Monday, January 03, 2011

Social Media Study Services

The Chronicle of Higher Education had an interesting article dated November 28, 2010, “New Social Software Tries to Make Studying Feel Like Facebook.” Authors Marc Parry and Jeffrey R. Young survey a number of newer online study aids. They vary from forums for posting class notes to social learning sites with add-ons. The focus is really on undergraduates, but many of these sites could easily be attractive to law students, or even useful to faculty committees.

The article cautions that simply adding Facebook-like features is not what it takes to make a success of an online study tool. They report on Inigral, which offered a Facebook application to allow students to view classmates, and discuss issues, and allow professors to post class assignments. In 2008, Inigral shut down that portion of the service, because students did not use it to access course content, only using it to look at friends' pictures. It appears, however, that Inigral has re-designed itself. If you link to, you find “Facebook for Higher Education.” The current version of Inigral appears to be focused on admissions, not study applications. They call the application “Schools on Facebook,” allowing a university to apply its own branding to a Facebook “gated community.” On the “howitworks” page, explaining who Schools for Facebook is for,

Schools on Facebook is for colleges and universities seeking to impact yield, mix, summer melt, and other enrollment goals within their incoming 2015 freshman class by using the Facebook platform. The latest version of Schools on Facebook for admissions is set to go-live between February and March of 2011 for students matriculating in Fall 2011.
The bulk of the article refocuses on the various study tools that are out there, and how undergraduate students are using them. The note-sharing sites are having to to tread softly in California. It turns out that California has an unusual state law that makes it illegal to sell lecture or class notes. The article mentions it and here is an article from the San Francisco Bee. The news article stresses what an obscure statute the law is, surprising the legal counsel to NoteUtopia. It also comments that some other materials could still be posted under the law, but that some students were so spooked by the letter from the University that they canceled their accounts with NoteUtopia. A number of the study tools which post class notes include warnings addressed to California students, because of this law, and NoteUtopia's experience.

But there are also vexing questions about copyrights in the intellectual property of the course materials. If the professor lectures, and closely follows or just reads from notes, can he or she claim copyright in any notes from class? How much originality must the student add to notes in order to claim ownership? This has not really been settled, yet. There was a case mentioned briefly in a Boston Globe news article in December, 2009. about a University of Florida professor against a for-profit note company. That turns out to be Michael Moulton, who produced electronic textbooks for Faulkner Press, which unsuccessfully sued the for-profit note site Einstein's Notes (Faulkner Press v. Class Notes d/b/a Einstein's Notes, N.D. Fla., No. 08-cv-49, 11/23/10). That news story also mentions a book by Corynne McSherry, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Who Owns Academic Work? The Chronicle article does not report any faculty arguing such claims. They do report a professor who was so dismayed by the poor quality of the notes from her class that she requested that they all be taken down. The site complied with the professor's request.

Here are a sampling of the sites mentioned in the article. I have added some exploration of a few sites that are only mentioned in the article, but not discussed in any depth:

FinalsClub ( )
The article reported that this free website hosted material from 24 Harvard courses, and had 1,355 registered users at the time of writing. The name of the site is consciously modeled (and shifted from) the name of the insular and all-male Harvard social clubs which are rumored to keep old lecture notes on file to help members cram for finals. The founder, Andrew Magliozzi, was quoted in a Boston Globe article dated Dec. 13 2009 ( ) as seeking to make the information sequestered in the ivory tower free to anybody with an internet connection:
I’m a big believer that educational resources should be free, or as free as possible, and in a sense I would like to do it not only at Harvard but at every top institution in the world,
Following on the heels of MIT's open courseware, FinalsClub looks tiny. But Mr. Magliozzi intends to expand, adding course materials from other elite institutions. The Chronicle reports that the site won a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to add MIT, Yale and Brown in fall, 2011. Magliozzi allows professors to opt out of having their classes added to the site. Some fear students will use the site as a substitute for attending class. Others fear public sniping if their materials are posted and viewed. This is the site that took the poor class notes down at the professor's request.

GradeGuru ( )
GradeGuru is owned by McGraw Hill Education. The Chronicle reported that company officials claimed that it covered more than 25,000 courses at the time they spoke, and that number of registered users was not available. The primary focus of the site is note and other class material sharing. Students are encouraged to post materials by payments of cash through PayPal, gift cards to a variety of vendors, donations to charities, or a variety of points toward services such as spa treatments or even a hot air balloon ride. Student posters are rated by other users on a five star system by the quality of the materials they post. Top gurus are features on the home page. Top gurus reach that status more by quality than by sheer quantity, apparently, because the numbers vary a good deal. The Chronicle article quotes the founder of GradeGuru as stating that they “...go to great length to make sure students use the site ethically.” They try to remove all exam answers and term papers within 48 hours of posting. Yet the Chronicle reporters found one of the highest rated documents on the site was an exam from Georgetown, which had been online for months. GradeGuru, once notified, removed it quickly, but could not explain how it had been up so long.

The site hires “campus ambassadors at 50 college campuses to promote the service. The ambassadors are not paid, but are eligible for prizes from GradeGuru. At some campuses, the ambassadors have sent e-mails to the mailing lists of their fraternities and sororities inviting friends to try the service. This January, GradeGuru is offering an institutional subscription, in hopes that universities and colleges will endorse the site and send their students to it.

Mixable ( )
Created and still hosted by Purdue University, Mixable still has certain components that are uniquely configured for that institution. It has 50 courses and about 300 registered users. It is a mixed use site, allowing students to both share notes and other coursework as well as find interested partners for study groups in a Facebook application. There is a free-standing application that allows non-members of Facebook to use the social media aspects as well.

The document sharing is enabled through Dropbox, which is another free-standing web service. Dropbox allows the user to upload files of any sort and size to a web-based dropbox, where it can be kept safe, and shared, if the user desires. The subscriber can control who has access to each document in the dropbox. Thus the dropbox can function as a back-up to computer files, as a transfer mechanism from one electronic device to another, or geographic location to another, a synching mechanism, and as a sharing mechanism between users.

The Chronicle article includes an interview with a junior at Purdue discussing her experiences with Mixable. She really enjoys using the service, and is very comfortable with the interface, as she is a heavy Facebook user. When you go to the Mixable home page, you can see that it notes that you can use it not only on computers but also on mobile devices, which would probably also be very popular with students.

The home page also shows that besides student note-sharing, Mixable enables other media connections as well. Some of this is currently limited to Purdue, such as podcasts, but if a university subscribed to the Mixable service, I think it could offer podcasts hosted on iTunesU through the Mixable interface. Mixable also offers a way for students to build study groups by using a Facebook interface with their course enrollment system (again, I am sure this is currently limited to Purdue, but could be expanded to other universities). Mixable also offers “Media” which allows the user to set up “...context and media filtering options to build a collection of shared resources that are personalized and relevant. … building bookmarks, images, video and files.” ( )

NoteUtopia (
This site is only mentioned in the article. Based in San Francisco, the site offers class notes, primarily, organized by class and professor, as well as study guides, notes, reports and quizzes. They are rated by users on a five star system, with personalized comments added. In addition, there is a social media component. They sponsor discussion boards, “to collaborate on homework or projects (or) (h)ave other students answer your toughest questions.” You can join a social group sponsored by anybody – clubs, fraternities, etc., can sponsor a social group to promote an event or manage a project. This makes “social groups” sound temporary. The site also offers e-mail and IM functions. The have a page titled “Academic Honor,” about not stealing or posting materials not intended for public consumptions. They state that use of NoteUtopia is not intended as a substitute for class attendance. They encourage students to share openly with each other and faculty to use NoteUtopia as a substitute for printing class handouts. This is a little bandaid-ish since they also clearly advertise that students get paid for notes and other handouts (by other students). NoteUtopia takes a small fee from each sale. I cannot find any information about how many members they have or what schools are represented, without joining, which I really don't want to do.

OpenStudy ( )
The Chronicle article reports this site as covering 50 courses and having 11,000 registered users. It focuses entirely on social networking. This is a free spin-off from Georgia-Tech and Emory University designed to create a platform for building personal study networks. The idea was that independent learners accessing the free courseware offered by MIT or Yale might also want to form study groups. There is a free basic version, and the company hopes to make money by offering an upgraded version with extra features. It is apparent at the website that they also intend for the system to be used in classes with students and professors. They contemplate “virtual office hours,” “online tutoring programs” and “enhanced distance learning infrastructure.”

StudyBlue ( )
The Chronicle article does not mention this one. It shows up in the Boston Globe article from December 13, 2009 on FinalsClub. StudyBlue appears to offer a way to make your own digital flash cards. They are accessible on a computer, mobile device, or can be printed. The service is free. I could not access the site, though; there was an encoding error of some sort when I was trying to look at this.

1 comment:

mpstaton said...

Thanks for digging into what we do! Fair treatment, to be sure. There are, in fact, lots of issues to think through, in regards to student collaboration and sharing around academic content. In addition, students seem to create meaning and and go through their education through myriad experiences in and out of the classroom, with direct content and with a network of peers.

Happy to be part of the conversation, and glad you are, too.