Social Academics: Building a Forum for Online Learning

Mention social networks to most Web users, and they’ll likelytell you about general-interest gathering places like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. However, other social networks — some large, some small — exist to provide users with a way to communicate about slightly more specific topics. LinkedIn, for one, emphasizes professional and career networking. Wesabe is one that’s focused on personal finance.

Serious students arequickly adding yet another unifying online gathering place, Scitable, a new twist on academic research forstudents by the 140-year-old science publisher Nature Publishing Group.

The company started a nature education division six months ago to takeits publishing offerings in a radically new direction. The goal — tooffer college and high school students around the world a place tocollaborate online — is taking the idea behind specialized onlinegroups a step or two further by providing a first-of-its-kind servicefor the academic community.

Perhaps in the vein of Sermo — a social media platform for physiciansto consult each other on tough cases and discuss medicalbreakthroughs — Scitable provides a free forum for students engaged inthe study of science. It is a combination of journal-quality articlesand a large social network populated by thousands of secondary schoolstudents and teachers, undergraduates, post-graduates and universityfaculty.

“It became clear to us that online learning is the communication modestudents choose to use. The education market wants to go online. Thisventure moved education from the textbook to the 21st century,” VikramSavkar, Nature Education’s publishing director, told TechNewsWorld.

Legitimate Leg Work

In a large sense, Scitable attempts to develop a tool for studentsthat offers them an alternative to the chancy validity — and sometimes cut-and-paste plagiarism — typically associated with online information sources such as Wikipedia. In theclassroom world of research and report writing, teachers andprofessors often forbid students from getting their info from such sources, Savkar noted.

“Our study revealed that 80 percent of students use Wikipedia, notbooks, for their term paper research. It is clear that we need to bewhere students are. The Internet is the best way to go,” he said.

Scitable’s aim is to be associated with a level of legitimacy above and beyond those of other popular online information sources.

“Scitable is an amazing platform. I love the pun surrounding itsname,” Chris Abraham, president of digital public relations firmAbraham & Harrison, told TechNewsWorld.

It’s refreshing to see a way to use others’work legitimately, he noted. Abraham also blogs on social mediaissues.

Chatting 101

Scitable’s online library holds content comprising more than 200articles aimed at students. These articles are written by topscientists and are edited by the Nature Education Division’s staff.Access is free for students and faculty of educational institutions.

The social network enables collaboration among students and teachersworldwide. Users can add friend connections of others students andfaculty with whom they discuss science topics and share educationalresearch.

“We found that teachers around the world are willing to consult withstudents for free,” said Savkar.

Not Just Socializing

What impresses blogger Abraham so much about the social network twiston Scitable is how it brings mentors to the students who use the site. If you are an academician, this is a huge benefit, he noted.

“It is an excellent resource. It creates a hand-holding environmentto help newbies with research. It is not just traditional coursewarefor students. This is very revolutionary,” he said.

Abraham likens Scitable to being a guest in a friend’s house. If youfind a fully stocked refrigerator filled with chef’s ingredients, youwill still go hungry if you do not now how to cook. Scitable, by comparison,teaches the visitors how to eat.

Big Horizon

Scitable, in its current form, is just the start. The site will grow to offer muchmore, predicted Abraham. He sees the Web site as expanding into hugeareas across the educational board.

That prediction is right on target, agreed Savkar. The company isfunding the venture for now, but it plans to add an advertisingcomponent in the future.

It will target ads from health care and energy firms, itstraditional advertising base for the 70-plus science journals and magazinesthe company publishes, he explained.

The company also plans to charge users for premium content, such asonline tutoring services and job placement.

Also to Go

“We have no history of online activity. This gives us an advantagecoming into this market fresh. We want to radically advanceeducation,” said Savkar.

Part of that change will involve providing mobile access. Sincemany students rely on their smartphones as much as their computers, they can use anyphone with a browser to access the Web site.

However, Scitable has so much content that retrieving it by a tiny phonescreen is often awkward. So Savkar wants to develop a way to easilyaccess just the content users are looking for on their phones.

“This will also provide access to those with no Internet availability,” he said.

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