging. Can you tell me a little about what Soomo does? What's a Webtext? What's in a Webtext that really helps with those students and making the content a little bit more applicable?
David: I found that making content more engaging won't increase the number of people who read it, but asking students or requiring students to respond to content and apply what they are learning through the content will cause students to read. In general you can count on somewhere in between five and 20% of students to do the homework no matter what. You could assign homework in reading Latin and it's not a Latin class, and a few of your students would still do it.
If you want all of your students or 90% of your students to do the work, you need to establish a rhythm from really the first week. "I want you to do this. I want you to go read this chapter, watch this video, whatever. Then I want you to respond to these questions or apply this or write this reflection related to it." Those things that you ask those students to do need to work the full breadth of Bloom's Taxonomy.
If you are only asking for "What did it say?" kind of questions, they will often disengage mentally and just give you facts. They are like, "Oh okay, it wants to know the definition of this term. I'll go find the definition and type it in." On the other end of Bloom's Taxonomy, if you only ask opinion questions, evaluation and synthesis, they will often skip the reading or watching or studying all together and give you their opinion, but if you work the full breadth you get them into the content, finding out what the content says, and then thinking about it, reflecting on it, and applying it in different ways. You do that in a sort of a weekly application process, you are going to get a lot more students doing the homework.
To take it up even further, you want to notice when students don't do the work. At the end of week one, if you've communicated well and in this class, the textbook is not a reference. In this class, the textbook or what we make, we call Webtext. The Webtext is something that is required. Points are given. Up to 20 to 30% of your course credit will be for doing this. You really do have to do this. It's extremely important.
If you communicate upfront, most of your students will do their work in week one. Those who don't do their work are eight times more likely to fail the class than anyone else. You know on day eight who are really likely to fail the class. On day eight, it's really easy for students to catch up. You email them, you catch them after class, you talk to them in some way and say, "I noticed you didn't do the work last week." At which point the student will tell you how busy they were. That's fine. Then you say, "Well it's really important to succeed in this class. You should drop or do the homework this week." Most of them will then engage and not lag again. You can dramatically increase student success. That is a really surprising strategy for a guy who spent ten years making the content more engaging, to find out no, no, no, just require them to do something with it and then follow up with them if they don't. That's a lot of our success in those two steps.
Carrie: We've talked about a couple things already that Soomo does and does really well. I think it all sort of encompasses around students success. Is that the problem you guys are focusing on? If so, how is that changed over the last ten years? How do you maybe see it changing over the next couple of years?
David: When we first started out, I was actually working with Dr. Evans, Jocelyn Evans, at University of West Florida in an American Government class. Really we had been helping publishers for forever, which is an exaggeration. We've been helping publishers for ten years. I said, "What do you really need? What do your students really need?" She said, "I need a book that they will actually read." I'm like, "Oh, I hear great things about this book and this book. Have you tried those?" She's like, "I've tried both of those. I've also tried John Stewart's 'America.' I've tried 'The Dummies Guide to America.' I can't find anything that they will read no matter how engaging it is." I said, "What do they like?" She said, "They like stories from when I was on the Hill." I go, "Oh, that's interesting, so stories are really compelling."
Soomo originally started as a company to do documentary education. We thought we could teach students through stories. In 2004, video on the web was new but possible. We thought, let's make documentaries and teach through those. One of the things we learned in about the second year was the questions we put with the documentary because I wanted to know what the students were understanding from the doc, what they were pulling out. It was the questions we put with the documentary that mattered a lot more than the documentary. We started to sort of test that idea by putting questions with more traditional education, with essays, with cartoons, with really hard content like supreme court decisions and federalists papers. We found that the questions were the real power. I've indicated some of the ways that we've found the questions need to be structured to work well.
The most exciting thing about Soomo is while we set out to create something that works better than the textbook, what we created to find out if that was working was essentially a laboratory for trying out different pedagogical strategies and measuring the results, seeing how students respond, what do they complete and what do they not? Of students who complete 98% of the work, you will usually find those who are skipping 2% of the work are all skipping the same 2% of the work. That's really interesting. Why these questions? What is it about them that's off-putting?
Over the past 12 years now, working with lots of different faculty, with lots of different ideas and approaches, we've been able to try out hundreds of different things and look at the data to find out what works and what doesn't.
There's no silver bullet of course. Not all education is equal.
We sometimes delude ourselves when we talk about learning as if it's one thing because learning terminology is actually very different than learning concepts or learning judgement or learning evaluation or learning to write or learning to rewrite. These are all very different skills, and learning what works in each of those has been a really important part of the journey and why we continue to not offer essentially a product of the shelf. We've figured it out, here's what everyone needs, but what we have figured out is that it's always a process. The process needs to be specific to the problems based on particular students on a particular campus. That's why we are so service based and conversational in our approach.
Carrie: Tell me a little bit about how customization plays and how you work with faculty to make the Webtext specific to what that faculty member is trying to do in their class?
David: Again, they start the conversation with us by saying, "I have a course where I am not happy with the outcomes." We're like, "What are you not happy with? Is it too many drop early on? Is it too many drop late? Is it that too many complete the work and fail the course? Is it that while lots of students are passing, we are happy with the pass rate, the quality of work isn't where we want it to be. Maybe it's that they are doing fine in this class, maybe freshman Comp, but they are not able to convert those skills in future classes." Whatever it is, we need to know why they think they have the problem. We need to know that. Then we start looking at, "Okay, well we've read this in the literature that suggests this is a really good way to go. We've experienced this in these other cases and we have this idea here. We will lay all of these out for the school and try to determine which one is most likely to succeed and then roll it out.
I'm speaking abstractly because if I need to address what we do in general ... But concretely, here's an example, we had a school say "The students who most need to use the writing lab, aren't going to it. Can you help us?" We're like, "Sure. You know we are already doing this course. Let's put some reminders in here and there that 'Students by the way if you are struggling with this assignment, the Writing Lab is available to you 24/7. Email this address.'"
It's not a huge instructional intervention, but we increased the number of students going to the Writing Lab by tenfold. Traditionally they had found that students would go for one visit, and the students in this cohort who went to the lab went on average went three visits. The kinds of students going changed from just A students to A, B, and C students going. It's a simple intervention, but it had a huge impact on the quality of the work students were producing. It had more students using resources that the school had already allocated. It came from digging in on that question of "What problem are we trying to solve?" I don't think we ever would have come up with, "Well put in a sentence to tell them about the Writing Lab." On our own, we needed that to be in conversation.
Carrie: Yeah, absolutely. It showed up just in time like you were talking about before. It was showing up when the student realized that they may have been struggling at that particular point. One of the other things that I think Soomo does really well is addressing the student regardless of their ability. What role does accessibility play as you are developing courses and Webtext?
David: Accessibility is table stakes. If we can't provide transcripted closed captioning, we can't use the videos. It's that simple. Same with images, same with some of the more interesting interactions. There is some really fun stuff that you can do. You can drag and drop and so on, but if you can't make it accessible, you just can't use it. We feel like that is table stakes.
When I taught at Purdue University, I had 90 students in my first term there. 88 of them had email and were happy to communicate with me via email, but two of them weren't. I'm like well I can't use email. That's a really unusual attitude for a tech company, but I think it's a very appropriate attitude for an education. Accessibility is just, you have to do it. That keeps us from doing some of the more exotic things. We can still teach without that.
Carrie: As we've talked, you've covered a lot of your history and how you've seen education from the classroom, from the publisher side, and now through course design. What do you think is the most interesting thing happening in education right now?
David: We are seeing more online programs putting an organizational emphasis, like real commitment, on measuring outcomes of specific strategies. The idea of measured outcomes is still relatively foreign in traditional education. They are under the umbrella of academic freedom and that the idea if you have a PhD you know how to teach. From those ideas, the teaching strategies used are treated as black box that no one has the right to look in, no one should look in, who can say whether or not that I taught American Government better than my peer? The idea of ranking peers and their ability to teach effectively is actually really foreign in traditional education.
The online education, this combination of analytics, so we have data on how students are doing, with relatively small groups that are held accountable for academic outcomes. That combination is driving really focused experiments that put the theories of instructional design to the test. That helps to shine light on what works, where it works, and why. I think that's going to move us from a time when if a group of people were collaborating to any degree on any instructional decision, whether it be choosing a textbook or how we are going to do the final, in the past it was the person who was the loudest or the most powerful or the most persistent who would win the day. That's just how human conversations are.
Once you include data in the equation, you can actually move towards the best solution, the solution with the best proven results, and that move is happening first and online because of their structure.
They are not all in one place typically. They don't talk to each other. They don't have faculty meetings. They don't have a sense that they know what is going on. At a traditional school, faculty don't feel a need to know better what's going on than "I get it. I totally get it." But in online school, your faculty are all over the place. You're like, "I need numbers. I need data. I need something I can look at." Between that and then pressure from our culture and from our government on proving that online education is effective. Those two things are far more focused on data, on measurable results, and on finding effective pedagogies. That's really exciting.
Carrie: We've got a great partnership with Soomo. We've got a couple of schools that are using the Webtext with good experience. Any school that would might be interested in learning more about Soomo obviously we would ask them to talk to their MBS Account Manager, but if they just wanted to learn a little bit more or wanted to maybe get a demo of a Webtext, how would somebody go about learning more about Soomo Learning?
David: You would go to Soomolearning.com.
Carrie: There's opportunity for demos there. If they wanted to contact somebody, what would be the best way?
David: The number is at Soomo Learning. We try to make it as easy as possible. If you go there, you can read about it, you can see the actual content, take test drives in sample courses. You can call us. You can email us. You can contact us through support. You can contact us through Twitter. You can find us on Facebook. Everything is all at this one location. Soomolearning.com. The hardest part is probably spelling Soomo, S-O-O-M-O.
Carrie: Thank you very much for your time, David. I appreciated learning more about Soomo, and I look forward to our partnership growing.
David: Great, thank you, Carrie.
For more information on any of the topics discussed in this podcast, or any other questions you have about digital content options, contact your Account Manager or you can reach out to me, Carrie Watkins, Senior Digital Consultant, on Twitter, @CarrieJWatkins.