Crowdtutoring: The Rise of Student-to-Student Support

Young boy with laptop computer. Over abstract background.

Illustration reproduced on SpinEdu.com with permission from Brainly.com.

Illustration reproduced on Spin Education with permission from Brainly.com.

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.



As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

2 Comments

  • Reply October 29, 2016

    Mr. Hands

    29.10.2016

    The biggest problem with Brainly isn’t its language barrier. It’s its lack of transparency and engagement with users who help improve the site by providing quality answers to questions. Its moderators are also slow to react to problems between users. The site administrators lack a sense of urgency and refuse to learn from negative feedback. I’d say that some (certainly not all) of its employees are akin to zombies.

    Let me also add that the Latex on the site isn’t functioning properly (its size is far too small and doesn’t show up like you’d expect). I also wouldn’t recommend trying to become a ‘genius’ on the site. Moderators and administrators have a short term memory and could hardly care about the contributions you’ve made towards the site (Brainly.com). They could drop your rank without giving you any notice in advance. Furthermore, if you do think outside the box or offer solutions you could be censored or completely ignored. Finally, be careful when posting answers / comments that may bring into question religious doctrines or beliefs, as your work could be deleted by either moderators or administrators who quite possibly have personal agendas. You don’t want to upset them or stir any resentment. Free speech is not something they care about or respect deeply.

    Anyway, does any of this matter..? If you do want to speak to someone in their higher ranks, you can’t – as they don’t even have a blog and are virtually impossible to contact. It’s as if they don’t want to engage with the outside world. Overall, I believe, if Brainly doesn’t change soon enough – and doesn’t give something back to contributors or listen to feedback – it will ultimately sink. There are better sites out there like Socratic.org and its administrators are prepared to listen to feedback and help make improvements to their site. They are far more engaged and ready to take action. Socratic.org also gives something in return to its contributors (i.e allows them to place videos on the site and links to websites).

    Source: Someone who used to visit and contribute to Brainly.com regularly, but became disenfranchised with the project / site. This person is hoping that Brainly will improve and reach its full potential. Main frustration: Latex on site not working properly and is far too small. Can’t place videos and links on answers either.

    I hope I haven’t been too harsh. I’m just providing an honest and impartial opinion regarding the site. It isn’t fit for serious users at the moment.

  • Reply October 29, 2016

    Mr. Hands

    Make no bones about it, Brainly has bags of potential. It’s a wonderful idea, but it needs to open itself up. I’ve heard that Brainly is trying to target the younger age groups. It’s a pity, because the platform has so much potential. It’s been useful to older students and could be even more useful to them. Now, this is something that I can’t really complain about. If its directors decide that university students aren’t as important as school / college students – they are perfectly entitled to make that choice – even though (in my opinion), they could be shooting themselves in the foot. Let’s see what happens. Overall, these learning platforms are quite extraordinary. They are incredibly useful.

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