With relative ease, in high school, I could synthesize complex information to craft an informative and well-structured narrative. I had no such luck with math, despite the terrific instruction I received.
Fortunately, I had a mutual arrangement with a student two years my junior who, having moved recently from Hong Kong, was still mastering English. As a freshman, Martin had skipped two years of math—leaving us the good fortune of sitting next to each other in Pre-Calculus.
Several times a week, Martin would help me with math, teaching me different (and often easier) ways to solve problems. In return, I would help him with English and history—either by offering feedback on writing assignments, or by providing basic grammar instruction. We felt safe making mistakes and learning from one another.
Now, as a high school teacher myself, some 15 years later, I’m comforted by how my relationship with Martin shows how students can and should help each other succeed. For that reason, I was excited to learn of Brainly.com, a Polish-based, social learning network that, simply put, digitizes the relationship Martin and I shared. On the site’s homepage, I hit the “how does it work?” icon: “Do you like history, but you can’t handle physics? Help someone, and other students will help you.” It’s as easy as that.
For deeper insight, I recently reached out to Brainly’s Marketing and Brand Manager, Kuba Piwnik. He says, “When a student has a problem, with say integrals in school, they can ask a question about it … and then other users help. This knowledge, those skills, are crowdsourced from other users. This works really great, and what is amazing is that many people are surprised by the fact that there are so many students who want to help.”
Piwnik isn’t exaggerating. Brainly is available in 13 languages, having most recently added English, Romanian, Indonesian, and Italian. “Our websites around the world are visited by over 25 million unique users every month,” he says. “We reach out to over 35 countries.”
To a large extent, Brainly reminds me of a talk I heard by Tyler DeWitt, “Crowdteaching: A Learning Revolution,” delivered at this year’s SXSWedu conference. During his
standing-room-only session, DeWitt, a science teacher who holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology from MIT, defined crowdteaching as an evolving movement in which thousands upon thousands of educators, from all around the world, are uploading high quality educational content online—free of charge.
DeWitt also works with Socratic, a site like Brainly (at least as far as I can tell), where students ask questions and a growing community teaches the answers. I spoke with DeWitt in March, curious to learn more. “Right now, when a student has a very specific question, like, ‘What’s the chemical formula for calcium chloride?’ there’s not really anywhere that they can go to get the answer,” he says. “They’ll type it in Google. They might get some PDFs from college courses or PowerPoints…but [they] tend not to be particularly reliable. We want them to be able to type in a specific question, go to Socratic, and find not just the answer, not just it’s CaCl2, but a community-written and community-curated response that teaches how to actually solve that.”
I’m elated at Brainly’s surging popularity, but I’m curious how the language barrier could curtail even greater growth and potential. As of now, it’s difficult for somebody who speaks only English to respond to a question posed by somebody who, let’s say, speaks only Italian. Piwnik tells me that he doesn’t have a solution, even as his company is “definitely aware of the fact that this might be something valuable for the users.”
I’m equally eager to ask Piwnik about how Brainly ensures that users don’t just ask questions and provide answers. Martin and I never did each other’s work. We cared about getting things right, but we cared about helping each other excel as individuals, and without support, even more.
As it turns out, Brainly has a strict policy. “You need to explain and try to make the other user understand the whole problem, and see how to get to the solution by themselves,” Piwnik says. To help ensure appropriate use, Brainly taps and relies on hundreds of volunteer moderators (mostly parents and teachers) from all over the world, to review “all the content, all the questions, all the answers, and all the things that happen on the website,” Piwnik also tells me.
Founded in 2009, Brainly is also free of charge, backed by several investment firms. Piwnik says that the company doesn’t plan on introducing any sort of fees—ever. Here’s hoping that sites like Brainly and Socratic continue to encourage students to help each other.