An innovative academic social networking platform, GoingOn enables students, faculty, and administrators to connect, collaborate and learn. With the platform, higher education institutions can build an internal academic network where students and faculty can share resources, create online communities and curate academic connections all separately from personal social networks. An on-demand solution leveraging open-source foundations, it integrates with existing LMS and SISs and can be deployed as a single community or institution-wide. Jon Corshen, CEO of GoingOn Networks, brings 20 years of enterprise and Internet software experience including software design, development, marketing and sales. In this wide-ranging discussion, Jon shares his thoughts on everything from what he thinks about education these days, the Arab Spring, micro-portals, socially powered networks, what Facebook has to do with it all—and some very realistic insights into just what could be happening across campuses with just a little help.   

Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?

Jon: I have many thoughts in this area but a few of them are:

  • We do a terrible job in this country of helping students decide what they want to learn (i.e. major) and how they can engage more fully in the broader learning experience (i.e. what research is being done at my school, who are the masters students in the areas I am interested in, how can I find a tutor or a mentor, what types of organizations are there related to my area of study, are there alumni that can tell me what life after school is like, etc.). When my children go to school, I hope that they are given access to their institution’s academic social network where they can find out all these things and anything else going on across their academic life.
  • We must move learning (in online and blended environments) beyond the confines of the course and traditional LMSs.  Interactions and conversations outside of the course are of equal, or greater, importance to building knowledge.
  • To engage students, and faculty, we need to think about how we bring the broader “academic life experience” online by creating a virtual campus. This is especially important as we rely more heavily on distance and online education, where we much find new ways to encourage meaningful connections and collaboration. 
  • Mobile, Mobile, Mobile – imagine a world where students are not sitting in the library or at desks but rather being connected as they walk across campus or sit in a Starbucks. Insuring that students and faculty have the ability to connect anytime from anywhere is a critical factor for education going forward.
  • The intelligence is in the network – the more that an institution can aggregate information and interactions into a common network, the smarter the network can become in helping to recommend content, people, groups to a user based in their interests and interactions in the network. Eventually networks will be connected to create expansive, intelligent knowledge networks…but that is a longer story.

Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating GoingOn Networks?

Jon: When I started in college, I wanted to be an architect. I came from a long line of builders and designers in my family. In casual conversation, friends told me “don’t be an architect. It takes forever and you will never make any money. You will be drawing doorknobs and making $20K/year for 10 years”. Lacking the maturity necessary to fully explore what it meant to be an architect or what it took to be one, I drifted into a major in quantitative economics. One of the main reasons I choose this major was because of a relationship I formed with a graduate student who was working on deforestation projects in Brazil. We have all had this experience where a teacher, a course or a connection with a mentor has had a dramatic impact on our lives. After long days in the business world, I sometimes look at the buildings around the city and wonder what it would have been like to be an architect. What if I could have found out about a guest lecture in the design school or connected with an alumnus that was working as an architect? <sigh>

Victor: Why did you create GoingOn Networks?


Jon: In 2009, my motivation for starting GoingOn came from a strong belief that the dramatic growth in global internet connectivity and the evolution of social web modalities had the power to fundamentally transform not only education, but more broadly how knowledge is created and shared.

At the same time, I had been working to create Meedan.org, an online community designed to facilitate interaction and conversations between the U.S. and MENA region.  We took news about events from both major U.S. and Arab papers and cross translated them as a way of showing differing perspectives on the same events and then allowed discussion around these different opinions.  The hope remains to promote peace through understanding and shared knowledge.

Having spent my career in designing and developing complex technologies and applications, I felt strongly that the “course-centric” design and architecture of Learning Management Systems (LMS) were useful, even necessary, but not capable of addressing more holistic aspects of learning and academic life, beyond the confines of the course.  I wanted to take the best of what we have learned from Ning, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others and understand how to apply them in a Higher Education environment, and in the longer term to build a global knowledge network.

Victor: What does the name mean?

Jon: GoingOn is a reference to the fact that basic “communications” and an understanding of what is going on around you in the world is at the foundation of learning. It is convenient to think of learning in the context of a fixed pedagogy or course, but it extends far beyond these constructs. The uprising in Egypt that led to the Arab Spring started months before the events in Tiananmen Square, when a Facebook post asked people to dress in black, walk to the edge of the river, face west and stand quietly for 30 minutes, then walk home. It did not start with long dialogs or discussions, but rather a simple conversation about what was going on.

Victor: What is it? Who created it?

Jon: GoingOn is a sophisticated platform designed to help institutions develop a more intelligent and social infrastructure for creating today’s connected campus.  These private, institution-wide academic social networks extend existing academic systems to enable students, faculty and staff to more effectively discover and utilize the information, resources and services they need to succeed, including each other. The GO Network provides schools with a more modern infrastructure for managing communications, fostering connections and driving engagement across all aspects of academic life.

Victor: What does it do?  

Jon: GoingOn is a new, more modern platform designed to help institutions more effectively communicate and engage with their students and faculty. Using the GoingOn platform, schools can easily deploy a private, branded, institution-wide network where students, faculty and administrators can more effectively discover, utilize and connect with all of the relevant resources the school has to offer, including each other.

Unlike portals, the GO network is not designed as a single central-site (hub) that is built and maintained by central IT.  Nor is it a set of disparate, disjointed websites created by individual programs and departments. Instead, it is an integrated network that allows non-technical users to easily create web groups, spaces and feeds  (referred to as Communities, Conversations & Channel Feeds) all within a common framework.  It also allows for the creation of more complex “micro-portals” by power users that have some technical skills. Taken together, these different types of spaces or “nodes” form a rich inter-connected network of information, interactions and connections that help to define academic life within a school.

While some upfront strategy, design and planning are necessary, the GO Network can be easily branded and deployed in a matter of days and can grow either intentionally or organically across the institution. Some schools choose to start with a limited set of programs or even a single community. Others start with a faculty network to help improve faculty-to-administration communications, joint curriculum development or research grant collaboration. Others are willing to openly invite end-users and allow them to create their own communities, conversations and groups on the network (e.g. course spaces, program communities, study groups, student organizations, faculty senate, etc.). By fostering a central shared network that is both dynamic and intelligent, schools can create a central network that captures the campus pulse and builds an unbelievable knowledge network.

Victor: What are the benefits?

Jon: GoingOn provides schools with the solution they need to build a modern, institution-wide “socially-powered network” that simplifies communication and content management, helps to curates academic identities and connections and enables more effective models of collaboration. Some of the key benefits include:

  • Students that are more established and engaged in their academic life because they are able to more effectively utilize the resources of the school and also better understand what is going on across their campus
  • Faculty that is more informed and aligned with the objectives of the institution because they have better access to information and can actively converse without having to be in the same place at the same time
  • Administrative staff that are freed from continually managing manual communications and administrative tasks, allowing them to shift their energy and resources to higher value activities
  • A more engaged, energetic and aligned campus (or virtual-campus) life because everyone is tapping into the same information and network and sharing information, ideas, events and expertise
  • Better learning outcomes for both blended and online learning environments because the network provides for greater engagement between faculty and students, including more active dialog around course materials, but also support for cohort workgroups, study groups and even online office hours
  • The potential for new types of engagement analytics that help schools to understand the pulse of the campus (what is being talked about, what some of the issues are), as well as the activity level of individual students (i.e. at what level are they participating in the network)

Victor: How about a student example?

Jon: Sally Jones has just started her freshman year at “Thoreau University” (TU).  She is new to campus and a bit overwhelmed by her new social environment, being away from home and trying to navigate the complexities of a first year student, even things as simple as where to eat and how to enroll in courses. Fortunately, Sally was given a login to the TU network. After logging into the network, Sally is dropped into her Personal Commons, where she has been pre-registered into several Groups (Communities, Conversations and Feeds).  First she checks the First Year Student Conversation.  There she can see a personalized stream of key events/dates, processes for course registration and associated forms and a video that has been posted on dorm life.  From there she navigates to the financial aid feed that she has been registered in and finds similar information to support the process.  Sally searches the directory and finds other communities and conversations about some student organizations she is interested in.  She can easily join them and have them added to her Commons. As time goes by, Sally makes new connections with Tutors, Mentors and Faculty on her network and she starts and joins conversations, joins communities and defines additional feeds that she needs to follow.

Victor: Have existing portals lived up to what’s in demand? Where should schools be looking when it comes to technology-enhanced learning? How do teachers and schools become more successful in engaging today’s students?

Jon: While useful in supporting a central place to logon and access transactional data, existing Portals have failed as the primary means of sharing information across campus (resources, programs, news and events, etc.). The primary reason is that today’s students, and increasingly faculty, are not willing to navigate to a central site (or array of disparate sites) to negotiate complex menus and pages. Instead, they have grown accustomed to applications like Facebook and Twitter where the information that is “pushed” to them (through activity streams) is timely, relevant, recommended and actionable. Because portals are not working, many schools have resorted to what we call “Institutional Spam”, excess group email that often goes unread.

Uncertain of where to go from here, schools need only to look as far as today’s most successful and engaging social platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook and others.  These companies have done in five years what big companies such as IBM, Oracle and Ellucian (formerly Datatel) could not do in the 20 years prior – crack the code of web-based sharing and interaction. While there are many reasons for their success, the main reason comes down to the communication and collaboration modalities that they have pioneered, such as push-based activity streams, share, like, follow, recommend and inline commenting.

If schools are to be successful in effectively engaging today’s students and faculty and reaching their retention goals (while at the same time lowering operational expenses), they must find ways to leverage these social modalities in streamlining communications and building a more connected campus. GoingOn provides an integrated infrastructure for supporting these needs in an innovative and pragmatic way.

Victor: How is it unique from other similar products/services? What companies do you see as in the same market?  

Jon: Upon first blush, one could perceive GO to be a competitive solution to existing portals from companies like Ellucian (formerly DataTel), Janzabar, Microsoft or Bb. In reality, the GO network is complementary to existing portals.  As stated above, portals are useful, in fact necessary, for providing users with a single place to sign-on and access multiple back-end systems (single Sign-on).  It can also be useful in creating user-friendly user interfaces to complex back-end ERP systems (i.e. check my payment status, enroll in courses). Where Portals fail is in providing an effective tool for communications, connections and collaboration. While there have been many attempts to use portals to this end, they have almost always failed simply because portal-centric (monolithic website) models do not work in today’s social world. The GO platform can be used to extend portals into this new more modern social web modality, helping institutions to more effectively share information and resources.

Similarly, some could argue that the LMS will become a competitor, but in reality they are very different systems. Supporting structured course delivery is very different than providing a broad communication and collaboration network. We see LMSs as an integral part of the broader network and currently integrate tightly with many of the major solutions in this area.

Solutions such as Jive have taken a step in the right direction by providing more flexible configuration of “micro-portals”. More recently, tools such as Twitter, Yammer and Google+ have brought more stream-centric solutions (like GO) to market. These products have been designed for the consumer and enterprise market and are not oriented toward the specific functional and integration requirements of higher education.

When it comes to providing a broad, socially powered “engagement platform” designed specifically for higher education, we continually hear from our prospects that we are unique in the market.

Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?

Jon: The GO Platform has been developed over the last three years.  An interesting story in our evolution relates to some key work that we have been doing with Emory University.

Emory currently has a 20-year old (email-centric) communication and collaboration network.  Deployed in the mid- 90’s, it was far ahead of its time.  Today, it houses over 15,000 active group spaces on the network and over 100,000 posts per month and is considered to be a critical part of the “Emory experience”.

In working with Emory, we had an opportunity to do a user study with students, faculties and administrators. When we showed them some of the initial prototypes of our “Personal Commons” product, they had an immediate and very negative reaction (only 5 minutes into the first meeting). Obviously, we were taken back and concerned and asked them what the problem was. They replied, “it looks too much like Facebook”. I was confused. We had gone to great lengths to take the best of what Facebook and others had to offer. What we learned was that students made a strong distinction in what they wanted in an academic network versus in a social network. In a social network they wanted to be able to play the part of “voyeur”, to see lots of images, and to participate in numerous gossip threads. Conversely, in an academic network they want to spotlight the core content in a simple interface oriented towards clear and efficient communications.

Victor: Where did it originate? Where can you get it now?

Jon: Our flagship deployment was at the University of Pennsylvania in 2009. The GO platform now runs at over 25 leading institutions and organizations. It is available as an on-demand service to all customers. College and universities interested in learning more can contact info@goingon.com for additional information.

Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?

Jon: We do not publish our specific pricing, but the solution price can range anywhere from $500/month (for a small pilot) to $10,000 a month for large enterprise-wide deployments. The pricing model scales across a couple key dimensions:

  • Pilot, standard and enterprise deployment packages
  • Size of institution – note: while we do use FTEs as a metrics for determining the overall size/shape of a school, we do not charge based on number of users, nor do we limit participation in the network to the total FTEs.  The reason for this is that we want to incent mass utilization of the network to a broader set of constituents such as alumni, mentors, outside academics and experts, etc.

Victor: What are some examples of it in action?

Jon:

  • The University of Pennsylvania – Uses the GoingOn platform to support social courses and program level communities
  • National University – Started as a faculty network for core communications, support, professional development, curriculum sharing and core services
  • Emory – In pilot deployment for replacement of institution-wide network
  • ASU Online – Initial deployment of faculty network with plans to deploy broader student network to support virtual campus environment
  • Central Washington University – Initial deployment phase for student engagement network focusing on first year students

Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?

Jon: Global connectivity is exploding. At a recent seminar, President Crow from ASU highlighted that on any given Saturday night one-third of all U.S. Internet traffic is to NetFlix. That traffic could be handled by a set of fiber optic cables thinner than a pencil.  This massive global connectivity will allow us to deliver online experiences that go beyond streaming video or multi-channel video chat to encompass new modalities of interaction and simulated environments.

At the same time, we are being forced to look at higher education as an investment.  For many, graduating with $100K in debt and a liberal arts degree may not be an option.  Over the last several years, the percentage of students that are electing (or being forced) to complete their core undergraduate courses at a community college has increased dramatically.  The growth of online education is being pushed by similar forces, as well as by our changing economy. As we move to these new models of blended and online learning, we need to ensure that we do not lose the essence of the “campus experience” and the “informal hallway conversations”.

Victor: Got any quirky stories or jokes? 

Jon: When we first launched our product into the market, we consistently heard two things: “Is it an LMS” and “We are going to do that in Facebook”.

Now, everyone we speak to understands the need for a broad academic social network that can streamline communications, foster collaboration and cultivate connections – outside the confines of the course. They also understand that both students and faculty want to separate their academic and social identities and interactions and that Academic networks are very different than social networks.

Today at GO, it is a running joke that if someone asks you for something that you don’t want to do or if you just want to tell them to leave you alone, you can simply say, “Can’t you go do that in Facebook?”.

Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of GoingOn Networks?

Jon: Can you imagine that schools will not deploy networks like GoingOn? Can you imagine students and faculty coming to school over the next five years and not being given an identity and login to their school’s academic network? For me, it is inevitable. We need to find tools that enable students and faculty to connect, communicate and share in ways that are familiar to them.

Victor: What makes you say that?

Jon: Over time, I believe that important analytics can be pulled from the network in order to better understand levels of engagement at the macro and individual level.  In addition, the network can become intelligent in helping to direct the right information and resources to the right people.

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Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com