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Our Big Idea: Open Social Learning

Ashwin Ram

I was recently invited to speak to President Obama's Science & Technology advisory council, PCAST, on a critical issue facing our country: Education, with a particular focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). I listened to two days of discussion by a powerhouse of thinkers in government, science and math, engineering, educational institutions, and startups. [1] I heard from old fogies to young upstarts (a reference to their mindset, not their age). I agreed some, disagreed some, and learned a lot.

And then it was my turn. I was charged with explaining my "innovative approach to open social networks for learning" with a recommendation to the President, if I had five minutes alone with him. I focused on two key issues in education that had been largely missing from the discussions: Access and Engagement. [2]

1) Access. In 1996, Sir John Daniel estimated we would need to create a major university every week to educate the 100 million students qualified to enter a university who have no place to go. Fifteen years later, universities have simply not kept pace with the staggering demand for college education.

Even students fortunate enough to be in college do not have access to the education they need. Almost one-third of community college students can't get into the classes they want. One-fifth can't get the help they need.

2) Engagement. Reading the 2007 Silent Epidemic study funded by the Gates Foundation, I had what my students would call (pardon their French) a WTF moment. Eighty-eight percent of high school dropouts have passing grades. Huh?

Nearly half say they are bored and classes are not interesting. Technology doesn't help either. They find video lectures and Powerpoints boring, and they read less with e-textbooks than with traditional textbooks. These kids aren't failing out of school; they are simply disengaging.

What, then, engages this generation? Social media, for one. They spend 10-15 hours a week on Facebook. Even their study is social: 80% use Wikipedia (although they won't read their textbooks), and 55% use IM for homework (a higher percentage than the other teenage pastime, dating).

And games. Billions of dollars are spent on games each year. President Obama recently called for educational technology that is "as compelling as a video game." I don't see replacing teachers with video games, but I do think he's onto something.

This brings me to the Big Idea: Open Social Learning. Imagine a Facebook where the point is to study together, not trade pictures and jokes. Imagine a World of Warcraft where students earn levels and points by helping each other learn. Not a video game that teaches physics; instead, let's create an educational experience that is social and game-like.

In last year's PCAST report, chair Jim Gates called for a move from research to actual projects. So I teamed up with my colleagues Preetha Ram and Chris Sprague to develop the Big Idea. With funding from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Georgia Research Alliance, and the Next Gen Learning Challenge from the Gates Foundation and Hewlett Foundation, support from Georgia Tech and Emory University, and a team of talented students and recent graduates who had not yet forgotten the meaning of "study pains," we built a site called OpenStudy, the first large-scale social network that enables students to connect, get help, study together, and earn social capital through game-like rewards.

It takes nine months to gestate an idea. Nine months from launch, OpenStudy has exceeded all expectations. It is a vibrant community of students and teachers, teenagers and adults, people from more than 150 countries engaged in a single activity: learning. It is a collective that is exhibiting Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown's "new culture of learning."

Observing the community is a STEM educator's delight. Middle schoolers, high schoolers, college students, and independent professionals engaged in thousands of conversations about math, science, liberal arts. Students teaching students, taking an interest in each other's learning, taking pride in becoming a math superhero or physics lifesaver. Geeks becoming chic. I had my second WTF moment when I saw a student saying she found OpenStudy addictive. Imagine a nation of students addicted to, of all things, studying!

OpenStudy is built on three core ideas: open, peer-to-peer, and community of learning. We call it Open Social Learning. This simple yet powerful idea solves the problem of access; we don't need armies of professional teachers to educate John Daniel's 100 million students. Let students teach each other. The value of peer tutoring is well established; now there is a way to scale it. Massively multiplayer online learning, anyone?

This idea also solves the problem of engagement through gamification. Students earn social capital via a system of game-like rewards, making studying more enjoyable. As Rich DeMillo writes in his new book, Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities in the Twenty-First Century, "It is not accidental that social networks are so well adapted to education. [The] value is in the human connections it creates while relieving the drudgery of studying alone."

And, so, President Obama, here is our idea in a nutshell. Call it Study Corps or Students Without Borders. A national "guild" of students interacting, helping, collaborating, studying together. "Addicted" to studying… and "loving" it.

And here's the best part. My team could have this ready in a year with 1/1000th of the Department of Education budget for the new open education initiative.

1) Speakers included people in government (Department of Education, Department of Labor, White House Domestic Policy Council, National Science Foundation, NASA, Department of Energy, National Institutes of Health), science and math (American Physical Society, American Chemical Society, American Society for Human Genetics, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Mathematics Society, American Women in Science), engineering (American Society for Engineering Education, Society of Manufacturing Engineers, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, American Society of Civil Engineers, Society of Women Engineers, National Action Council for Minorities in Education), institutions (University of Phoenix, Forsyth Technical Community College, University of Texas, Xavier University, Grinnell College, Arizona State University), and startups (OpenStudy, Khan Academy, Inigral).

2) PCAST slides

Ashwin Ram is Director of the Cognitive Computing Lab and Associate Professor in the College of Computing at Georgia Tech. He is a founder of Enkia Corporation, which develops AI software for social media applications, and, which is an online social learning network for students and faculty. He received his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1989, his M.S. from University of Illinois in 1984, and his BTech from IIT Delhi in 1982. Follow @ashwinram on Twitter.


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