Category Archives: homework

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.

“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?

MicroTeaching Challenge to STEM Folks on Digital Learning Day

On Digital Learning Day, give some of your time to a teen in need. Got STEM Smarts? Help a struggler in Math. Your 10 mins could make the difference between a future scientist and a janitor.   We know about micro payments, what about micro service? Microteaching?

There are 1000 questions in math alone, looking for an explanation. Plenty of help needed in Physics, Chemistry and Biology as well. Hundreds of good people are already helping.  Have you done your share?

Are you really a good teacher?  Think your explanations of Lenz’s law are outstanding? Well try it out on an unknown learner in North Dakota, home schooled, and at home.  What about an ESL learner?  Is it Raoult’s Law that they don’t’ understand or can’t do algebra?  Are they in middle school or college?  Here is a true test of your ability to articulate an explanation on the fly!

Go on, take the challenge.  Let’s see how you can handle this! is an NSF SBIR project.

Social Capital in Education. Is there a value? #change11

So we all know about physical capital, money, equipment, and everyone can talk with ease about human capital, education, training etc.  We all recognize that one can derive value out of both physical and human capital.  What about social capital?  Social capital is the sum of your socialness, your friends, people you interact with, you ability to influence their decisions, all put together.  Very interestingly there are several initiatives bubbling up in the market that are trying to capture the essence of social capital and to make money out of that notion. Klout and similarly misspelt, Kred are new ventures into monetization of social capital.

But what of education?  Does a student’s social capital in any way enhance his learning gains? His education? The attainment of his goals?  And if a student builds social capital, will he then derive value from it?

Hua Ai and I report on some living lab studies with OpenStudy’s 80K learners in George Siemens’ Change Mooc 11.  Interestingly, the act of building social capital alone motivated some learners to persist in the learning ecosystem.  As they solved problems, helped someone, participated in discussions and other learning related activities, they leveled up, won medals, achievements, fans, and built social capital.

I am willing to put a stake in the ground and say that the pursuit of building social capital, can lead to enhanced retention and then improved learning.  Of course the environment for building this social capital has to be about learning.  Building social capital on Facebook is a very different game!  But in a learning ecosystem like OpenStudy where the rewards, activities and conversations are about learning in Math or Biology, there is an observable correlation. And that is exciting. And it brings real value to the learner.  Whether they will recognize it or not, it brings real value to education.

This social capital can and should be valuable as badges, as documentation of skills and competencies, as an e-portfolio, all existing examples, but now ready to take on a new twist.  Whether the world of higher ed is ready or not, social capital for education is arriving and will be here to stay.

Meet the Rock Star of Math Help on OpenStudy

“Hi, my name is amistre64, and I am a mathaholic.

Why do I use OpenStudy?  I came across it in March.  It was free and looked like something I could use to both teach and learn about math, and math related accessories 🙂

I used to be in construction work, but now I am going to college to get a Master’s in math to become a college math teacher.”

Amistre is on OpenStudy a lot.  He is always there.  He has achieved the level of 100, the highest attainable level on OpenStudy. There are few at this level.  He will help you only if you care to learn.  The “Give me an answer and let me be gone” attitude does not work for him.  His explanations in calculus are a joy to behold.  Here’s an image of an explanation, midway through one of his conversations.  You can see the entire conversation here

Why does he do it?  His answer is, quite simply, “to help”. Amistre is proof that altruism still thrives, that people passionate about learning are willing to teach our hapless teens.  We don’t pay Amistre.  The community “pays” him through their regard and appreciation.

He has over 800 fans, which means there are hundreds of students on our system who appreciate him, who gave him a signal of their regard and respect, who want to get to know him.  When someone appreciates his help, they give him a medal.  He has earned that again and again, more than 6,000 times in Math.

What does that tell us?  In contrast to reports of high schoolers’ apathy to math and to studying, we have evidence that high schoolers do care about learning. When provided the right framework, when someone takes the time to talk to them and help them solve a math problem, they truly appreciate it.  With typical teenage fervor, they shower Amistre with tokens of their appreciation.  By “fanning” him they are saying that he is a Rock Star of Math—the Justin Bieber of Math Help on OpenStudy!

For me, every time a kid thanks Amistre, I see another vote for learning.  The way Amistre sees it, every time he gets a medal, he turns the light bulb on for a kid, and he’s got his reward.