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Social Academics: Building a Forum for Online Learning

By Jack M. Germain
Aug 20, 2009 4:00 AM PT

Mention social networks to most Web users, and they'll likely tell 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.

Social Academics: Building a Forum for Online Learning

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

The company started a nature education division six months ago to take its publishing offerings in a radically new direction. The goal -- to offer college and high school students around the world a place to collaborate online -- is taking the idea behind specialized online groups a step or two further by providing a first-of-its-kind service for the academic community.

Perhaps in the vein of Sermo -- a social media platform for physicians to consult each other on tough cases and discuss medical breakthroughs -- Scitable provides a free forum for students engaged in the study of science. It is a combination of journal-quality articles and a large social network populated by thousands of secondary school students and teachers, undergraduates, post-graduates and university faculty.

"It became clear to us that online learning is the communication mode students choose to use. The education market wants to go online. This venture moved education from the textbook to the 21st century," Vikram Savkar, Nature Education's publishing director, told TechNewsWorld.

Legitimate Leg Work

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

"Our study revealed that 80 percent of students use Wikipedia, not books, for their term paper research. It is clear that we need to be where 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 its name," Chris Abraham, president of digital public relations firm Abraham & Harrison, told TechNewsWorld.

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

Chatting 101

Scitable's online library holds content comprising more than 200 articles aimed at students. These articles are written by top scientists 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 teachers worldwide. Users can add friend connections of others students and faculty with whom they discuss science topics and share educational research.

"We found that teachers around the world are willing to consult with students for free," said Savkar.

Not Just Socializing

What impresses blogger Abraham so much about the social network twist on 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 environment to help newbies with research. It is not just traditional courseware for students. This is very revolutionary," he said.

Abraham likens Scitable to being a guest in a friend's house. If you find a fully stocked refrigerator filled with chef's ingredients, you will 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 much more, predicted Abraham. He sees the Web site as expanding into huge areas across the educational board.

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

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

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

Also to Go

"We have no history of online activity. This gives us an advantage coming into this market fresh. We want to radically advance education," said Savkar.

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

However, Scitable has so much content that retrieving it by a tiny phone screen is often awkward. So Savkar wants to develop a way to easily access 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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