Study help for millions.


Over a million people visited OpenStudy in September. They did not come to find a mate, share pictures, or play online games. They came to get help in math, science, history and a hundred other subjects commonly taught in schools and colleges globally. Some came to learn and some came to teach. Most wound up doing a bit of both.

FB study 13-18

Homework is on their mind; education hardly ends when school does. UPenn researchers found in a recent study that 13-18 year olds have one chief concern on their mind: homework. Parents, as shown in another survey, feel that they cannot even help their children with homework! If the schools and parents are failing to keep the millions of teens engaged with their homework, then teens will continue to associate homework with boredom, frustration, and isolation. How can we change this negative association before it’s too late?”

According to the Silent Epidemic (1) study funded by the Gates Foundation, about a million high school students do not graduate each year. Surprisingly, many who had the grades to graduate were just too disengaged to do so.  Homework and classes, to these teens, is a boring, pointless chore because it has become devoid of human interaction. Students are told to sit alone in their room, isolated from the world, and complete their homework without any help. When these students do need help, they often fear asking their teachers, friends, or parents because they do not wish to be seen as “stupid.” No one wants word to get around that you need a tutor to pass pre-calculus. So the students suffer quietly, keeping their disengagement with homework to themselves, slipping a further behind with every semester.

Everyone has forgotten one simple, but crucial fact. Learning is inherently collaborative and social. Students must be engaged with homework in order to succeed academically and when it comes to high schoolers, the only socialization amongst peers can create true engagement.

We know that deep down, students want this type of engagement. They want to stay on the academic path, they just don’t want to be alone on that path. Millions of students are turning to online courses, sending the demand for online study help has gone through the roof. Forums, answer sites, and social media has exploded with online communities dedicated to specific subjects, such as calculus or chemistry. Everyone needs help when they study.  When someone gets help at their moment of need, they convert from disengaged to engaged, and move from failure to success. Rather than being frustrated, embarrassed, and bored, they feel powerful. Chances are that the student being helped will go on to help the next person who needs help with that given topic, which allows the formerly helpless student to feel the allure of sharing his own knowledge.

There are three key challenges, however, that have prevented previous online communities from providing study help.  First, we have to find the learners as they are looking for help, and second, we have to help them at that instant. There is a very brief window where students can be helped. Perhaps they have a physics homework assignment due tomorrow that they cannot figure out. If they don’t get the help they need now, then they fail the assignment, and the downwards spiral of disengagement begins. They are very unlikely to care about what they could have done differently one week after they received their “D”.

Lastly, of course, we have to keep them engaged while we provide this help. The help has to be fun, social, and rewarding for both parties. If scouring a community for homework help is as dull as pounding one’s head against the homework in the first place, then who will do it?  Can studying communities provide the right help to the right users at the right time, while simultaneously rewarding both the teacher and the learner?

We believe we found a way. From on our research on problem based learning, we realized the answer lay in creating real time collaborative problem solving sessions [2,3].   We knew studying help had to be online and anonymous – that is where all the teens live, after all. Furthermore, that allows people to ask for help and advice without feeling stigmatized for seeking out help.  We knew that study help had to be social like Facebook, as well as gamefied like World of Warcraft, and available 24/7.  (See Ashwin’s blog report of his presentation to the White House panel (4).  With all this, we built OpenStudy.

But, would millions of users want to use OpenStudy?

globalpeopleSince 2011, over 9 million people have come to OpenStudy.   A question is a plea for help.  Every day, then, about 70,000  students and lifelong learners come to OpenStudy with a plea for help.  Every day, OpenStudy connects them to someone ready to help.  When one user responds to a panicked, frustrated, and desperate teen, taking the time to slowly walk them through the challenging material, the teen receives an extremely important message.  These interactions with peer experts also lead to conversations, mentoring, good counsel.  They are worth the time, others do care about their success, and they are never alone in their academic journey.  Most of our top, confident helpers started as students begging for help with nowhere left to turn. They were absorbed into the culture of this community and they started helping others. Relationships develop through the conversations and  interactions. Before you know it, our learners track each other’s birthdays, life events, breakups, parental struggles, and most importantly support each other in their learning journeys. They share their accomplishments, their recent grades or awards, success in exams, college admissions, new jobs: all the joys and the sorrows.  Even though we have over 70,000  users on the site in a given day, for many OpenStudy feels more like a close intimate circle of friends.

Over the last two years we have gathered many metrics of success.  From studies performed by Georgia Tech researchers and with SRI evaluators, in the course of our Gates/Hewlett funded NextGenWave I grant, we found that 80% of users surveyed said it was fun, that their study habits and grades improved. Recently, Cuyahoga Community College reported that success metrics in their developmental Math MOOC  improved by 66% with OpenStudy. Social engagement without serious academic results would mean that we are no different than any other social media community. Those answering questions on our site keep doing it because they know they are making a difference.

While we are proud of these research studies and what they prove, honestly, the validation we seek comes from sheer volume of  learners who come to our site and what they say to us in unabashedly honest and personal  comments like the ones below.


Last month’s million is a victory, but it is the students’ victory. We can’t force students to love learning and use the site to help others. They are the true heroes of OpenStudy – they have innovated around the boredom of homework. Schools throw them into a system where homework is meant to be hard, tedious, and isolating, and these students have figured out a way to keep the peer connection, the essential sociality of humans that defines our existence, alive. It turns out that they were never failing out of school, but rather, school was failing them. Our users have succeeded where educators, schools, parents, and tutors failed. They didn’t just get help with homework, they have completely changed the learning experience for millions.


Thanks to the extremely smart people who recognized a good idea far before the rest of the world: MIT OpenCourseWare, OpenCourseWareConsortium @OCWnews , Cuyahoga Community College, the program officers at NSF  and NIH, the Georgia Research Alliance, @GatesFoundation,  @HewlettFoundation, Next Generation Learning Challenge @NextGenLC and @LearnCapital

Most importantly, the team that dreamed the unthinkable and  made the magic happen:

Ashwin Ram, Chris Sprague, Antonio Salazar, Siddharth Gupta, Matt Farmer, Matt Feury & Dan Flannery.

Jointly written by Preetha Ram and Nikhil Ram

About Nikhil:

An insightful writer, game  design enthusiast, and social media expert, Nikhil currently manages an ed tech start-up, Rover, the leading educational browser for tablets.  He is a recent graduate of Emory University and an OpenStudy veteran.


1. Bridgeland, J. M., Dilulio, J. J. Jr, & Morrison, K. B. (2006). The silent epidemic: perspectives of high school dropouts.

2.  Ram, P. (1999), Problem-Based Learning in Undergraduate Instruction: A Sophomore Chemistry Laboratory, Journal of Chemical Education. 76(8), 1122-26 (1999).

3. Ram, P., Holzman, J.L., Louizi, G., Fowler, S.C., Lindsey, E., Harrigan, J.J., & Ram, A. CaseBook: A Problem Based Learning online environment for high school microbiology. Proceedings of FASEB Experimental Biology 2005 Conference, Atlanta, GA.

4. Ram, A. (2010). Massively Multiplayer Online—Learning? Invited presentation at Knowledge Futures.

The warm glow of peer learning

You may have read the literature and seen the research that validates the power of peer learning.  Or as a parent or employer you may have seen peer learning in action.  And you may have benefited from it ourselves.

Can peers really teach one another? Can you learn from someone who does not have the credentials to learn? What if the answer is wrong?  All of these questions are raised when I start talking about peer learning.  Usually I speak in paragraphs addressing all these questions.  Today, I am delighted to just post these two links to peer learning interactions on the OpenStudy site.

So take a look at peer learning in action, online, and between strangers (Links below).  Marvel how well it can work.


Link to the whole exchange is here.  


I loved this one because of the complexity of the question and the trouble that the the answered, Klimenkov helps Smokey work through the answer. Smokey is not embarrassed to ask for help when he does not understand.  Klimenkov draws elaborate diagrams to illustrate the concept and adds  beautifully formatted (Latex plugins make everything look lovely) mathematical expressions.  These took time.  Best of all, he challenges the learner to demonstrate his learning at the end.  He wants to be reassured that the learner has learned something.  Klimenkov is a college student in a far off country.


Link to this exchange


I loved the second one because the expert here, UnkleRhaukus is demanding participation.  He is not ready to provide an answer until the asker has demonstrated his work.  As they work through the problem, the asker, Smokey concludes ” :D that makes me excited. i cant thank you enough !(: “

Excited that he has mastered this!  That is the power of peer learning, the power to engage the learner.

And then, another user comes in to encourage the asker and compliment him.  Clearly he knows Smokey.  “You are great to work with.”  he says.

Encouragement from a peer.  Engagement.  Its a happy warm buzz. And then, it is hardly surprising that learning happens. Klimenkov and UnkleRhaukus were once the askers, looking for help.  It was these sort of experiences thatgently dragged them back – this time to help, to answer and to encourage their fellow learners.  Peer learning at its best!

Do you feel the warm glow?

Assessment for open learners

 My call to action earlier this year was to rethink assessment from the ground up and to really challenge myself to create a meaningful assessment that could go beyond grades, and realy make a difference in a young learner’s life.

I focused on foundational learning skills, skills that build a base for lifelong learning, skills that help young people succeed in college, and if and when they graduate, skills that help them succeed in their jobs.  Very broadly these foundational skills are soft skills, such as: being able to work in a team, learning from one another, communicating and articulating questions and responses, engaging with content,  and being able to creatively problem solve. We focused on teamwork, problem solving and engagement, skills that are seldom reported on a college transcript.

Many of these skills are demonstrated in a social setting – to observe teamwork, you need a setting where folks work together.  For communication skills, you have to provide a venue for communications.  We used OpenStudy’s social learning environment to document and assess these soft skills.  As we looked at thousands of interactions between thousands of learners on OpenStudy, we began to see patterns emerge. With the help of expert, Dr. Gloria Miller from the Stanford Research Institute, we identified transitions of a novice learner to an expert learner and developed an assessment of learning progression, independent of quizzes and grades.

As exciting as it is to track learning, for us this is only the beginning.  We are also able to track and document a learner’s teamwork, problem solving and engagement from the thousands of data points we collect over a length of time.  With all this analysis, we can bring real value to the learner by reporting on all these three foundational skills.

What next? Several online content providers offering open courses have asked us to provide an assessment of learning and soft skills of the learners on their courses. Assessment in these open courses (now being called MOOCs) is hard.  It is an open system with very little oversight on learners.  60% of college students formally enrolled in prestigious institutions admit to cheating. Issues such as cheating, plagiarism, unfriendly peer interactions, etc will be present in open courses.  What then, is a relevant, low cost, scaleable  assessment for these new learning environments?   Quizzes that work in a class of 25 students under the eagle eye of a teacher, can’t constitute the entire solution.  Ideally, we want an assessment that learners can use in their job search.

Our solution is an big data assessment derived from long term behavioral data and social analytics .  It is not a snapshot – like a quiz – but a rather complete movie. It is about progression and a learning journey, that is as individual as the learner. It provides a documentation of a learner’s skills, every problem they solved, every answer they articulated, every interaction with other users, every fan they gained, every testimonial they received, all of this available for scrutiny by an employer or a college.

How do they get a hold of this documentation? Learners now will be able to sign up to receive Certificates of Participation from the OpenCourseWareConsortium (OCW of University of Notre Dame, University of California Irvine, and TU Delft), and the 20Million Minds Foundation.  As learners  work through the content, they will study together on OpenStudy, help one another and behave as engaged learners should.  They will be building their digital portfolio of learning and soft skills – and will take this with them to their job interviews or college admissions!  So finally we have an assessment that is actually meaningful and can open doors!


Such a lot of buzz about MOOC, a lot of hype but still a lot of promise that has yet to be realized.  Esther Wojcicki said to me over coffee yesterday, “All this fuss about MOOCs and it is just another version of distance learning.”  And we thought about that a bit as we sipped our respective beverages. Yes, in a way, it is another form of delivering course content remotely.  So why all this fuss?  The novelty is partly due to the very large numbers, and partly  due to the completely open access. There are differences of course, as in any Version 2.0 of something.  And yet, what is fascinating and a little irritating, is that the current versions are still far from being optimal, let alone perfect.

It is empowering to imagine the thousands of happy learners plodding their way through lectures and assimilating knowledge that was never accessible to them before.  The image of a teen in rural India, home from a hard day’s work on the family farm, listening to Sebastian Thrun’s voice emanating from his little tablet, by the light of a single bulb suspended over his wooden cot, is compelling. And then, it spoils the happy glow to read the complaints that only 15% finish, and that there is no interaction, no community, and then there is cheating!

So we have to refine the model.  There is nothing wrong with that.  This is a great new experiment and it will take a couple of tries to get it right.  The potential for empowerment and great impact is there, now we just have to go back to the basics and remind ourselves of what makes a great learning experience.

Its easy to forget that content is not everything.  Having pretty videos and stuff to read does not equal learning.  Neither does adding little quizzes at the end of five minutes of video.  Any educator worth his/her salt will tell you that people learn when they are actively engaged, reflecting, constructing their own understanding, articulating it.  You just have to read the dismal statistics on education, on high school or college dropouts to know that lectures and powerpoints alone will fail to get people to really learn new material.  Its the interaction, the collaboration, and  the exchange that drives engagement and ultimately learning.

So what do I like about the next version of the MOOC offered by  the combined creativity of MIT/OCW,P2PU,OpenStudy and Codecademy’s ?  I like it and here is why.  For one, it deemphasizes the importance of the content.  Yes there is content, but that is not what it is all about.  The content is reasonable, no one could call it “pretty” or “slick”!  What is remarkable is that the organizers, Steve Carson and Philip Schmidt realized that it would take more than passive content to make the learning happen.  So in addition to the content, there are three important aspects to this MOOC.

One is the Codeacademy platform to practice what you learned.  (As a Chemistry educator, I am deeply envious of this, we need a Codecademy for every subject on the planet and can we start with Chemistry please Zach?) The learner gets to try out their code and really engage with this material, in a friendly and nonthreatening environment.  Then I really like the weekly call-to-action emails that the P2PU team is going to send out will keep learners organized, on track and moving along.  And the finally, and by far the most important is the community that is already building up on OpenStudy study group for this MOOC. This learning community is going to make all the difference.

Relationships will build up as Gopal from Gandhinagar and Amina from Cairo and Erik from Helsinki ask for help and get help.  As the relationships build up, they will start to support one another and then keep one another motivated to keep coming back.  The best outcome of all, they will engage each other in active learning.  We have seen this time and again on OpenStudy and have measured increased learning outcomes for our NextGeneration Learning Challenge grant.  And I predict we are going to see it again in this MechMOOC.  Why, I predict we are going to see a >20% retention for this experiment!

Teaching It Forward

(This is the text of my talk at #TedxSanJose April 14.)

I want to talk to you about an epidemic that is affecting a million teens each year. It’s a deadly epidemic and one for which there is no vaccine – or good cure yet. The Gates Foundation (@gatesfoundation) calls it the Silent Epidemic.

1 million high school students do not graduate each year in the US.  The Gates study established that shockingly, many of them are bored and choose to drop out rather than graduate.  They are not engaged enough to come to class, to read, to stay in school and graduate.  This is a deadly epidemic and one I care deeply about. I am going to tell you about my search for a cure.

Let me begin with a story. Sergio Alvarez is a 9th grader in NY. He has failed every math class through 8th grade despite numerous teachers and paid tutors. He dreams of a future where he engineers planes. But you and I know the harsh reality—this is very unlikely. We know that kids like him get discouraged, bored, drop out of school, and struggle the rest of their lives.

But wait, this is MY story. In my story, Sergio discovers OpenStudy, an online study site. He meets Hero, an OpenStudier who takes an interest in him. 6 months later we get a note from Sergio saying he is making 90s in math. This is a fairy tale with a happy ending…only it is not a fairy tale. Sergio is an actual user on OpenStudy and there are thousands more like him.  And for Sergio and the others, it is not an ending, but a beginning.

This is when I realized that we had created something good, something powerful, something with potential. Something that could even cure an epidemic.

We call it OpenStudy and it all hinges on this: between success and failure there is a human.  A teacher. A mentor. A peer.

So how did this realization come to me?  Let’s go back several years.

I was driving my three kids to school one Spring in Atlanta in a crowded Blue Honda Fit.  My eldest, then 16, had a Chemistry test and asked me to explain osmosis in the car.  I launched into the beautiful explanation of an award-winning Chemistry professor.  He looked at me and said, “That’s cool, but I think I’ll ask my friends!”

That was my thunderbolt!  It was the best thing that ever happened to me in the carpool lane.

I realized the tremendous power of peer learning.

My son graduated and now we are looking forward to Sergio’s graduation with a little help from his friends that he has found on OpenStudy.

So that’s my story of Sergio and Hero. Unfortunately, there are a 100 m young people globally who don’t even have a school or college to go to.  How do we find enough Heroes to teach these 100 m hungry learners?

My answer is: they will teach each other. To do this I needed a platform for global scale peer learning. And it couldn’t just be academic research. I had to make it real.

This decision has changed my life.  With two co-founders, Ashwin Ram and Chris Sprague, and the blessings of the National Science Foundation, we created a startup. Then I decided to move to the Valley. Why the Valley? Well I’d heard this is the best place for entrepreneurs.

I also had to reinvent myself. I traded my academic robes for jeans, my car for a bike. I’ve also learned a lot—like how to face rejection making the rounds on Sand Hill Road.

But we were funded and I thank our investors, the National Science Foundation, the Gates & Hewlett Foundations, NIH, GRA, and Learn Capital.  You see, it’s all very well to have good ideas, but you need funding to make them a reality.  And most of all you need a great team.  You need a lot of help from your friends, and your friends’ friends, and their friends. The Valley is a giving place.

So with the team and funding and friends, we built OpenStudy.

We now have a hundred thousand Sergios and Heroes on our system.  Let me introduce you to some of them.

Meet Erik. He’s an engineering student at Texas A&M University. Learning is easy for him, but when he teaches, he feels like he has done something worthwhile.  And he loves how he can reach NASA engineers who put a context to the equations he studies.

Meet 17-year-old Samuel in Ghana. He taught himself about computers and found OpenStudy as he was working through an MIT Computer Science course. He said he gained the confidence to attack his chemistry tests because he saw a lot of questions and answers on OpenStudy. “I can walk to my chemistry test with confidence,” he said. I think he can walk into any college admissions office now. In fact, he is already being recruited.

Christy is one of our most sought after math experts. She feels the pain of the math deficient; she made it through remedial math at a community college. She now is on her way to a PhD, and is a college teacher in Arkansas. She knows the difference a mentor can make.

17-year-old Saifoo is in Pakistan and has helped thousands of users. Thousands. I’m ready to write him a recommendation for Cambridge.

Here is Catherine.  Can you believe this Biology graduate student in Australia was too timid to answer a question when she started?  She is now a moderator, a power user, and hands out judgments and wisdom on the late night shift.

Our solution is really blindingly obvious, especially to anyone with a teenager.  Give them a Facebook-like social site and the social interactions will lead to engagement. The peer-to-peer learning creates a win-win scenario. Our users complain happily that they are addicted. Addicted to math!  When was the last time you heard that?!

Today there are over 100,000 registered users, from dozens of partnering institutions including a who’s who list of the MITs and Yales to the community college systems of West Hills and Piedmont. Our users ask thousands of questions a day and get help within 5 minutes.  And it works: 80% of our users surveyed reported that using OpenStudy had helped them gain a better understanding of their course material.  But numbers aside, there are stories like Sergio’s.

Why do they do it? Why do they come back? Learners come for help, for an explanation, to talk through their problem with someone.  They stay because someone has taken an interest in them and is willing to help.  And then they come back so they can help someone else in turn.  They are engaged because it is like playing a game where good learning behavior is incentivized.

Let’s pay another visit to Saifoo.  Saifoo has hundreds of fans. He answers questions in a few different topics but he has helped most learners in math.  Each time a learner is happy with Saifoo’s explanation, he gives Saifoo a medal.  Over six months Saifoo has gathered a bounty of 4000 medals. The medals, the fans, and the testimonials are all part of the game mechanics that keep our users, young and old, coming back for more and more.

As they stay they become a part of a family, a community of practice.  And they realize what it means to be in a community, helping one another. As Voltaire said, when one person teaches another, two people learn.

As satisfying as this is, there is more.   As our users engage with one another, young with old, the middle schooler with the MIT engineer…the American with the Pakistani, the Tanzanian, the Turkish…black, white, brown…they learn to interact and be courteous. They learn to be helpful, to work together, to communicate.  For the most active of our users, OpenStudy becomes their passion.

We have created a platform where millions of learners can come for help and there are people waiting to help them.  Not for money…but because it is their passion.

We have found a vaccine for the Silent Epidemic. Our goal is to inoculate every student across the United States and on every continent.

But this vaccine can’t be manufactured in a lab. It will take each one of you to help. My call to action is simple: pay it forward by teaching it forward. Take 10 minutes to teach 10 people. That’s it. It will grow virally as some of those you teach will teach others who will take 10 minutes themselves to teach 10 more. 10 will teach 100, 100 will teach a thousand, a thousand will teach millions.  Together, we will reach all the Sergios in the world. Together, we will make a difference.

When education works.

It was a win for education today, twice on #TedxSanJoseCA

Angela Zhang, winner of the Siemens Science Talent competition. She asked for journal articles from a Stanford cancer researcher, learnt about it and then proposed a award winning project, performed the research.    Home schooled Roberto Granadas (13) and his brother, Ernesto (7) lit up the stage with their duet on guitar and drums.  Angela spent hundreds of hours performing research and Roberto started playing along with Jimi Hendrix songs as a four year old .  This is what is right with education today.   Why can’t we do this again and again and again?  Why are there any kids that are not fired up about something? Anything?

Every kid is an opportunity to achieve the impossible.  Why then are there so many missed opportunities? Just pondering #TedxSanJoseCa.

Addressing Two Challenges of Higher Ed: Scale and Engagement

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,” Charles Dickens was talking about grim times of the French Revolution. His elegant phrase however is strikingly relevant to those of us lost in turmoil of higher education. While this seems to be times of great disenchantment with education, it is also the time for hope, for reinvention and new ideas.

Of the many problems of education, the one that haunted me the most was the problem of student engagement. Students who are not engaged with their learning are not motivated, are bored and do not graduate high school. About a million high school students do not graduate each year for many reasons. The Gates Silent Epidemic study indicates that a large percent of the drop-outs could have graduated but did not, and of these many were just too bored to graduate. The situation is a lot worse when you consider that according to Sir John Daniel of the Commonwealth of Learning, there will be a 100 million young people with no college or high school to go to. Forget building bricks and mortar schools and colleges, how on earth will we find enough teachers to teach these young minds?  And keep them engaged?  We need new solutions that offer both scale and engagement.

A possible solution to this problem came to me through my own experiences with my children. My TedxSan JoseCA talk will describe this journey of discovery which took me from my life as an academic dean in Atlanta, to that of an entrepreneur in the Valley. With our team, we created a startup, OpenStudy that offered a world-wide study group. I encountered rejection, obstacles, but also made new friends and rediscovered the true meaning of the Beatles song, “With a little help from my friends.” OpenStudy resonates with this theme.

We created a unique social learning platform where anyone can find a way to pay it forward by taking the time to teach someone something. The title of my talk, “#Take 10 Teach10”. Come see for yourself.
April 14.

“To Boldly Go Where No Grades Have Gone Before”

Grades never tell the whole story.They are one-dimensional, subjective, non-standardized and unreliable. Most teachers would agree that there are better ways to evaluate students and assess their progress.  Students stress about grades and all agree that it kills collaboration and sharing. And yet we keep using them.

April is the time of year when colleges decide who to admit into their hallowed ranks.  This is the time when the panic about grades, GPAs and scores hits an all-time high.  Studies of Kuh, Pascarella & Terenzini, and others have established quite clearly that student engagement rather than grades is the most significant predictor of student success and retention. Engaged students are the ones who raise their hands in class to ask questions, who chat with their classmates, and who stay back to interact with their teachers.  They are the ones who join clubs, participate in sports, find a cause to champion, volunteer, and who help out in the community. This is important, right? Well then, where is this included in the curriculum and where does it appear on the transcript?

When was the last time you were offered a job based on your college transcript? When employers sift through entry-level applicants, they look beyond the GPA for evidence of teamwork, passion, problem solving, communications. And yet you will not find any of these attributes on the college transcript. These skills are developed during experiences outside the classroom: experiential learning, problem based learning, real life experiences, projects, co-ops. Our learner faces two challenges—to pick the right experience to learn these skills, and to produce credible documentation of these skills.

Today’s world is dynamically changing, technologically evolving, highly global, constantly online, and demandingly collaborative. Do we have educational experiences to train our young learners for this brave new world, a connectivist world where Google places encyclopedia facts at a eight year old’s fingertips, where online chats connect an Atlanta coed with an Ankara teen in seconds, a world where notions of privacy are being challenged by texting tweens. At OpenStudy, we asked ourselves what environment would make it is easy and fun for learners of all ages to prepare themselves for the new tomorrow? Our answer: Open Social Learning.

OpenStudy’s first disruptive innovation was to enable peer learning.  We set out to prove that learning could occur in an open social platform that offered peer learning help. The platform exceeded expectations. It has grown to over 100,000 users from 170 countries, and it offers a free, scalable, 24/7 learning help that users report is “addictive”. 80% of surveyed users report improved learning outcomes.

But there is more.  I’ve written countless letters of recommendation to help students apply for jobs, graduate school, and medical school by evaluating and documenting soft skills. I could see something remarkable emerge on our peer learning platform. Students began building and demonstrating these very skills. They learned to articulate their questions and answers, to maintain courtesy and openness, to work together in teams. They were truly passionate about learning. Some became leaders and offered support and mentoring.
Watching the interactions on OpenStudy, we realized that this ecosystem was just the right environment to develop key soft skills: helpfulness, courtesy, teamwork, problem solving, engagement, to name a few.  Today, OpenStudy is a global extracurricular extraordinaire, experiential learning for the 21st century, with access for all.

SmartScore is OpenStudy’s bold new initiative to challenge the traditional notions of intelligence normally quantified by grades. SmartScore will report on skills and competencies demonstrated on our platform that are relevant and meaningful for both student and workplace success. SmartScore is a 21st century version of real world intelligence.

We are hacking education and rethinking evaluation and assessment. You can think of it as going beyond grades. We call it a SmartScore.

Join us for our SmartScore launch on April 17th at the Education Innovation Summit to learn more.

Got your SmartScore?

“All hands to battle stations”

I am a StarTrek fanatic, and so these words will always reverberate in Captain Picard’s (Patrick Stewart) clipped British accent.  It felt like battle stations that Saturday, the room packed by Marina Gorbis and her talented team at the Institute for the Future’s “Hack the Future of Education” day long session.

Hats off to the IFTF team for realizing the urgency for reinventing education and for calling all hands to battle station.  They packed the room with diverse set of people who had with one thing in common, a passion to change the status quo in education.

You need all hands to make a dent in education’s problems.  And we have to feel a sense of urgency. We need to get to battle stations, now. We need a solution now and it is going to take everyone working together to make that happen.

I have always felt it rather presumptuous to assume that only the high priests of Higher Ed should be invited to these sessions of problem solving about education.  A typical academic conference, the usual venue for discussion and collaboration of these issues is depressingly uniform with mostly faculty and higher education administrators and salesmen.  Conversations float around the usual circles, the usual obstacles are trotted out, the usual ideas, locked into the usual frameworks are discussed, hands are shaken and agreements made over the usual glasses of wine and nothing really changes.

But Saturday was different.  You had some unusual academics, the innovators in an old regime, but the ones most open to innovation, ones who were actually taking risks by doing cool things: Southern New Hampshire University (@snhu), Center for the 21st Century University at Georgia Tech (@c21u), San Jose State, Stanford, CSU, Berkeley.   The Department of Ed was represented by Hal Plotkin, my favorite DoEd guy, remarkable visionary and doer.  He fills me with hope that the government may actually be helpful in all this. Then you had a small cluster of big companies, with IBM’s most imaginative thought leader, Jim Spohrer (@jimspohrer), AutoDesk, SimCities. The Foundations were listening, Gates (@gatesfoundation), Kaufman, Edutopia, Gordon and Betty More.  I loved the group of small companies, including the startups that are really taking this whole industry apart.   CodeHero (“Coding is literacy”@primerlabs), Udemy (@udemy), Minecraft, Singularity U (Startup and Academe), BioCurious (Opening lab sciences to the world @erigentry), ScienceHackDay (Get everyone hacking science together) and OpenStudy (#Take 10 Teach 1o, peer learning for the world @OpenStudy). Anya Kamenetz (@anyanya) representing the Press, and finally, remarkably the students, the learners, from high school to recent graduates.  It was eyeopening to hear their voice, to add their opinion to the table – and humbling to hear their candid opinion of the education we have built with years of  research and funding.

The solutions to educations many problems are not going to come out of one sector alone, certainly not from Higher Ed institutions or from the Government.  I doubt if industry can or should solve these problems. Certainly foundations are trying to establish fertile ground to nurture innovation. And start-ups can come up with out-of box thinking but can’t take it down alone.  But together, with the right attitude we can. For this to happen, we need more venues like the IFTF Convening, where the bouncer doesn’t check your degree at the door, where the doers and the thinkers are valued and the stakeholders have a voice, and where all sectors of this ecosystem are represented.  Different voices, different perspectives, different contributions. After all, even Captain Picard needed his Klingon and Android to “Boldly go where no one has gone before”.

Take 10 Teach 10

Sergio Alvarez is a 9th grader in NY, failed every math class through 8th grade despite numerous teachers and paid tutors. He dreams of a future where he engineers planes, but you and I know the harsh reality: this is very unlikely. Kids like him get discouraged, bored, drop out of school, and wait tables all their lives. However, Sergio discovered OpenStudy, met Hero, an OpenStudier who took interest in him. Six months later we received a note from him telling us he was making 90s in his math class. This is fairy tale with a happy ending, only it is not a fairy tale. Sergio is an actual user in OpenStudy and there are many more like him. And for Sergio and the others, it is not an ending, but a beginning.

Our venture OpenStudy is unique. We call it open social learning. Help is always available for all the learners in the world, who raise their hands and ask for help. We offer a highly scaleable, low cost, global solution to the problem of providing learning help through an open social platform for peer-to-peer learning.

We have proven this disruptive model over and over again, to thousands of learners. Today there are 100,000 registered users, from over 40 partnering institutions including a who’s who list of the MITOCWs and OpenYales to the community college systems of West Hills and Piedmont. Our users ask over 1000 questions a day in Math alone and are usually helped within 5 minutes. Our impact on learning: 80% of our users surveyed reported that using OpenStudy had helped them gain a better understanding of their course material. And there are stories like Sergio’s.

Our solution is really blindingly obvious especially to anyone with a teenager. Give them a Facebook like social site and the social interactions will then lead to engagement, the peer to peer learning creates a win-win scenario and users complain happily that they are addicted. Addicted to math! When was the last time you heard that?

As satisfying as this is, there is more. As our users engage with one another, young with old, the middle schooler with the MIT engineer, American, the Pakistani, the Tanzanian, the Turkish, the Hindu, the Muslim, the Buddhist, the black, the white, brown… they learn to interact, be courteous, they learn to be helpful, they learn to work together, to communicate. For the most active of our users, OpenStudy becomes their passion.

Communication, Teamwork, Passion, Helpfulness.

What does that sound like to you?

To us it was apparent that in our social learning platform, we had also created an ecosystem where our users could move beyond subject matter expertise to learning soft skills that matter. They were moving from the mind to the heart. Think of it as learning things that are not captured on a grade. Not only do our users practice these important skills of the heart, we can then report on on what they have learnt. With crowd sourcing, game mechanics and analytics, we can report on teamwork, problem solving, and most of all the elusive attribute, but in a way the most important: passion! You and I know this should have been taught in school, somehow? Right? But tragically, all too often it isn’t.

And finally, this is my core belief. In education, what lies between failure and success is a human. A teacher, a mentor, a friend, a peer. I believe all the technology being developed today will not solve the problems of education if it does not deliberately and purposefully include the social element. And I believe in the power of open social learning systems to solve some of education’s biggest problems.

Here is my Call to Action. Come experience OpenStudy for yourself. Be a Hero to a Sergio. Take 10 minutes to teach 10. And you may well learn something too.


This is the talk I gave at the gathering organized by the Institute for the Future “Hack the Future of Education Day”


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