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New Academic Social Network Looks Beyond the Course, and Beyond Facebook

Jon Corshen, CEO of a new academic social-media network, says students don’t want to be friends with their professors on Facebook but are left with few alternatives for interacting with instructors on the Internet after class time ends. So he created a space on the Web for students and professors to “meet up” outside the classroom.

In two years, Mr. Corshen and his team have raised $7-million in venture capital, from Granite Ventures, Omidyar Network, and other investors. The Chronicle caught up with him to talk about the ideas behind the online academic platform, known as GoingOn.

Q. What prompted you to develop an academic social network for college students?
A. The ways students connect with their online identities and their academic lives are clearly changing. But institutions continue to spend an immense amount of time and energy communicating with students in ways that they just don’t relate to. They’re putting together these student handbooks on paper, creating portals online, but students aren’t attuned to that type of information anymore.

Students are used to the right information coming to them at the right time, typically in the form of activity streams like on Twitter and Facebook. And they’re used to interacting with this information, whether that’s by sharing or commenting or recommending. So that’s the challenge we face: how to create that communication channel in a meaningful way to the students, and to how to make that network intelligent such that it really helps get the right information to the right people at the right time.

Q. How does the platform work?
A. The backbone of the platform is the academic identity, which allows students and faculty to construct an online identity through open-source technology that’s separate from their other Web presences. Students use a drag-and-drop tool to create their own communities and channels for courses, study groups, and other interests that together make up each student’s unique virtual campus.

Channels are a way to publish information onto the network and then route that information to the people you want to reach. Communities create a more persistent space, where people can connect around specific content. Finally, the dashboard is where users can view everything at once, in a Facebook-like stream.

Q. Who’s using GoingOn now?
A. We have about 20 customers right now, including Arizona State University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Virginia State University. Several of our clients first introduced GoingOn to a particular subgroup on the campus, such as the business school at Virginia State, and plan to extend the network to the rest of the student body later on.

Q. How does GoingOn abide by federal laws, like Ferpa, regulating the release of student information?
A. Users are the ones who decide who can see what, and they do this by adjusting their privacy settings. Most of our customers put us through a security audit to make sure that we, as a vendor, handle student information appropriately. The information we use on our site comes both from what’s in our database and from information maintained by the college, so we make sure we have the proper tools for communicating with every institution’s network while still following Ferpa protocol.

Q. What’s behind the network’s name?
A. The term “going on” will come up all the time in conversations with our customers about student engagement. They’ll tell us how they put all this information out all over campus and students come and ask why didn’t they hear about this or why didn’t they tell them about that. When they say they posted fliers, students’ response is often, “Well, I just didn’t know what was going on.” Students want to know what’s going on across their virtual campuses so they can be fully engaged in the academic life.

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