Students of all ages are turning to online sources to expand their learning opportunities. According to a 2007 study by the National School Boards Association (NSBA), teens are using social networks for more than just pure social activities. Sixty percent of the students, ages 9 to 17, who participated in the online survey reported that college planning, learning outside of school, careers, and schoolwork were among the most popular social networking topics.
Atlanta-based OpenStudy is a company riding this new wave of learning. Described as a “platform for massively multi-player study groups” by Techcrunch, OpenStudy is a social network for learning where students ask questions, provide tutoring help and connect with other students who are studying the same subjects. According to the company, their platform helps students expand their resource pool beyond classmates to a global set of peers. Additionally, the social interactions that are inherent in the process make the experience more enjoyable. The company has even added a little element of game mechanics into the process. Students can earn medals and achievements for participating.
“Students have really responded to this,” said Chris Sprague, co-founder and CEO of OpenStudy. “Right now we have 50,000 students from 173 countries and 1500 different schools using OpenStudy. They ask over 25,000 questions each month,” he added.
NSBA director of education technology Ann Flynn is also a proponent of incorporating social networking tools into educational curriculum. She was quoted in an industry article as having said, “We need to use the Internet to involve students in project-based assignments in the real world, taking place around the world. It is not just about complementing the curriculum. Collaboration, self-direction, and problem solving are all long-term academic and life skills that social networking helps students practice.”
Online Education on the Rise
The number of students taking at least some of their classes online has risen steadily throughout the first decade of the 21st century. Just 11.2 percent of college and university students took at least one class online in 2003. But by 2009, more than double the number or 27.4 percent did, according to The Sloan Consortium, an organization dedicated to promoting the integration of online education into the mainstream. Higher education consulting firm Eduventures estimates that enrollments in fully online courses are around 11 percent of all enrollments, and this is expected to increase to 20 percent by 2014 (about four million enrollments).
The increasing acceptance and adoption of online education bodes well for OpenStudy’s future. The company sees the availability of free, open content for people to learn from as just one half of the learning equation. According to Sprague, the other half is about discovering people to learn with. “When you are confused and don’t understand your textbook you are not alone. There is this global set of peers studying the same thing at the same time that can actually talk you through the root cause of confusion with the concept,” explained Sprague. “This is an evolution in effective learning because it is much easier to learn from someone who has just mastered the same concept and can go through the problem with you,” he finished.
For Chris Sprague, education runs deep in his family. Not only are his parents teachers, so are other members of his family. OpenStudy is the result of his work with Drs. Ashwin and Preetha Ram while he was still attending Stanford University in the early 2000s.
The company has received support from the likes of the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health, the Georgia Research Alliance and the Gates foundation. OpenStudy users can look forward to even more social features. These include the ability to refer questions to friends on Facebook, a groups function (“teams”) and the ability to widgetize their OpenStudy profile credentials so that they can be added to other sites.