• September 5, 2015

New Social Software Tries to Make Studying Feel Like Facebook

New Social Software Tries to Make Studying Feel Like Facebook 1

AJ Mast for The Chronicle

Brittany Robertson, a junior at Purdue U., uses Mixable, note-and-coursework-sharing software that works with Facebook, because it easily lets her shift from socializing to studying.

Enlarge Image
close New Social Software Tries to Make Studying Feel Like Facebook 1

AJ Mast for The Chronicle

Brittany Robertson, a junior at Purdue U., uses Mixable, note-and-coursework-sharing software that works with Facebook, because it easily lets her shift from socializing to studying.

Students live on Facebook. So study tools that act like social networks should be student magnets—and maybe even have an academic benefit.

At least that's the idea behind a new crop of Web services sprouting up across higher education. Colleges, entrepreneurs, and publishers, all drawn by the buzz of social media, are competing to market software that makes sharing class notes or collaborating on calculus problems as simple as updating your Facebook status.

"Our mission is to make the world one big study group," says Phil Hill, chief executive of OpenStudy, a social-learning site that started as a project of Emory University and Georgia Tech. It opened to the public in September.

Many of the social-learning sites are, like OpenStudy, for-profit companies—or at least they aspire to be once their services take off. And some of their business plans rely on a controversial practice: paying students for their notes.

The big question facing all of these sites—a group that includes Mixable, from Purdue University, and GradeGuru, from McGraw-Hill—is whether students are really interested in social learning online. Another quandary: If students profit from selling their notes, are they infringing on a college's or a professor's copyright? And while the sites are not part of the seamy world of exam or term-paper vendors, what happens if some users post answers to tests?

One service has already failed to mix Facebook with studies. In 2008 a company called Inigral closed its Facebook "Courses" application, which had allowed students to view who was in their classes, start discussions, and get notified of assignments. "We found that Facebook was not a popular place to engage with course content," says Michael Staton, Inigral's chief executive. Students preferred using it for things like looking at friends' photos.

Many students, in fact, prefer sticking to their own notes on courses, rather than trusting friends. Focus groups conducted on behalf of GradeGuru, a note-sharing site, found that many undergraduates don't see much value in passing their notes to others or consulting the jottings of their classmates.

"Studying is still largely an independent endeavor," says Jonathan D. Becker, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, who led the recent focus groups as a consultant to GradeGuru. "College students study in groups to some degree, but from what students say they don't find them terribly beneficial."

Note sharing online also raises the tricky legal question of whether students have the right to sell ideas presented in a professor's lecture. California State University officials recently sent a cease-and-desist letter to Note­Utopia, a note-sharing site based in San Francisco, citing an unusual state law that bars the distribution of lecture information, including "handwritten or typewritten class notes," for a profit.

The practice could even violate federal copyright law, though whether it does or not is unclear, even to copyright experts. The answer may depend on whether a professor reads verbatim from prepared notes (in which case the professor or university might be found to own the rights to the material) or whether the class is a spontaneous discussion (in which case no single participant owns the content), according to Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University's Law School.

Despite those concerns, more than a dozen sites are racing to sign up users for their social-studying services. Here's a look at four of the most interesting:


Courses: 24

Users: 1,355

What it does: Free site for sharing Harvard University course notes that plans to expand to other elite universities

When Andrew Magliozzi posted his notes from a Harvard course on a public blog, the professor told him to stop because he was disturbing the intimacy of the classroom.

Mr. Magliozzi, who declined to identify the professor, took the notes down. But the incident spurred him to create a nonprofit Web site, FinalsClub.org, that aspires to disturb the intimacy of classrooms across America's elite colleges.

"I'm asking to change the default setting on education from private to public," says Mr. Magliozzi, a 2005 Harvard graduate.

His vehicle for accomplishing that is a free online forum where student bloggers can share class notes and form study groups. Mr. Magliozzi chose the name as an ironic nod to Harvard's final clubs—those elite organizations, immortalized in the film about the founders of Facebook, The Social Network, which are rumored to maintain private caches of study guides for Harvard courses.

Now students don't need to join an exclusive club, or even attend Harvard, to get the notes to lectures given by star professors like the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker; they're online. Other professors featured on FinalsClub include the historian Robert Darnton, on the history of the book, and the political theorist Michael J. Sandel, on moral reasoning.

Mr. Magliozzi bills FinalsClub as "the student voice in open education," a bottom-up version of projects like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's famous OpenCourseWare site. Outside recognition is starting to come in. In November, FinalsClub won a grant from the open-education movement's primary philanthropic supporter, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. That will help the site expand to MIT, Yale, and Brown in the fall of 2011.

Mr. Magliozzi lets professors opt out of having their classes blogged. So far, most faculty members have opted in. Those few who slam their classroom doors on Internet note sharing, however, can be vehement in their objections. Some consider it intellectual-property theft. One, the economist Greg Mankiw, told The Boston Globe that he turned down FinalsClub because he didn't want to help students skip class.

Others fear the site will be like a "Gawker for academia," Mr. Magliozzi says, meaning that professors could get publicly pilloried in the style of Gawker, a popular blog known for flinging snark at New York elites.

Amanda Claybaugh's problem was substance, not snark. Ms. Claybaugh, a professor of English at Harvard, says she was distressed by how badly FinalsClub summarized her lectures. As she recalls its write-up, the student blogger described Henry James as not very interested in representing consciousness, even though he is famously "the great novelist of consciousness." Ms. Claybaugh was horrified to imagine someone in her field Googling her in search of recent work and finding that.

After speaking with Harvard's office of the general counsel, she sent Mr. Magliozzi a sharply worded message asking him to remove the summaries. He complied, and the student stopped blogging Ms. Claybaugh's class.


Courses: 50

Users: 11,000

What it does: Links learners who want to study free online educational content like MIT's OpenCourseWare

With thousands of independent students enrolling in gigantic open online courses, why not vast online study groups, too?

OpenStudy, a start-up company spun off by Georgia Tech and Emory, is betting that the demand exists. Its Web site is the latest effort to create a social platform for independent learners who want to help one another study the huge trove of educational materials published free online by universities like MIT and Yale.

The free site has 11,000 users so far, including a pilot project with MIT that points users to OpenStudy from the Web sites of several of the university's open, noncredit course-content sites. The company hopes to make money by offering a premium version of the software with more features.

Here's how OpenStudy works. Users build personal study networks by following other students and joining groups. When they have a question, the site pushes it out to their extended network and matches them with people available to work with them.

If the site is the Match.com of study help, as Mr. Hill brands it, the key question is whether students will be able to find a "date."

This risk is the "lame party" effect, according to David Wiley, an open-education pioneer who is an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University.

"Imagine showing up at a party that has plenty of food, music, decorations, etc., but no people are there," Mr. Wiley wrote in an e-mail to The Chronicle.

"How long will you stick around? Not very long. Similarly, if users come to the site, ask their question, and there's no one around to answer it, they'll quickly leave and probably not come back. When most early users exhibit this 'lame party' behavior, how do you get the critical mass your site needs to succeed?"

OpenStudy understands that risk, and its founders say they hope to build up critical mass by working with university content providers beyond MIT.


Courses: More than 25,000, according to company officials

Users: Not available

What it does: The note-sharing site is run by a major textbook publisher, McGraw-Hill Education, and pays students small rewards—in cash or gift cards—based on the popularity of their notes. The site makes all of the notes free to visitors.

The draw here, for many, is getting paid for something they already did. "I take all my notes on my computer," says Tarun Gangwani, a senior majoring in cognitive science at Indiana University at Bloomington. "They're on my hard drive, so it's not like I'm making any big hassle."

So far he has posted notes from 65 lectures to the site, on courses such as "Neuroanatomy" and "Early Chinese Philosophy." For his trouble, he's made about $200 in credit to his PayPal account. (He also could have opted to be paid in gift certificates for Starbucks or other retailers.) "At the end of the day, the cash is nice," he says.

He has given his notes to friends for years for no payment, he says, and though he knows some professors might object if they knew about the site, he sees no problem in making public something that might help others study.

The site has had to work to distinguish itself from online services that give away or sell term papers and exam answers.

"We have gone to great lengths to make sure students use the site ethically," says Emily Sawtell, founder of GradeGuru. All posted documents are reviewed within 48 hours, she says, and any exam answers and term papers are removed. Yet some things do slip through. On a recent afternoon, an exam, with answers, from a course at Georgetown University was listed as one of the highest-rated items on the site, and had been online for months. Once notified by a reporter, officials quickly removed it; they could not immediately explain what it was doing there.

To build interest in the site, McGraw-Hill has designated "campus ambassadors" at 50 colleges who have agreed to promote the service. On some campuses, they have sent e-mails to the mailing lists of their fraternities or sororities asking friends to give it a try. Ms. Sawtell says the student representatives are not paid, although they are eligible for prizes from the company.

The publisher hopes that colleges will end up endorsing the site and pointing students to it. To encourage that, the company is planning to add an institutional-subscription service in January.


Courses: 50

Users: About 300

What it does: Lets students share notes and coursework as well as form study groups within Facebook, using a free application developed at Purdue University.

"We're looking to take advantage of the students' native environment," says Kyle D. Bowen, director of informatics at Purdue and one of the leaders of a university project to build a new study tool. That natural habitat was Facebook, focus groups of students told him.

So Mr. Bowen and his team built Mixable, an application that plugs in to the social network. (A Web version also exists that allows non-Facebook users to try it.) Project leaders think that students are more comfortable now than two years ago—when Inigral's Facebook Courses project flopped—with the idea of blending work and play.

Anyone on the campus can download Mixable free and add it to his or her Facebook profile by simply clicking on a link and agreeing to allow the application to run. Then they can invite Facebook friends to install it as well. Once the app is enabled, students can upload notes or other documents through it, thanks to the university's partnership with an online file-storage service called Dropbox.

Brittany Robertson, a junior studying elementary education at Purdue, says that she usually is on Facebook at least four or five hours each day, and that she appreciates that Mixable uses the same familiar interface and lets her easily shift from study to socializing. "If I want to show my classmates something, I use Mixable," she says.

For one of her education courses this semester, for example, she uploaded her essay on citizenship via Mixable so that classmates could see it. She says the professor in the course often provides sample essays but in this case didn't, so she thought her friends might appreciate peering over her shoulder, virtually.

"You could e-mail it," she says, "but why do that when it can be right in front of you, and you can be talking to everyone at one time rather than using e-mail?"

Her one criticism of Mixable was that since her friends had never heard of it, some were hesitant to install the app. Facebook is filled with pitches for various apps that give companies access to a user's personal information. But once Ms. Robertson's friends realized that Mixable was made by programmers at Purdue, they were more likely to click "allow."

"It might help to have your professor introduce it—I think it might help get the word out," she says. "I don't think it should be run by the professor, though, because then it's like Blackboard, and it's just another thing you have to do."

Purdue hopes to make Mixable available to other colleges as well, and is exploring whether to make it free online or to sell it to a software company. Signals, an earlier software tool built at the university, was acquired by SunGard.


1. archman - November 29, 2010 at 06:52 pm

There is increasing use by faculty and students (particularly in hybrid and online courses) to incorporate "social networking" into their local Blackboard (or equivalent) service.

Chat rooms, announcements, email, learning resources, gradebooks etc... are now easily made available by faculty to their students, all at the classroom website. There are opportunities for students to chat with each other, share notes, blog, store data, and even do homework.

These seem like better models than the proposed "open source" meta services proposed above. Instructors can control content and delivery, and students are not distracted by extraneous or unregulated information.

Textbook publishers are also offering similar "one-stop-studying" services with their e-learning packages. I know of several faculty that prefer these e-learning sites to that of Blackboard, and have almost completely switched over.

2. emmadw - November 30, 2010 at 09:41 am

Archman, yes, VLEs etc do have discussion boards etc., in them & some staff have been using them for years; but we have both staff & students who comment that they're very feature poor compared to other tools.
They also (at least the way many that I know are set up), tend to 'silo-ise' learning - so everything for one module is separated from those from another. Students therefore can find it difficult to see the links between subjects, and/or to communicate with others who may be studying the same thing in other unis/ related things in their own uni which can help them see the 'bigger picture' - sometimes invaluable if someone else has a different way of explaining etc,. that makes more sense than their teachers etc. do.

3. kenleyneufeld - November 30, 2010 at 10:08 am

For the last two semesters I've been teaching a class using WordPress with the BuddyPress plugin. This plugin builds in many of the social aspects found in Facebook and other social networking sites. The students seem to appreciate the social learning environment. The other major plus is that students in the previous class could cross-pollinate and interact with the existing students - something you don't usually have in learning management systems.

Though I won't be teaching the course again in the spring, you can see what we've done at http://classes.kenleyneufeld.com

All these tools are a positive direction for student engagement.

4. skepticalteach - November 30, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Kenley - I like your site. We use Blackboard and it's okay, but limited in connecting some video and graphics; also does not support some online textbooks and the cross-pollinating with previous classes.

Kudos for a great site! Anything for helping student engagement.

5. jimislew - December 01, 2010 at 02:05 pm

I agree, nice site Kenley.

6. triumphus - December 02, 2010 at 05:46 am

Can you sleep on Facebook and the like yet?

7. 22228715 - December 02, 2010 at 07:28 am

Let's not get carried away. Reflecting... years ago, if you were a smart student who felt you were not quite understanding what was going on in a course - yes, absolutely, you sought out study buddies and notes, because your notes were not so good (because you didn't understand what you were writing down.) Your next step would be to find a peer who actually UNDERSTOOD what was going on, who had the skills and willingness to help you to understand. Most smart students figure out by middle school that it doesn't matter how willing your best friend or that guy who smells good are; notes are worthless unless they're good notes from someone who gets it (indeed, more bad notes make it worse, and now you are both confused AND indebted to the guy who smells good but turns out to be a bit creepy.)

So, if this is the modern version of this... the question is not so much about the vehicle (old: meet at the library, wide-ruled paper, #2 pencil) (new: Facebook app, user-friendly graphic interface, ability to upload large files). The question is about the quality of the source/notes, and whether the peer teacher inspires (or repels) the learner. In grade school, you learn pretty quickly that the slick kid with a pitch line and a small fee is not likely to be the smartest kid in the class.

8. drfunz - December 02, 2010 at 08:36 am

Let me start by saying I have no problem with students who want to learn in any way possible. However, I have found that the one way many do NOT want to learn is by actually STUDYING!! Sit down, with the material, read it, practice it, write it, explain it to someone else - STUDY. The fact that students are on Facebook 5 hours a day explains why they are only studying an hour a day. And then they wonder why they get a 57 on an exam. Sorry, I am not buying into it. If students want a college education, then the students need to learn the material and, with few exceptions, that means they have to study. This particular generation truly believes that they are going to get ahead with a piece of paper in the hand and nothing in the head, "because we can look it up".

9. drnels - December 02, 2010 at 09:17 am

If students live on Facebook, then why did so many tell me they weren't on it when I created a class page for announcements and such?

10. bobpaver - December 02, 2010 at 09:37 am

@ 22228715: How about going to the source? The faculty member teaching the course may have the best explanation after getting the details of the student's confusion.

11. sdorley - December 02, 2010 at 09:44 am

I agree with drfunz. Students are being co-opted by companies/sites like Facebook that claim to link them globally in an instant--like a party all the time. The reality is that many of these sites depend on dollars from advertisers who depend on number of hits. Eventually, it all falls down. Look at Wikipedia who has its founder pictured above the entry, flogging for money to support a "social research" site. That comes now after years of teachers saying that Wikipedia is nothing more than a superficial knowledge site for those who don't know ANYTHING about the topic and banning it as a real source of research.

Teachers who immediately run to social network sites because that is where the students go are often only doing two things: wanting to show the students they are hip and cool, and therefore worthy of respect, OR letting the tail wag the dog--letting student habits dictate pedagogy. "Just in time" is a phrase that applies to shipments of goods, not learning. Students who learn "just in time" by looking it up, carrying PowerPoint sheets into tests, and only doing online research will forget that information very quickly--often before the test or paper due the next day. It's basic psychology: short term memory can only hold 7 items +/- 2 for 30 seconds. The only way to get it into longterm memory is to practice, restate, review--none of the processes that are part of the "click click" computer generation.

Teachers know pedagogy: they know how students learn. And using a variety of learning activities is always good--but not when it doesn't really aid in retention and growth of knowledge.

12. dank48 - December 02, 2010 at 10:21 am

Right. Attempting to pander to the preferences of students has always resulted in better education. As if the generation gap that was suddenly "discovered" forty-some years ago hadn't been there all along and weren't still there now.

Facebook, hell. So far as faces are concerned, what we need to face is that we should remove our faces, along with the rest of our heads, from their inappropriate location in the terminal stretches of our lower GI tract. Drfunz is right. Students need to study; that's how they can learn.

Futile to buck this tide, of course. One silver lining: at least all the frantic activity must be providing the younger generation with some mordant amusement. Another: later on, when they're running things, they won't be burdened with lingering exaggerated respect for their elders, who have proven themselves incapable of understanding the simplest matters. One generation of ignorant idiots succeeds another.

13. bondage2 - December 02, 2010 at 02:06 pm

Gee, I'm confused. The notes come from where? What a student thinks he or she heard in a lecture or discussion or read in source material. So the student who profits most is the one who didn't listen well or read the assignment, but who will read what another student pre-digested? Sounds like two steps away from accuracy. Seems to me before I'd want somebody's notes I'd want to know what grade they were getting in the course?. Wait, I kow: let's put the exams on line and let one student at Harvard take it, and get compensated on Paypal, $200 to offset Harvard tuition.
Am I the only one who thinks this is nuts?

14. mpstaton - December 02, 2010 at 05:28 pm

Interesting stuff, Marc.

To expound on my statement to anyone who's interested: we've found that students aren't interested in interacting with course content inside Facebook itself. Thus, building Schools on Facebook we've focused a lot of our attention on promoting ways for students to express themselves and make friends. There's a lot of research that shows that simply having social bonds and not feeling alone are big factors in whether or not a student persists in a course and also through their degree program. If we can improve the interconnectedness of the student body, that can have affects on student success.

I've followed Mixable, GradeGuru, and OpenStudy. I particularly like OpenStudy, and I have hopes for Mixable as well....

Web services that help students study while tapping into their natural desire to communicate, impress, and learn and gain acceptance from their peers is the natural direction of learning online. We're going to see an explosion in sites with better design that's more "social."

15. cmgreenhow - December 02, 2010 at 05:57 pm

I concur with those who suggest caution in co-opting Facebook for the business-as-usual practice of content delivery, either in linking to courses within facebook or in locating formal education's trappings within personal profile pages. As the social Web proliferates into many different niche networks -- and Facebook and Google spar for control of the hub -- the real potential is in using social network site features to personalize and extend learning experiences, such as connecting students out to others who share their academic and career interests...and may be even further along in their path, or to foster the social envelope: the sense of social belonging and peer group support that can help persistence, achievement and educational attainment. We need to think outside the box when it comes to social media and education and not merely piggy-back on the technologies students enjoy using to perpetuate the walled-off classrooms, content management and delivery systems model like Blackboard, and traditional views of "knowledge" that newer Web technologies seem designed to subvert. Students aren't dumb, despite the edgy dressing, they will know the difference.

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

  • 1255 Twenty-Third St., N.W.
  • Washington, D.C. 20037
subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.