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Can new types of social network sites engage student learning?

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education discussed the emergence of social software sites that, as the article title states, “try to make studying feel like Facebook.” These sites are taking different approaches, but all are basically trying to draw student participation to themselves. And, of course, many of these are for profit entities, so the more eyes they can attract, the better for them. The main driving assumption behind these sites is that since students spend lots of time on Facebook, sites that work like Facebook should “be student magnets.”

So, what do these sites offer? While the article discusses four sites specifically, I’ll just focus on two. The first, OpenStudy, is trying to create a community  of those students taking advantage of free online content provided by universities like MIT and Yale. For example, they have a pilot project with MIT’s OpenCourseWare that points users to OpenStudy. The idea is to connect users taking courses with each other for help and discussion. This concept is actually a good one – discussions within a Learning Management System (such as Blackboard) can be extremely helpful to students and faculty alike. They can help build a sense of community among those participating in a course. The biggest hurdle here is developing a critical mass of users – if you signed in, asked a question, and never got an answer, would you bother going back?

The second site the Chronicle article focused on that I found to be of interest is called GradeGuru, and is a site run by McGraw-Hill.  Students can upload class notes to the site.  They can also earn small rewards based on the popularity of their notes. The site does attempt to remove exams or term papers, although they are not always successful.  So how useful is this site for students? I know that when I was a student, if I had to borrow notes from someone, it was frequently a mixed bag. Sometimes they were clear; more often they were not, and the note-taker wasn’t necessarily helpful.  It would be my guess that notes on GradeGuru run the gamut from good to bad. The article also takes note that there may also be copyright issues involved.

Finally I also want to point out that the article also note that some attempts to merge studies with social networking have already failed.

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.

So, like so much of emerging technology, we will have to wait and see how these new sites, and others like them,  become integrated into student learning. Or don’t.

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