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Start-Up Aspires to Make the World ‘One Big Study Group’

Thousands of students are enrolling in gigantic open online courses.

Would students go for vast open online study groups, too?

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

“Our mission is to make the world one big study group,” says Phil Hill, chief executive of OpenStudy, whose founders include Ashwin Ram, a Georgia Tech professor, and Preetha Ram, an Emory University dean.

The free site opened to the public last week. It has 3,000 users so far, including a pilot project with MIT that suggests OpenStudy as an option from the Web sites of several open courses.

Here’s how it works: Users build their own 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.”

In an e-mail to Wired Campus, David Wiley describes this risk as the “lame party” effect.

“Imagine showing up at a party that has plenty of food, music,
decorations, etc., but no people are there,” writes Mr. Wiley, an open-education pioneer based at Brigham Young University who has blogged about the troubles faced by a past online study-group  attempt.

“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 more university content providers beyond MIT.

If you’ve tried OpenStudy, drop us a note in the comments below and tell us what you think.

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