New Social Software Tries to Make Studying Feel Like Facebook

AJ Mast for The Chronicle

Brittany Robertson, a junior at Purdue U., uses Mixable, note-and-coursework-sharing software that works with Facebook, because it easily lets her shift from socializing to studying.
November 28, 2010

Students live on Facebook. So study tools that act like social networks should be student magnets—and maybe even have an academic benefit.

At least that's the idea behind a new crop of Web services sprouting up across higher education. Colleges, entrepreneurs, and publishers, all drawn by the buzz of social media, are competing to market software that makes sharing class notes or collaborating on calculus problems as simple as updating your Facebook status.

"Our mission is to make the world one big study group," says Phil Hill, chief executive of OpenStudy, a social-learning site that started as a project of Emory University and Georgia Tech. It opened to the public in September.

Many of the social-learning sites are, like OpenStudy, for-profit companies—or at least they aspire to be once their services take off. And some of their business plans rely on a controversial practice: paying students for their notes.

The big question facing all of these sites—a group that includes Mixable, from Purdue University, and GradeGuru, from McGraw-Hill—is whether students are really interested in social learning online. Another quandary: If students profit from selling their notes, are they infringing on a college's or a professor's copyright? And while the sites are not part of the seamy world of exam or term-paper vendors, what happens if some users post answers to tests?

One service has already failed to mix Facebook with studies. In 2008 a company called Inigral closed its Facebook "Courses" application, which had allowed students to view who was in their classes, start discussions, and get notified of assignments. "We found that Facebook was not a popular place to engage with course content," says Michael Staton, Inigral's chief executive. Students preferred using it for things like looking at friends' photos.

Many students, in fact, prefer sticking to their own notes on courses, rather than trusting friends. Focus groups conducted on behalf of GradeGuru, a note-sharing site, found that many undergraduates don't see much value in passing their notes to others or consulting the jottings of their classmates.

"Studying is still largely an independent endeavor," says Jonathan D. Becker, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, who led the recent focus groups as a consultant to GradeGuru. "College students study in groups to some degree, but from what students say they don't find them terribly beneficial."

Note sharing online also raises the tricky legal question of whether students have the right to sell ideas presented in a professor's lecture. California State University officials recently sent a cease-and-desist letter to Note­Utopia, a note-sharing site based in San Francisco, citing an unusual state law that bars the distribution of lecture information, including "handwritten or typewritten class notes," for a profit.

The practice could even violate federal copyright law, though whether it does or not is unclear, even to copyright experts. The answer may depend on whether a professor reads verbatim from prepared notes (in which case the professor or university might be found to own the rights to the material) or whether the class is a spontaneous discussion (in which case no single participant owns the content), according to Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University's Law School.

Despite those concerns, more than a dozen sites are racing to sign up users for their social-studying services. Here's a look at four of the most interesting:


Courses: 24

Users: 1,355

What it does: Free site for sharing Harvard University course notes that plans to expand to other elite universities

When Andrew Magliozzi posted his notes from a Harvard course on a public blog, the professor told him to stop because he was disturbing the intimacy of the classroom.

Mr. Magliozzi, who declined to identify the professor, took the notes down. But the incident spurred him to create a nonprofit Web site,, that aspires to disturb the intimacy of classrooms across America's elite colleges.

"I'm asking to change the default setting on education from private to public," says Mr. Magliozzi, a 2005 Harvard graduate.

His vehicle for accomplishing that is a free online forum where student bloggers can share class notes and form study groups. Mr. Magliozzi chose the name as an ironic nod to Harvard's final clubs—those elite organizations, immortalized in the film about the founders of Facebook, The Social Network, which are rumored to maintain private caches of study guides for Harvard courses.

Now students don't need to join an exclusive club, or even attend Harvard, to get the notes to lectures given by star professors like the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker; they're online. Other professors featured on FinalsClub include the historian Robert Darnton, on the history of the book, and the political theorist Michael J. Sandel, on moral reasoning.

Mr. Magliozzi bills FinalsClub as "the student voice in open education," a bottom-up version of projects like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's famous OpenCourseWare site. Outside recognition is starting to come in. In November, FinalsClub won a grant from the open-education movement's primary philanthropic supporter, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. That will help the site expand to MIT, Yale, and Brown in the fall of 2011.

Mr. Magliozzi lets professors opt out of having their classes blogged. So far, most faculty members have opted in. Those few who slam their classroom doors on Internet note sharing, however, can be vehement in their objections. Some consider it intellectual-property theft. One, the economist Greg Mankiw, told The Boston Globe that he turned down FinalsClub because he didn't want to help students skip class.

Others fear the site will be like a "Gawker for academia," Mr. Magliozzi says, meaning that professors could get publicly pilloried in the style of Gawker, a popular blog known for flinging snark at New York elites.

Amanda Claybaugh's problem was substance, not snark. Ms. Claybaugh, a professor of English at Harvard, says she was distressed by how badly FinalsClub summarized her lectures. As she recalls its write-up, the student blogger described Henry James as not very interested in representing consciousness, even though he is famously "the great novelist of consciousness." Ms. Claybaugh was horrified to imagine someone in her field Googling her in search of recent work and finding that.

After speaking with Harvard's office of the general counsel, she sent Mr. Magliozzi a sharply worded message asking him to remove the summaries. He complied, and the student stopped blogging Ms. Claybaugh's class.


Courses: 50

Users: 11,000

What it does: Links learners who want to study free online educational content like MIT's OpenCourseWare

With thousands of independent students enrolling in gigantic open online courses, why not vast online study groups, too?

OpenStudy, a start-up company spun off by Georgia Tech and Emory, is betting that the demand exists. Its Web site is the latest effort to create a social platform for independent learners who want to help one another study the huge trove of educational materials published free online by universities like MIT and Yale.

The free site has 11,000 users so far, including a pilot project with MIT that points users to OpenStudy from the Web sites of several of the university's open, noncredit course-content sites. The company hopes to make money by offering a premium version of the software with more features.

Here's how OpenStudy works. Users build personal study networks by following other students and joining groups. When they have a question, the site pushes it out to their extended network and matches them with people available to work with them.

If the site is the of study help, as Mr. Hill brands it, the key question is whether students will be able to find a "date."

This risk is the "lame party" effect, according to David Wiley, an open-education pioneer who is an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University.

"Imagine showing up at a party that has plenty of food, music, decorations, etc., but no people are there," Mr. Wiley wrote in an e-mail to The Chronicle.

"How long will you stick around? Not very long. Similarly, if users come to the site, ask their question, and there's no one around to answer it, they'll quickly leave and probably not come back. When most early users exhibit this 'lame party' behavior, how do you get the critical mass your site needs to succeed?"

OpenStudy understands that risk, and its founders say they hope to build up critical mass by working with university content providers beyond MIT.


Courses: More than 25,000, according to company officials

Users: Not available

What it does: The note-sharing site is run by a major textbook publisher, McGraw-Hill Education, and pays students small rewards—in cash or gift cards—based on the popularity of their notes. The site makes all of the notes free to visitors.

The draw here, for many, is getting paid for something they already did. "I take all my notes on my computer," says Tarun Gangwani, a senior majoring in cognitive science at Indiana University at Bloomington. "They're on my hard drive, so it's not like I'm making any big hassle."

So far he has posted notes from 65 lectures to the site, on courses such as "Neuroanatomy" and "Early Chinese Philosophy." For his trouble, he's made about $200 in credit to his PayPal account. (He also could have opted to be paid in gift certificates for Starbucks or other retailers.) "At the end of the day, the cash is nice," he says.

He has given his notes to friends for years for no payment, he says, and though he knows some professors might object if they knew about the site, he sees no problem in making public something that might help others study.

The site has had to work to distinguish itself from online services that give away or sell term papers and exam answers.

"We have gone to great lengths to make sure students use the site ethically," says Emily Sawtell, founder of GradeGuru. All posted documents are reviewed within 48 hours, she says, and any exam answers and term papers are removed. Yet some things do slip through. On a recent afternoon, an exam, with answers, from a course at Georgetown University was listed as one of the highest-rated items on the site, and had been online for months. Once notified by a reporter, officials quickly removed it; they could not immediately explain what it was doing there.

To build interest in the site, McGraw-Hill has designated "campus ambassadors" at 50 colleges who have agreed to promote the service. On some campuses, they have sent e-mails to the mailing lists of their fraternities or sororities asking friends to give it a try. Ms. Sawtell says the student representatives are not paid, although they are eligible for prizes from the company.

The publisher hopes that colleges will end up endorsing the site and pointing students to it. To encourage that, the company is planning to add an institutional-subscription service in January.


Courses: 50

Users: About 300

What it does: Lets students share notes and coursework as well as form study groups within Facebook, using a free application developed at Purdue University.

"We're looking to take advantage of the students' native environment," says Kyle D. Bowen, director of informatics at Purdue and one of the leaders of a university project to build a new study tool. That natural habitat was Facebook, focus groups of students told him.

So Mr. Bowen and his team built Mixable, an application that plugs in to the social network. (A Web version also exists that allows non-Facebook users to try it.) Project leaders think that students are more comfortable now than two years ago—when Inigral's Facebook Courses project flopped—with the idea of blending work and play.

Anyone on the campus can download Mixable free and add it to his or her Facebook profile by simply clicking on a link and agreeing to allow the application to run. Then they can invite Facebook friends to install it as well. Once the app is enabled, students can upload notes or other documents through it, thanks to the university's partnership with an online file-storage service called Dropbox.

Brittany Robertson, a junior studying elementary education at Purdue, says that she usually is on Facebook at least four or five hours each day, and that she appreciates that Mixable uses the same familiar interface and lets her easily shift from study to socializing. "If I want to show my classmates something, I use Mixable," she says.

For one of her education courses this semester, for example, she uploaded her essay on citizenship via Mixable so that classmates could see it. She says the professor in the course often provides sample essays but in this case didn't, so she thought her friends might appreciate peering over her shoulder, virtually.

"You could e-mail it," she says, "but why do that when it can be right in front of you, and you can be talking to everyone at one time rather than using e-mail?"

Her one criticism of Mixable was that since her friends had never heard of it, some were hesitant to install the app. Facebook is filled with pitches for various apps that give companies access to a user's personal information. But once Ms. Robertson's friends realized that Mixable was made by programmers at Purdue, they were more likely to click "allow."

"It might help to have your professor introduce it—I think it might help get the word out," she says. "I don't think it should be run by the professor, though, because then it's like Blackboard, and it's just another thing you have to do."

Purdue hopes to make Mixable available to other colleges as well, and is exploring whether to make it free online or to sell it to a software company. Signals, an earlier software tool built at the university, was acquired by SunGard.