Online Study Group Lets You Learn 'With' IT Rather Than 'From' IT

As social networking sites become increasingly popular, many schools and educators have begun to realize the benefits of utilizing such networking to expand learning opportunities. With a mission to 'make the world one large study group,' OpenStudy is an ambitious startup company focusing on those very benefits. Education Insider recently had the chance to speak with Chris Sprague, a co-founder of OpenStudy.

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by Harrison Howe

Chris Sprague

How helpful would it be if you could study with anyone at any time, if you could interact with fellow students anywhere in the world and discuss the subjects you're currently studying, if you had the opportunity to study in a way that could give you a fresh perspective and help you gain an understanding you might not have otherwise been able to achieve?

A few years ago, Chris Sprague might have asked himself these very questions. Drawing from a background in teaching ('I come from a family full of educators') and technology (he studied Symbolic Systems and Computer Science as a Stanford University undergraduate and earned a Master of Science in Computer Science from Georgia Tech in 2004), Sprague co-founded - and is now CEO of - an online study group called OpenStudy. With his two passions being technology and education, he says 'it's a dream to blend both of them by working on OpenStudy.' What are the origins of OpenStudy?

Chris Sprague: While I was an undergrad at Stanford University I began researching online education with my now co-founders, Dr. Ashwin Ram (professor of computer science at Georgia Tech) and Dr. Preetha Ram (Dean of Science at Emory University).

Once I graduated, I moved to Atlanta to continue that research with them. Our focus was on new ways to collaborate as online learning technology evolved. After a few years we were convinced we had ideas that solved a big problem for students: finding other students to learn with regardless of subject, school, location or time of day. We were awarded grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, and the ideas we had been researching gradually evolved into what is now OpenStudy. What challenges did the group face when it started, and how did you overcome them?

CS: As a real-time collaboration product we're particularly dependent on many students being online at the same time studying the same thing. Given that, the biggest challenge was probably the 'lame party' problem. As a math student, today I can sign onto OpenStudy and find 100-200 other students studying math, and the value is clear: why study alone if I don't have to? At the beginning of OpenStudy, each math student signed on and found no one else there. No one wanted to be the first to stay at a 'lame party'.

We overcame this problem by partnering with OER and OpenCourseWare sites that believe in the same academic mission that we do. Sites like MIT OpenCourseWare and 'Paul's Online Math Notes' began referring students to our mathematics study group. By the sheer volume of traffic those sites received and referred, multiple math students would discover our math study group at the same time and begin studying together. Over time, our study groups became the always-on, vibrant learning communities we always hoped they would be. What types of challenges, if any, do you still face today, and how do you address them?

CS: Our biggest challenge today is really just keeping pace with the industry. The education landscape is ripe for disruption and education technology, or edtech, is helping drive evolution in education at a faster pace than ever before. We think thought leaders like MIT OpenCourseWare, Yale Open Courses, Khan Academy and so many more are on the right track to provide increased accessibility to a world-class education. We think we're primed to be a leader as well, but more for the open social learning side than the open content side. However, the ecosystem is changing fast, with so many players and so many entrenched interests that speed, timing and probably luck will end up being our biggest challenges.

We're trying to address these challenges by working with potential competitors, not against them. In fact, we don't view edtech as a zero sum game at all. Education is a huge, growing market. We think that as long as we work closely with people that have the future benefit of learners at heart the oncoming wave of education reform will come sooner rather than later, and we'll be one of many companies that rides it. How do you compare yourself to your competitors?

CS: There are two ways we think we're a 'different' type of education company. One: while most education companies let students discover new content to learn from, OpenStudy is about discovering new people to learn with.

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Two: there are other social learning companies out there, and Learning Management Systems (LMSs) are playing catch-up by incorporating social networking into their offerings. But the thing with an LMS, and admittedly great products like Piazza, is that they're primarily servicing an older model of learning - institutionally driven from the top-down, working with the same classmates as always. The point of OpenStudy is social learning from the bottom-up: students grow a new personal learning network that's meant to transcend classroom walls, not optimize communication within them. Many students have surely found the support and help they need through your site. What kind of feedback do you get from students you've helped over the years?

CS: That's a great question. We depend on our users immensely for feedback and product direction. In addition to user surveys and an OpenStudy Feedback study group with over 1,000 conversations, we have a User Advisory Council made up of over 100 of our users from across the world. These users participate in daily discussions with the entire OpenStudy team about new features and whether we're hitting the mark with existing features. This allows our team to get to know our target audience on a personal level. It's not just that students are thankful that OpenStudy exists; they love contributing back by helping other students and helping OpenStudy move in the right direction. We truly view ourselves as a product that's built both for students and by students.

I think student feedback is an aspect that many edtech companies sorely miss out on. Most of them get feedback from the teachers that buy their software. I think this approach is misguided, since the teacher is often only one of their users; students make up the rest. If students won't use a product meant for teacher-student communication, then that product is worthless. Education is about learning, not just educating, and I think more products should be optimized from the learner's perspective, not the teacher's or institution's. What are your future plans for OpenStudy?

CS: We have two missions. One is to make learning more accessible by expanding the domain of teachers to a global set of peers. The second is to make learning more fun and engaging by making it social and game-like.

OpenStudy will be focused on those two principles. That means we'll have more ways to connect students (for example, by expanding our communities around Open Courses and Open Content) and more ways for students to motivate each other, with improved game mechanics like quests and team-based rewards. And finally, we want students to have something to show off for their collaboration and proven subject mastery on OpenStudy. That means having more profile swag, badges and better ways to promote the study groups they call home. Is there anything else about OpenStudy that you'd like our readers to know?

CS: We think there's a major scalability problem with education. How do we scale equitable education to what will become billions of people within the next ten years? Our answer is to let those billions teach each other by making the world one big study group. We want to work with educators and edtech companies that believe we can take leaps, not steps, by working together to form learning communities without boundaries.

Find out more about the different types of OpenCourseWare and which ones students are finding most helpful.

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