Archive » January 11, 2007
By Guillaume Doane
The “beginning layers” of the student-run website LetsCram.com were established in March of last year when its originator, Mike Lewis, had an epiphany, a “light bulb moment,” as he put it. Lewis, a Montecito resident and Santa Barbara High School junior at the time, was studying for an upcoming world history exam, reviewing a study guide he had typed up at home. He was sitting in his car at the point of illumination.
“I was thinking that it’s kind of funny that I took so much time to do this and yet there are twenty or thirty other kids in my class alone that could benefit from this sheet,” Lewis recalled.
He made a couple copies of the study guide and gave it to fellow students, who apparently found it “helpful.” Lewis’s next step was to make that guide available to every world history student at the high school – and what better place than a website, a student-to-student network that makes available the acquisition of class materials and live exchange of ideas and information.
The first person to hear of this idea was Lewis’s squash coach, Robert Graham. “He literally laughed and said this has been done before,” says Lewis, remembering the exchange.
Lewis next approached Dirk Reynolds, a fellow squash player who as it turned out was the CEO of ZWARM Intelligence, a tech support firm that does, among other things, web design. Reynolds encouraged Lewis to explore the idea and “see where it goes.”
Before long, Lewis had told everyone he knows. He and his dad, Michael, co-invested in the building of a website designed by Reynolds, initial costs that Lewis says ranged “in the thousands.” Then, Lewis involved high school friends who were eager to engage in a start-up and they used the summer to expand on the concept and create a marketing plan. On September 4, 2006, LetsCram.com launched to the public with a complete menu of features, including message boards, a search tool and a place for users to customize their profiles.
In short time, the website became an instant phenomenon, embraced by teachers, administrators, parents and, most importantly, Santa Barbara High School students. By the end of its first month, the site had attracted more than 7,000 visitors and 700-plus registered users. As of this week, it has garnered more than 23,000 visits, 8,800 of them unique, and it enlists 1,320 users, which essentially makes up more than half of the Santa Barbara High student population. Teachers incorporate the site into daily assignments and some parents have approached Lewis with interest in investing in his company. At a Santa Barbara School Board meeting last October, trustees found so much promise in the idea that they told Lewis and his friends not to forget them when the website booms. It was one of several premonitions of LetsCram.com’s ultimate potential, not just for the local high school, but for the rest of the country – MySpace.com for the purpose of education.
LetsCram.com works like this. A user signs in before entering a room of endless possibilities, anything from “The Locker,” a place to upload and download classroom materials, to “Student501515,” a continuing blog written by Montecito’s Alex Korchinsky, a Santa Barbara High senior whose bio says he “occasionally writes about controversial topics and expresses controversial opinions.”
“The cornerstone of the site,” says Lewis, “is the message board,” where since the site’s inception more than 7,000 posts have been made. The menu bar is organized into 10 subjects with links to sub-categories. This is where students make a post for, say, a tricky physics question, and where they’re bound to receive at least one reply, if not a dozen; most questions have a few hundred views, some in the thousands. User interest in politics and current events became so popular that Lewis created a setting for students to debate the legality of abortion, ruminate on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions or contemplate an exit strategy for the Iraq War. Most topics are accompanied by a polling option. “Should the Pledge of Allegiance still contain the words: ‘under God’?,” one poll asks. Twenty-six people out of 36 answered ‘no.’
Unlike other sites, where blogging about the Pledge of Allegiance is commonplace, students value LetsCram for the community value. They’re able to combine the vigors of studying with the casualness of social interaction in what Lewis calls a “collective environment” of people with shared interests.
“It’s basically a part of our lives right now,” says Brett Silverman, a Santa Barbara High junior and one of LetsCram’s originators. “As opposed to me going to some random thread-posting website and finding stuff that’s completely irrelevant to what I’m learning, I’m reading posts about stuff that I’m hearing every day in school and also stuff that affects teenagers all over the United States.”
To make sure posts and questions stay relevant and, in some cases, tasteful, LetsCram has eight moderators on staff who work one-hour shifts on school nights, though they usually stay on a lot longer. Surprisingly, the users of this site exhibit a shrewd sense of discipline, as though the honor system was in full effect with rigid consequences.
“We haven’t really had instances where someone decides to take us down and start a coup,” Lewis says. “Thankfully, the users are so sort of looking at each other in a kind of peer review way saying, ‘don’t screw this up for the rest of us, this is a great resource and the quality of the content needs to stay that way.’”
What makes LetsCram a “great resource” is not to help someone determine, say, the capital of Texas, a question that can easily be answered by Google in the matter of an instant. Rather, the value comes from having access to a broad base of people who are capable of answering a question whose correct answer may take several steps to find online or in a textbook. For example, Silverman suggests the question: What is the difference between an ionic and molecular compound?
“Where are you going to find that in Encyclopedia Brittanica? Where are you going to find the exact steps that you need to go to find out exactly what this means?” Silverman says. “I can tell you that. Can Encyclopedia Brittanica tell you that?”
“Brett, do you know the difference between an ionic and molecular compound?” this reporter asks. Without wasting a breath, he says, “An ionic compound is made up of a metal and non-metal and a molecular is two non-metals.” (For the record, a Google search confirmed Silverman was correct in his response.)
To best understand the value of LetsCram, though, it is important to look at the site’s founders, who are by nature also the site’s biggest users and who happen to be intelligent and academically inclined. Lewis received early admission to Dartmouth, where he plans to study economics, and Korchinsky, while less on a “college surge,” has the grades and SAT score to be accepted to an Ivy League school. Meanwhile, Silverman, who won’t go to college until 2008, has a grade point average of 5.0 and shows no apparent signs that he struggles in any of his classes. With that said, is it worth it for someone like Silverman to spend multiple hours a week answering questions about material he appears to have already mastered? The answer is most certainly ‘yes,’ and it gives credence to the notion that it is possible to get smarter by helping people. In other words, helping people could mean helping yourself.
“I can feel more confident doing all my work,” Silverman says. “As opposed to just getting my ‘A,’ and having a general understanding of my work, LetsCram really helps me understand everything.”
Some Santa Barbara High teachers have capitalized on these possibilities. Among them is Melissa Woods, a physics teacher who uses the site to post assignments and questions. She says about 40% to 50% of her students are LetsCram users.
“Students like to talk and be social,” she says. “As long as they’re thinking academically, that’s amazing.”
However, continued use of the site, Woods has noticed, comes with one caveat: Can students really learn when someone else is giving them the answers? “If you rely on somebody else to answer a question, you never get the creative spark to solve the problem,” Woods says. “I talk to my students about that. Make sure that if you’re getting help on a problem, go tackle a problem of your own.”
Spreading the Word
MySpace.com, the online social networking monster of more than 100 million accounts, rose to prominence partly on account of a carefully devised public relations plan and an e-mail database numbering in the millions. LetsCram may not have the privilege of such marketing tools, but it continues to grow through a small grassroots campaign and by simple word of mouth. Lewis’s sister Molly designed the logo and Dalida Arakelian, a Santa Barbara High junior and one of LetsCram’s founding members, handles the marketing end – making tee shirts, pencils, posters and flyers – all designed to promote the concept that “LetsCram.com is the social way to study.”
Early on, word of the website spread naturally throughout the school. By the end of October, only two months since its creation, the site had more than 1,000 registered users. At the time, Korchinsky said “the novelty is worn off” and that the entire LetsCram exercise had become “routine” for Santa Barbara High students. But something unexpected had also happened. Students from other schools were registering to the site. Soon, kids from Dos Pueblos and San Marcos high schools were posting on message boards, students in Glendale were requesting tee shirts and people on the East Coast were taking advantage of the site’s games, known officially as “procrastinations.”
Lewis made his own campaign, meeting with members of school boards and education commissions and speaking to students at area schools about joining the site. He also instituted an internship program in which students must get 25 buddies to join the site and make four posts within the first four weeks of membership. In return, the interns get to put the experience on their résumés and they earn distinguished status on the site.
As LetsCram collects new users and the site penetrates outside markets, talk inevitably leads to the site’s long-term potential. In early fall last year, Adam Fried, a Montecito Union alumnus and Santa Barbara High senior, asked Lewis what he would do if LetsCram became as big as MySpace.com. Lewis shrugged off the question with a laugh, concluding that result was improbable. The leaders of the site prefer to think one day at a time.
“It’s not necessarily something that we’re not counting on, it’s something that we hope to attain in the future and we realize that’s it’s a possibility that we could,” Fried says. “But it’s further down the road than what we’re concentrating on right now, which is making the website as much as an effective tool as we can with the number of users we have right now.”
After High School
In a given week, Lewis spends about 10 hours on LetsCram, between studying and expanding and improving the site. Currently, his operation yields little in the way of income. The small revenue from Google ads reimburses investment costs; Lewis has avoided other advertisements afraid they would give the site a gimmicky feel.
In the fall, Lewis will be at Dartmouth and around the same time, LetsCram will undergo its largest renovation, “upgrading to make it more useful to students and to integrate it with kids nationwide,” Lewis says.
His “dream” is to finish Dartmouth and go back to running LetsCram full-time. While he’s in Massachusetts, he says he’ll stay “extremely involved” with the website, but he doesn’t see his preoccupations with school as a problem. Lewis knows fully well that the site doesn’t need him around at all times.
“Even if we’re not here next year, there’s still going to be questions to be answered and tests to be studied for, so the underclassmen and the roots that we’re cultivating will still be there next year,” he says. “The beauty of it is that I have complete faith in the people who’d be running it.”
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