McGraw Hill Exec on Building the ‘TikTok for Studying’

By Meghan Hall |  October 31, 2023

When he first proposed building Sharpen, McGraw Hill’s app that has been called “the TikTok for studying,” Justin Singh didn’t know whether it would play well with the company’s target audience for the product — students looking for a new way to study that was more aligned with their lifestyle. 

But among college students, Sharpen has been a hit.

The app offers students short videos, study guides, and quizzes in a scrollable format — thus its comparison to the social media app TikTok. 

Justin Singh, Chief Transformation and Strategy Officer, McGraw Hill

For many companies, digital transformation can be a tough journey. The hype cycle can easily derail goals; lack of leadership support can prevent promising concepts from ever taking off; and resources can be tight. But Singh said at the New York-based educational publishing company, digital has been a priority. 

In an interview at the Collision 2023 conference in Toronto earlier this year, he addressed taking risks on new ideas and technology; how McGraw Hill has benefited from digital transformation; and his advice on creating high-value partnerships in digital. Singh joined the company in 2017, and he serves as its Chief Transformation and Strategy Officer.

Vetting Partners

Sharpen was a team effort between McGraw Hill and A.Team, which helps companies build out their technology teams and capabilities. 

For Singh, working with an outside partner on this project felt like the right move from the beginning. 

“The first thing, before you think about the partners is, what are you trying to build? And what is the experience that you want to create?” Singh said. 

He said that his team knew they wanted a video-based experience, which led them to consider vendors who could deliver exactly what McGraw Hill needed. 

“You have to think, ‘Okay, to deliver this experience, what vendors or partners can help you deliver it?’ And particularly, if you’re doing something very different, like Sharpen, you naturally need to find different partners,” he said. “The video, it’s shot completely different to the way traditional education videos are shot. So we had to go out and find a different vendor that is used to shooting TikTok videos, and is used to shooting YouTube Shorts, because we needed to make it engaging in shooting that particular style.” 

But, Singh said, there’s more to a strong partnership than just discerning whether the partner can do the work. Adaptability and ambition are key, he said. 

“You want someone that is going to iterate with you, and has that same level of ambition. I think that’s the X factor. When I think about the partners that I want to work with, when you need to tweak or you need to change, or you need to adjust, if you can go to a vendor and say, ‘Hey, this is why I need to adjust because the students is telling us X, we’re seeing this in the data, we need to make these changes. Are you okay to tweak the way this content is done? Are you able to tweak the way this video is shot?’ They understand because they share that ambition, they share that vision. That just makes those conversations a whole lot easier,” Singh said. 

Using Data to Get Buy-In

A progress report from the Sharpen college study app.

Because Singh wasn’t sure whether Sharpen would be a viable product at first, his team worked on a low-budget, quick-turnaround prototype, which they tested with students using an independent research firm.

Singh said that feedback was the primary thing that helped greenlight the project.

“[We said], ‘If the students don’t universally say that they’re excited to use this experience, we’re going to kill it, because students, you know, as 18 year olds or 22 year olds, they’ll say what they feel, and they can be harsh at times,” Singh explained. 

And the results worked in McGraw Hill’s favor. 

“We did this blind test of 30 students, and I would say the average feedback was 4.8 [out of five]. We had a lot of students saying, ‘Well, how can I download it?’ We were like, ‘Maybe next year,’ but that validated early for me that, ‘Hey, we’re onto something different and I can essentially bet my career on this.’ Then, of course, you try to sell it internally,” Singh said. 

Using the data from the focus groups, Singh did just that — and several months later, Sharpen was launched. 

But it isn’t in its final form, he said. 

Iterating Post-Launch

Singh said that, just over half a year into Sharpen’s life as a public-facing product, the team doesn’t yet know all the changes that it will continue to make. But one thing is clear, he said — the team will continue to use data and consumer insights to refine the platform. 

Singh said McGraw Hill tracks metrics like completion rates on activities, questions students popularly answer incorrectly, and more, to personalize and refine the experience for student users. For instance, the team discovered that students wanted more of a dopamine hit when studying. With that in mind, they implemented a new feature. 

“Every five minutes, we give students a celebration, a dopamine hit,” he said. Why? “What we were hearing from students was…that most students don’t feel that they’re academically brilliant. And they need to build up their confidence,” he said.