Academia can be a time-consuming and expensive endeavor, and one that’s not entirely necessary in this age of do-it-yourselfers and 20-something billionaire entrepreneurs who mark “high school” as their highest level of education completed when signing up for that Amex Centurion Card. That doesn’t mean college doesn’t have plenty of worthwhile morsels for the inquisitive mind to absorb, but the financial barrier is just one of many restricting the majority of Americans to lower levels of learning.
Enter AStudyIn.com, an ongoing compilation of courses and talks in video form from the world’s best schools, available gratis to anyone with an Internet connection and a little motivation for self-enlightenment. The name itself is a nod to the idea that knowledge is boundless, allowing the user to fill in the blank with whatever they want, like Mad Libs. For instance, mine would be a “A Study In The History of Santa Claus and Vampires,” but less important things like business, chemistry, and neuroscience are also viable options.
VentureBeat sat down with Mary Wu, AStudyIn’s founder, to briefly discuss the origins of the concept, the difficulties of an educational startup, and how to incentivize getting your learn on. Mary was previously an investment analyst at a top banking firm, and is currently a digital media analyst at Apollo Group, a global leader in higher education.
VentureBeat: Education is a pretty brave field for a new startup to tackle. Please explain your method to this madness.
Mary Wu: The purpose of AStudyIn is to provide universal education to everyone. Right now it’s leveraging the internet so that anyone anywhere can access premier education. So we have content, talks and lectures from the top schools. We have lectures from Harvard, MIT, Stanford and so forth. And it’ll be great for individuals who aren’t able to go to these schools, to come on the website and watch the videos. That’s one segment. The other is for high school students, primarily seniors, who are selecting schools. They’re trying to figure out, “Hey, should I go to Stanford or Harvard? I wonder what their course content is like.” So these are our two groups.
Another motivation for AStudyIn is to incentivize people to learn. I personally feel that there are two groups of people. Individuals who are inherently motivated to learn and study, and another group who need that extra little push to be curious about something. I think an analogy would be going to the gym. For me, you know, I can tell myself, “I’ll go to the gym sometime, maybe tomorrow.” But I never really do, because I don’t have that incentive to. I’m lazy now, but I want to go to the gym in the future. It’s the same thing for studying. I do want to learn, just not right now. So what AStudyIn tries to do is to encourage people to study right now by providing an incentive system. Right now our incentive system is to reward individuals for watching our videos. However long you spend on our site watching the video content, then you get points for that, and you can translate those points into rewards.
VentureBeat: What is entailed in the process of putting an initiative like this together? How far have you come, and how far do you still have to go?
Wu: The idea originated in the beginning of January of this year. I started working on it one week later. At first it was just a test run, an experiment to see if I could actually do it. And it became this huge project. So I initially used… Well, I still use a content management system. And then I got a programmer friend to help me with some of the harder aspects. We started putting videos on there, and initially it was just lectures. Then we thought, well, that’s kind of narrow, what if people have other interests? So we expanded to talks and then to some short videos that we call “shorts.”
We have some strange, out-there videos that we thought were kind of wacky. That’s where the website is right now. We’re still trying to publicize. And in the future we hope to get more schools on there, more video content obviously, and to…actually go to, maybe, high schools and try to target the students there, the seniors. Right now we have some stuff, we tried to get some attention on high school forums, but I think we really need to try to expand in the high school area a lot more.
VentureBeat: Have you reached out to collaborate directly with any colleges, and what has the reaction been to that?
Wu: We haven’t yet, just because we’re still developing our website. I did consider the idea of partnering with colleges. I think a major barrier would be that… Many of the colleges now, especially the top colleges, have their own website, and they’re posting their own content. I think our website would kind of be competition towards them. So what we do is curate all the schools, right? You’re not just going to this one school, you can go to one place, check out all these schools. I think for the colleges… I mean, it’d be great if we could partner with them, but from their angle they might feel that it might not be such a good idea if students can see their competitors, which would be the other colleges. So that’s one challenge.
So far I’ve only watched The Brief History of Santa and The Science of Sex Appeal, then I started drawing monsters in my notebook before asking to go to the bathroom — so I can attest that AStudyIn does provide a realistic school experience that’s startlingly reminiscent of my own, though your results may vary. You can visit AStudyIn for more information, and GamesBeat will be delving into the gamification aspect of the site in a deeper interview later this month.