Archive for September, 2010

OpenStudying the Classics

I recently met Dr. Diana E. E. Kleiner, a distinguished professor at my alma mater and director of the Open Yale Courses initiative. We were talking about “OpenStudying the Classics”—to my knowledge, the first use of “OpenStudy” as a verb.[1] This made me think—what does it mean to “OpenStudy” something?

Some background first. In collaboration with Dean Preetha Ram of Emory University, our former student Chris Sprague from Georgia Tech’s HCI program, and experienced internet entrepreneur Phil Hill, and with funding from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Georgia Research Alliance, I’ve been working on a system called OpenStudy[2] which embodies a new way of studying. In the new millennial world of social networking, where social graphs have no geographical boundaries, professional networks are world wide, and entertainment streams from the far corners of the globe into the palm of your hand, it has always seemed odd to me that education is bounded by school walls, class interactions are limited to one teacher and a few dozen students who happened to register at the same time as you, and studying is largely a solitary activity circumscribed by so-called “collaboration policies” that typically require students to learn alone. Even “open learning” initiatives offer little more than a solitary experience watching instructional videos in your home, albeit from world famous experts.

OpenStudy, in contrast, whole-heartedly embraces the idea of “social learning”. The world is your study group, we claim. Connect with others studying the same things you are. Give and get help. The world learns as one.

But what is the “OpenStudy experience”? What will it mean, as Prof. Kleiner wonders, to “OpenStudy the Classics”? I don’t have the final answer (sic) but I do want to share my observations from a pilot with MIT OpenCourseware (OCW). For the past month, learners in three OCW courses have been given an option to “Join a study group”.[3] OCW reports their study groups are growing at a “blistering pace”—by our metrics, by about 10% a day. Learners are demanding more OpenStudy groups; if we don’t respond quickly, they create their own. What’s going on?

It’s too early for hard metrics, but permit me to share some anecdotes. MIT pilot courses include Intro CS, Calculus, and Chinese, and there are certainly interesting interactions around those topics.[4] But users are also exploring other interests. For example, there’s an active conversation about Greek Classics. What’s interesting are the participants:

  • a classics librarian at an exclusive four-year college in New England
  • a young woman considering a PhD in social sciences
  • an international student at a community college student in Georgia
  • a professor from the MIT Physics group
  • someone studying Chinese
  • a mid-career Math/CS geek from Michigan

These people did not know each other prior to their OpenStudy encounter. OpenStudy is described as the for studying together[5]—if so, this certainly seems to be working. A student from Peru came online recently, introduced himself, and apologized for his poor English. A student in the US responded in Spanish, and they struck up a conversation around their mutual study interests. Then a user from Mexico City jumped into the conversation, and off they went studying together with two users from Costa Rica. This is the new world of OpenStudying—social learning without geographical boundaries.

A homeschooled teenager recently joined OpenStudy and said “I’m new. How do you OpenStudy?” 15 minutes later, she had connected with students in an all-girls private school. She initiated a discussion on World Religions which, less than a day later, has nearly 20 participants. Half of them have contributed and half are listening. A Hindu undergraduate from India, an Orthodox Jew from Texas, and a Muslim student from Turkey are talking about what “real” Islam is like. A teenager who can’t drive, doesn’t go to school, and does not have traditional teachers or schoolmates has answered her own question. This is how you OpenStudy. You study with the world.

Every educator knows the challenge of keeping students engaged. Studying together not only improves learning, it is a lot more fun. One of the users recently emailed us saying: “Personally, I’ve come further in my development as a programmer in the month of being on OpenStudy than the previous few years struggling on my own. Being able to see how other people approach problems and considering their questions is absolutely wonderful.” A GSU professor says she is seeing 400% increase in student engagement in her required lower-division biology class due to OS.

So this, Prof. Kleiner, is how we will be able to “OpenStudy the Classics”. Students connecting with students studying the same things they are. I call it “massively multiplayer online learning[6], a wordplay on the MMO experience we’re seeing in the gaming world. Here it has value beyond entertainment; the diversity adds to the richness of the online study group, the globalness broadens access beyond elite institutional walls, the interactivity engages today’s millennials in—of all things—study.

On average, we’re seeing 5.3 participants per “studypad” (a real-time interaction tool that facilitates conversation, discussion, or simply question answering). About 30% of the interactions occur synchronously in real time. This is quite different from a typical question site, where you post a question and wait—an hour? a day? who knows when someone might answer. OpenStudying is like a conversation in a university library or the local Starbucks, instant real-time interaction with peers—except that these peers might be halfway around the globe. The world is, after all, your social network, your professional rolodex, and, now, your study group.

Ashwin Ram
September 15, 2010

If you’ve OpenStudied and would like to share your experience, I’d love to hear about it. Please add a comment below.

[1] I’ve always been interested in the origins of words, especially new ones. Who coined the term “WebLog”, and who first shortened it to “blog? Who first used “Google” as a verb? In this day and age, surely there must be a record somewhere. To this end and with her permission, I’d like to credit Prof. Diana Kleiner with the first use of “OpenStudy” as a verb.

[2] OpenStudy is free and publicly available at, a for-profit spinoff from Georgia Tech and Emory University created via the university’s commercialization program. Our objective is to create not just an interesting research project but a sustainable product that will make a difference to thousands of learners everywhere. To accomplish this, we need to grapple with the realities of business models, lest our project die the way countless other good ideas do when their research funding runs out.

[3] Update: MIT OCW has expanded its program to several more courses:

[4] Click “Join a Study Group” on the course page to see the corresponding study group.

[5] See Marc Parry’s article in The Chronicle’s Wired Campus, Start-Up Aspires to Make the World ‘One Big Study Group’, September 8, 2010:

[6] My talk at the Knowledge Futures: Disrupting the University forum at Emory University, entitled Massively Multiplayer Online—Learning? aka Are social networks disrupting models of education?—learning/