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From One-to-one to Many-to-many: Powering peer learning in open learning environments

By Preetha Ram / October 2013

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Great video and talented presenters. My only complaint: I'd like to interact with others who are viewing the resources. Creating a one-way flow of information significantly misses the point of interacting online.—George Siemens [1]

Tony Ramirez,* a ninth grader in New York, has failed every math class through eighth grade despite numerous teachers and paid tutors. He dreams of a future building planes, but you and I know the harsh realities of his situation. Children who struggle in their classes get discouraged, bored, drop out of school, and struggle the rest of their lives. In fact, every year in the U.S. about one million high school students drop out of school. Then one day Tony discovered; he met another OpenStudier named Hero who helped him with mathematics. Six months later in the OpenStudy forum Tony shared he was anticipating a grade of 90 in math. This is the power or peer learning, creating a success where other strategies and interventions fail. For Tony and thousands others like him, peer-to-peer learning on OpenStudy led to a behavior change, and a transformation from "disengaged" to "engaged" and from "failure" to "success."

Today MOOCs have taken center stage in the educational debates. Yes they provide access to content for thousands of learners, but are they the solution to education's many problems? Can they help Tony? Hardly! MOOCs still struggle to solve many of the problems that traditional educational systems have yet to solve: passive learning, disengagement, low completion rates, irrelevant assessment, and more. The Tonys in the system pose a challenge to the traditional 25-person classrooms of yesterday and most definitely, to the 3,000-person MOOC classrooms of today.

Creative Scalable Solutions

The founders of OpenStudy are educators whose most positive moments in their teaching career were the "one-on-one" moments—not one-to-many lectures—and who saw how interactions and conversations transformed learners from passive to active, from a loser to a winner, and from disengaged to engaged. The challenge we face today is to scale these intimate one-on-one moments and so that we can change behavior at scale, from disengaged to the engaged.


Figure 1. The OpenStudy system

The conceptual framework of OpenStudy's technology is based on established research in collaborative learning environments, peer-to-peer learning, problem based learning, social learning theories, and supportive learning communities.

OpenStudy is a free site, available globally and 24/7. Learners come to ask and answer questions on a range of academic topics, mathematics, computer science, writing, history, etc. As our users engage with one another, young with old, the middle-schooler with the MIT engineer, the Tanzanian with the Turk, they learn to interact, be courteous, to be helpful, to work together, and to communicate. For the most active of our users, OpenStudy becomes their passion. The social interactions lead to engagement. The peer-to-peer learning creates a win-win scenario. Our users complain happily that they are addicted. "Addicted to math!" When was the last time you heard that?

Good answers receive medals; the learner earns badges and progresses through the different levels in the platform. Sophisticated game mechanics keep learners engaged and motivated to answer more questions and progress from an "asker" to a "helper." In a study conducted by Georgia Tech, users self-reported improved engagement, study habits, learning outcomes and grades. Moreover, SRI researchers noted the progression from "asker" to "helper" demonstrated deeper learning. These users spent time in problem solving activities, answered questions, and improved the quality of their answers over time as evidenced by increases in medals received.

Behavior Change: From asker to answerer

When learners teach one another, work collaboratively on a problem, actively construct their understanding of a concept, interact socially and build relationships with each other and then develop a sense of belonging to a learning community, they make the behavioral transition from disengage to engaged learners.
Figure 2. Students start out asking questions and eventually provide answers to their peers.
Figure 3. As students become more comfortable answering questions the quality of their answers improve as evidenced in the number of medals collected.

The first graph shows Aravind's initial behavior as an asker. Over several weeks, he starts to answer more questions and toward the end of the graph he has transitioned into a helper. The second graph demonstrates the progression of his expertise, evident from the high medal to answer ratio, which indicates the community, not just the asker, finds his explanations helpful. Aravind's behavioral change demonstrates the power and possibilities of social learning.

Learners like Aravind and Tony, come for academic help. We connect them, not to content to study from, but someone to study with. They stay because someone has taken an interest in them and is willing to help them succeed. And then, most importantly, they come back so they can help someone else in turn. They are engaged in a game where peers reward good learning behavior. As they integrate into the community, they seek to win fans and earn testimonials, and the respect of their community of peers. This is the win we are after.

Going Beyond Grades

Innovative learning environments offer the possibilities of innovations in assessment. From user activity described above, we developed an assessment that not only reports on a learner's mastery in a subject but also, more importantly, soft skills demonstrated in a social setting and in the peer-to-peer interactions. Unlike quiz or test grades that report on an individual's performance on a particular test in a particular event, OpenStudy's SmartScore assessment, which is based on behavioral and social analytics, reports on a learner's progress over time. Not only does the SmartScore contain information about the learner's questions and answers, but also their interactions with the community, and how the community regards the learner. Overall the SmartScore reports on problem solving, teamwork, and engagement; three soft skills critical for employability.

The Numbers

OpenStudy has close to four million page views a month and more than a million unique users visit the site each month—60 percent of them are repeat visitors. Each day more than 2,000 questions are asked and answered on OpenStudy, in mathematics alone. In the top five study groups, the average time on site is about 20 minutes.

Users come from every country in the world, from more than 2,500 schools and colleges and create a community that never sleeps. OpenStudy learners come from traditional brick and mortar and online institutions, private and public colleges, high schools, and MOOCs, for profit and non-profit. The numbers demonstrate a strong need for academic help that is not being met in today's learning institutions. In the days of the traditional campus, the campus quad or the campus green filled an important and well-recognized need in the college ecosystem. It was a place for relaxation and socialization, for peer-to-peer learning and to foster a sense of belonging. OpenStudy is that campus quad—a virtual global campus quad, for learners of the world. An informal and fun environment where learners build relationships with each other that lead to peer-to-peer learning and improved learning gains.

Trying to Learning Alone

OpenStudy provides the virtual quad for learners regardless of their school or affiliation and through partnerships with schools and colleges, MOOCs, and content providers like OpenCourseWare Consortium.

MOOCs are in particular need of a virtual gathering place. With the focus on content creation and delivery technologies, we should not forget the very real human need for help and interactivity. Presently, OpenStudy provides the virtual quad for MIT OCW in their MechMOOC ("Introduction to Python"). This MOOC weaves together high-quality content (MIT OCW), student experience management (P2PU), coding practice and assessment (CodeAcademy), and student interactions and help (OpenStudy). A quick look at the study group reveals the different stages of engagement of MOOC learners.

User 3emarcus, a newcomer (SmartScore 10) to OpenStudy is lost and posts a plea for help. eSpex a more advanced user (SmartScore 78) steps in to help. His guidance is detailed, generous, and critical in keeping 3marcus engaged in the course and in overcoming his frustration.
Figure 4. "Help! I am lost!"

Figure 5. A helpful solution.

Over time more helpers emerge in the community. For example, Screech is a retired programmer. He offers encouragement, help, and even valuable feedback to MOOC organizers. He shared this insight: "I enrolled for two courses through edX. The ability to communicate with other students in edX was quite limited. OpenStudy provided an opportunity for easy interchange and learning from each other."

From One-to-one to Many-to-many

Does social learning work? Yes it does, according to A. Sasha Thackaberry the district director of eLearning technologies at Cuyahoga Community College. She shared results from a study performed at Cuyahoga, focusing on a Gates Foundation supported developmental Math MOOC: The success rates of learners who used OpenStudy increased by 66 percent.

Social learning platforms can improve the learning experience for online learners when they are built for collaboration and community and can create pathways for many-to many interactions. In a mature learning community, relationships lead to interactions between members, which in turn keep the members engaged in the pursuit of their goals.

To date, Hero has answered 8,500 questions, received 5,000 medals, and has 1,400 fans. The world has millions of Tonys and peer social networks make it possible for many Heroes to reach many Tonys.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of minors.


[1] George Siemens, G. "Open Yale," Elearnspace (blog), November 12, 2007,

About the Author

Dr. Preetha Ram is a social entrepreneur, CoFounder and CEO of OpenStudy and Associate Dean at Emory University. She holds degrees from Yale (Ph.D.), Emory (MBA), and I.I.T Delhi. She is an innovative award-winning educator, with many years of leadership experience in the higher education industry. Her published research encompasses online environments for problem based learning and collaborative learning. Her work is supported by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and the Gates and Hewlett foundations (Next Generation Learning Challenge). is a social learning platform that enables learners to connect, get help, and learn from one another. OpenStudy's disruption is to crowd source study help and succeeds by combining elements of social networks, gamification and peer-to-peer learning. Since 2011, nine million learners have visited OpenStudy.

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  • Tue, 05 Nov 2013
    Post by e.mccormick

    Preetha asked me to comment a little on OpenStudy because I am very active there.

    OS, to me, is a way that people can do proper peer tutoring when the limits of work, school, and so on make it so they can't use the tutoring center. This makes it a valuable resource to working college students. It also is a great place for teens that don't quite get what they need in high school.

    OS is more than this. It is a community. Like all communities it has its ups and downs. There are people that contribute a lot and others that come for the chat bar. People make friendships. They make mistakes. They laugh and cry sometimes. This adds a bit of personal contact that is regularly missing on video lectures and bland informational sites.

    There is also a regular push in this community for people to use the educational aspects of the site by having a strong, positive group of people. These are the Ambassadors and Moderators. Ambassadors are mostly teens and have been recognized by OpenStudy as being contributing members. They greet people and encourage the proper use of the site. Moderators do those same things, but most are a bit older and they also have the power to warn and suspend people from the site.

    Moderators are not the police of OpenStudy. In fact, OS is self policing. If several people see something bad and report it, the user they report can be suspended. Because moderators have shown a certain level of regard for the rules and understanding of the community, they have been recognized with the ability to suspend without any added help. Also, all moderator actions are known by other moderators, making them a cohesive team.

    This makes much of OS a place that is both by and for the users. While the company created the platform for the community and the basic rules, it is the community itself that shares those rules, participates in learning, and moderates its activities. This makes for a learning environment that has its own cultural values. New members get exposed to those values and generally improve in their conduct.

    OS also ends up confronting other issues.

    For reasons that are beyond me, our school system is focused on testing. Back to the time of John Amos Comenius and the very origins of public education is has been known that education needs to be interesting and fun. Tests are neither of these and drive students to cheat as a way of getting by.

    OpenStudy has its share of people that try to use it to cheat. The response it to discourage direct answers and to engage people. When the learners have to work for the answer and have their mistakes corrected there are many benefits. It also means they are doing the work, and not cheating. For more extreme cases, like people that posts tests, there are the moderators. In fact, many people that try to cheat are caught through reports by their peers.

    All of this shows a trend toward people that are learning together, not just about school, but about life. Being a good citizen of the community is promoted. Leading by example is rewarded. Personal contact is maintained as best as can be through the limits of the medium. All in all that makes OS a very special part of the educational Internet.

    I won't say that OpenStudy is perfect. It is true that unnecessary drama, chat spats, and some academic impropriety slip by. Still, it is a positive community that does not try to teach but rather lets people learn. In a world where teaching has some issues, tools that help learning are much needed. When that tool has communal worth, it becomes a valuable tool indeed.