Posted by Preetha Ram
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.
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?
Since 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
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. http://www.civicenterprises.net/pdfs/thesilentepidemic3-06.pdf.
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. http://bit.ly/mmo-learning