OpenStudy Catapults Learning With Cash

By Andrew James , written on August 2, 2012

From The News Desk

OpenStudy has spent the past five years building a community of learners from around the world, now they're dangling a carrot for students with their latest – a crowdsourced reward program called Catapult.

OpenStudy is a spinoff of a research project by Ashwin Ram, a Georgia Tech professor, and Preetha Ram, an Emory University dean in collaboration with their former student and current CEO, Chris Sprague. The initial project was funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Georgia Research Alliance, with the aim of devising a way to create a scalable learning environment for students.

"The initial growth was pretty organic,” says Sprague but, “how do you scale education?”

In 2011, OpenStudy transitioned from research team to company, now with 250,000 students visiting their site each month coming from 180 different countries, and the majority of questions answered within five minutes.

But OpenStudy’s team realized that “the study help is just a proxy to something [the students] are trying to achieve,” says Sprague. So this week they launched Catapult, the initiative is an incentive-based program that lets students inside OpenStudy raise cash from friends and family to spur them on into achieving their learning goals. It's like a Kickstarter for education goals.

Financially incentivizing education has been recognized as an important – albeit controversial – catalyst for achieving academic success. While the technique has its detractors, there aren’t many adults offering up free time to do work harder at their respective careers – well, outside of startup houses.

In a study documented by Time in 2010, Professor Roland Fryer Jr. from Harvard ran a study in four cities, paying 18,000 students through varying methods for varying school-based goals – some were paid to fight less, others for better test scores – and analyzed the results. In one city, the year-end results from offering a cost-effective payment scheme, students showed the equivalent results on their reading tests to spending an extra three months learning.

The biggest issue at the time, was that the learning process also required a supportive environment, something dependent upon a student’s peer group, which wasn’t always present. OpenStudy has already embedded a community of learners from the top down. Sprague has even seen Emory students offering English tutoring to children in China on the site, while learning Mandarin at the same time.

Chris says OpenStudy “transfers some from friends that aren’t interested in studying, to making studying actually socially acceptable for young students.” For students concerned about the stigma attached to asking questions in class – or being seen as the smartest among their peer group – the site offers the option for anonymity so students can still engage from behind the comfort of their computer screen. The site also rates and rewards users with a "SmartScore" and badges for engaging and asking and answering questions – but users aren't just offered rewards for quick answers posted in a thread. The answers have to be explained and aren't closed until the user that posted the questions seemingly understands the process.

It's changed the landscape for learners seeking more information, making "heroes and role models for learners," says Sprague.

The site is also heavily embedded on several Open Courseware sites at MIT and other locations as a resource for learners to collaborate on problems, and offers a chance for older students to engage with younger users.