Classroom expands to social media

As the Web continues to grow, companies are looking for new ways to apply the concepts of social media. Students come to rely more and more on the Internet as a primary source of information, and academia has emerged as an obvious area for possible expansion.

OpenStudy, a start-up with close ties to Tech, combines ideas from social networks like Facebook and online resources like Yahoo! Answers to provide students with a new way to study together.

OpenStudy originated as a joint research project between Ashwin Ram, associate professor in the School of Interactive Computing at Tech, and Preetha Ram, associate Dean for pre-health and science education at Emory.

“They formed OpenStudy with their former student, Chris Sprague, a Tech and Stanford alum, shortly after the research began,“ said Jon Birdsong, Marketing Manager for OpenStudy.

Now, though, OpenStudy is very much its own company.

“OpenStudy is a for-profit educational start-up that views the world as one big study group,” Birdsong said.

Ties to Tech are still very strong, though. OpenStudy is based out of the Advanced Technology Development Center on Tech Square, and all but two of the company’s employees are Tech students or alumni. Birdsong also noted that most of the company is still very close to education and academia.

“Most of the team is only a few years out of school, and our eight Tech student interns keep the entire team very close to the school environment,” Birdsong said.

The company highlights the power of reaching wide audiences as OpenStudy’s primary strength. Whereas a student studying individually or in a group has a limited number of reachable sources—like a textbook, a professor or a TA—students using OpenStudy can also reach students they have never met and even those at other campuses.

As an example of this, Birdsong explained that a student looking for Calculus help can reach a much wider audience through OpenStudy than one studying on her own. In addition to asking the question to her class’s group on OpenStudy, she could also post the question to a larger group, like MIT’s Single Variable Calculus study group. Now, instead of just feedback from a textbook and three or four friends, she has help from a variety of sources.

OpenStudy is oriented toward the community surrounding studying as well as the material being studied.

“Traditional study aids are about discovering new materials to learn with, while OpenStudy is about discovering new people to learn with. We view ourselves as the for studying. As a student you are connecting with others from all over the world who are studying the same subjects as you,” Birdsong said.

This idea has some educators worried that students will come to rely on OpenStudy for homework solutions, rather than actually learning the material.

“Will students cheat? Of course. Students cheat using the Internet through inferior methods of collaboration, and it would be naïve to think they won’t on OpenStudy…We won’t be able to keep tabs on each student’s intent when coming to OpenStudy, but we can guarantee users will have the opportunity to learn from others who are studying the same material,” said an OpenStudy blog post in response to the widespread concerns.

In an email received after publication, Birdsong clarified OpenStudy’s position on cheating. “We, in no way, condone cheating on OpenStudy. OpenStudy is not a cheating site. We focus on helping students study together and learn better through open discussions,” Birdsong said.

In addition to allowing students to reach a larger audience, developers are also working on tools that allow them to interact with that audience in a richer way. Equation editors, video responses and other attachments that can be used to ask or to answer questions are presently in the works, according to Birdsong.

Currently, the only connection to other social networks is the option of linking your Facebook and OpenStudy login information.

However, users will soon be able to choose to link OpenStudy to their Facebook account to leverage both networks at once. According to Birdsong, the company expects word to spread quickly once the students begin to link the two networks.

As far as usage statistics, the numbers suggest a strong start. According to Birdsong, 98 percent of questions posted receive an answer, and the average “study pad” has 5.4 users contribute content.

Users interested in learning more about OpenStudy or in creating an account should visit their site.