Udacity is an online university built for “what people need today.” Through its unique Nanodegree Program, the company teaches people to work in in-demand, specialized roles like web development, mobile development, and data analysis. The credentials its students earn in these disciplines have quickly become respected and endorsed by employers.

As part of its ongoing efforts to improve the online education experience, the company turned to Layer to power seamless web-to-mobile messaging as part of the courses it offers.

Fig 1. Udacity is available for Android, iOS, and the web.

The problem: Attrition in online learning

Udacity initially looked to Layer because one of the biggest challenges to online learning is student drop off. According to the New York Times, attrition rates are an astounding 90% for some larger courses.

Students start with great intentions, but as responsibilities of daily life conflict with school, the more immediate and consequential obligations win, said product manager Courtney Drake, whose responsibility is to understand and optimize the student experience for Udacity.

“In a real-world education scenario students are part of a class, and within those classes tend to form smaller cohorts. A sense of camaraderie is formed. A ‘we’re in this together’ mentality that drives success,” said Drake. “But historically with online learning, each student is on his or her own, trying to fit their online coursework into their day-to-day life. It’s hard, and because it’s hard historically the vast majority of students learning through various platforms haven’t finished the courses they start.”

The solution: Add messaging with Layer to boost student retention

Udacity sees communications as a solution to this problem. The root of the issue with online education, the team hypothesized, is that lack of community and accountability. They’d offered forums as a generic path for students to communicate in an out-in-the-open way, but found people “got lost, that it was too anonymous and general purpose,” said Drake.

Then they turned their attention to messaging, their theory being that if they gave students the ability to chat directly with a small group of other students, and also communicate as a Nanodegree class, they’d be more invested in the course.

Drake and team first conducted an experiment to prove their theory. Early data showed that students found value in working with a small team, but only the teams where an individual student stepped up as an organizer stayed active. This led to the insight that teams may need a built-in facilitator, so Drake and team came up with the idea of matching a student who is farther along in a Nanodegree program with each team to keep them engaged and on track.

After determining that messaging could unlock student commitment and potential, they began integrating Layer, using our open source UI toolkit Atlas to design an experience that fit seamlessly with the larger Udacity experience. That includes seamless web-to-mobile messaging that allows students to stay connected to the course anywhere and everywhere. Now one month in to the integration, the team is seeing “strong, positive early signals” that adding Layer is significantly improving their student’s experience.

“We’re thrilled with Layer and what it enables for our student experience,” said Drake. “Adding a social component with messaging to online learning gives students an extra advantage and, we believe, better steers them toward the ultimate goal of learning a new skillset that can improve their lives.”