Daily Archives: July 6, 2011

Is It Just Me Or Does It Seem Like Some Startup Is Always Stealing Our Great Ideas

Social networking and media are attractive tools for academic librarians. While we are still looking for the killer application for an academic library, our experiments and efforts to leverage social media to connect with students are worth pursuing and occasionally produce good results. There is evidence that having a presence in Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can increase the possibility for connection between the academic library and its community members. Some of us are taking a more strategic approach to using social media. We may be creating guidelines for the appropriate uses of media, staff teams devoted to the regular use of social networks and our parent institutions are getting more serious about their use of social media as well. Where we still struggle though is in figuring out how to exploit social media to get students to become more aware and make better use of academic research resources for their course-based assignments.

I’ve always thought the real success of social media for academic libraries would involve some type of application where we would create networks that allow our students to engage with us and their peers to get the research help at the point of need. Consider a scenario where a student is working on his or her research paper assignment. He or she needs to find several articles for background information, but hits a roadblock in trying to find a few on-target scholarly articles. Instead of falling back on an Internet search, what if the student could tap into a social network monitored by academic librarians who could quickly respond with advice and direct links to the appropriate resources? It’s similar to the embedded librarian approach, but without the need for a formal arrangement with a faculty member for a specific course. The network would allow librarians and students, and perhaps faculty as well, to informally engage with each other to promote academic success.

Now a start-up, entrepreneurial venture is pursuing the exact sort of thing we academic librarians recognize as a good idea, but are without the capital and infrastructure to create ourselves. As I read the New York Times article “Homework Help Site Has a Social Networking Twist” I got that deja vu all over again feeling. The article discusses a new firm called Piazza that is signing up higher education institutions for a homework support system based on social networking concepts. According to the article here’s how it works:

Students post questions to their course page, which peers and educators can then respond to. Instructors moderate the discussion, endorse the best responses and track the popularity of questions in real time. Responses are also color-coded, so students can easily identify the instructor’s comments. Although there are rival services, like Blackboard, an education software company, Piazza’s platform is specifically designed to speed response times. The site is supported by a system of notification alerts, and the average question on Piazza will receive an answer in 14 minutes.

Go to the Piazza site and read some of the testimonials from faculty such as this one: “Piazza has proven to be an ideal forum for my class. Compared to conventional bulletin boards, the design makes it much easier for students to find relevant posts, and for my staff and me to keep track of outstanding questions.” At first Piazza sounds like the typical course management system discussion board where students might post their questions. Piazza adds the social networking component by issuing alerts so questions receive an answer quickly. Apply that to a research help scenario and instead of waiting around for a librarian to respond to a question posted to a discussion group, a text message could alert the librarian that a student needs assistance pronto. Even if a librarian wasn’t available to provide immediate assistance, in a large network research help could be provided by a more experienced student or faculty member, with a librarian checking on the accuracy of the response and improving on it if needed. Piazza is designed to reward good responses.

One thing I did notice about Piazza is that most of the highlighted courses are in the hard sciences. No doubt most of the assignments are problem-based, rather than research projects. The article states that while Piazza now has subscribers at over 300 institutions (it may be just one or two faculty per institution), it’s not making a profit and isn’t exactly picking up new customers like gangbusters. That’s something we academic librarians often overlook when we ask questions like “Why didn’t we create Google (or Amazon or YouTube, etc.)?” We seem to think that we have a natural instinct for coming up with surefire entrepreneurial concepts that involve the organization and distribution of any type of information content. What we fail to recognize is that most of these ventures lose money and disappear quickly. We like the idea of starting up an innovative new business venture, but we rarely think of the risks involved. Even if Piazza doesn’t make it, as the article points out, there are plenty more startups out there with every intent to disruptively innovate higher education with new concepts and platforms for helping students to learn by interacting in different ways with each other and their instructors. While we academic librarians may not be on the forefront of creating the new innovations, we may benefit by following the action closely and picking the right ones with which to partner.