Des Moines Register, IA

02-17-09

A new tool for students: Educational networking

By GUNNAR OLSON golson@dmreg.com February 17, 2009

Ames, Ia. - Iowa State University sophomore Lauren Egerton can compare notes with fellow education majors or study their flashcards with a few clicks on her computer.

She simply goes online to a social networking site geared toward studying, such as StudyBlue or Flashcard Exchange.

"It's at your convenience. It's on your own time. You don't have to coordinate with anyone else's schedules," said Egerton, 19, of Iowa City. "It's just a smarter way to study."

Online social networking, made popular across the country and around the globe in recent years by sites such as MySpace and Facebook, is no longer the exclusive territory of teenage romances and family pictures.

"You name it, and it seems as though a niche network has been created, and if it hasn't, it will be in the very near future," said Gerry McKiernan, an ISU librarian who blogs and lectures nationally on the subject.

Educational networking sites are relatively new. There are multiple competitors, and they have their critics. But supporters think the sites are changing higher education.

McKiernan called use of the sites a shift away from the "sage on the stage."

"The students themselves are creating a learning community," he said. "In a very real sense, I believe they're reinventing the educational process."

More students and faculty in Iowa are using such sites. For example, today there are about 40,000 members of ISU's Facebook group, nearly double the 22,000 members three years ago.

And more of them are using such sites as tools for learning, as evidenced by the recent success of StudyBlue.com.

The site was created in 2006 out of a class project at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Thanks to angel investors, it is now a growing, for-profit company that gets high school and college students to share notes and flashcards for free while targeting them with ads for online universities and textbooks.

"We really built our tool from the bottom up, with the idea of students growing the tool," company spokesman Ben Jedd said.

He said about 5,000 students at Iowa universities use the site. Students at the University of Iowa, one of the company's test locations, are among the site's top 10 users. At Iowa State, the number of users doubled last semester to about 1,000, he said.

There are some troubles.

Last year at Ryerson University in Canada, a student was nearly expelled after a professor discovered his online study group and accused him of cheating, according to news articles. StudyBlue said that California bans the dissemination of notes without the lecturer's permission.

On the other side, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers all of its course work for free online, to be used in any way a person desires, as long as the material is attributed to MIT and not resold for a profit.

ISU Associate Dean of Students Mary Jo Gonzales said she would not want to see face-to-face classroom time displaced. "We can't rely solely on technology," she said.

But she said educational networking sites are a valuable tool for educators, and particularly for quieter students who might express their ideas and engage other students more freely online than in class.

Michael Bugeja, director of ISU's journalism school, said he isn't against social networking sites altogether. He runs one himself.

But he warned students to see the for-profit sites for what they are: convenience sleekly bundled with distraction. For serious study, he said, students are better off meeting face to face.

"If you're going to commit to walking to a library or a room, you are going to be focused ever so much more on the task at hand," Bugeja said.

Egerton and her friend, Emily Smart, said students do use such sites to converse online, but they also use them to arrange times and places to study in person.

Smart said she is not worried about getting bad information from other students' notes she pulls from StudyBlue.com, which doesn't guarantee accuracy but lets students rate files. She said she can single out the better students in her classes and feels comfortable looking at their notes when she doesn't understand something.

"If I didn't get it the first time, chances are I didn't get it right in my notes," said Smart, 19, of Cedar Rapids.