Sites like Wiggio and Sophia provide resources to make sharing information easier for all ages.

As social networking and education become increasingly compatible, free websites like Wiggio and Sophia are working to strengthen this bond by providing additional tools for educators and students.

Wiggio lets users form online groups and provides the tools to create private listservs and web addresses; manage events with a shared calendar; send eMail, text, and voice messages; and manage files in a shared folder.

Sophia is a free social teaching and learning platform that offers academic content to anyone, free of charge. The website, which has been described as a mashup of Facebook, Wikipedia, and YouTube focused solely on education, also lets educators create a customized learning environment in a private or public setting.

They are some of the latest websites in what is a growing trend of free social networking sites that can help educators and students collaborate and share content. Another is Edmodo, which launched a few years ago and offers free classroom communication for teachers, students, and administrators on a secure social network.

“A teacher will make a Wiggio group as a way to share files, poll students, set up chat rooms for after-school help, and set up conferences for tutoring sessions,” said founder Dana Lampert. “The other [main usage] we see is peer-to-peer collaboration within project groups.”

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Lampert first started thinking about a site like Wiggio when he became overwhelmed from dealing with too many groups.

“I was in extracurricular groups, some intramural sports teams, and then a lot of my class projects had group work,” he said. “What I found was all of these groups were using different tools, so one would use one calendar, one would use one listserv, and one would use some kind of file-sharing program. All of these groups were all over the place, and I just said, wouldn’t it be nice if all these groups that I’m in could have one home and one place—and I can log in to that one site to deal with all of my groups in a very clean and simple way?”

Lampert added: “Our focus is simplicity. We really have taken great measures to make sure this is the easiest way for users to get on, make their group, and get going.” He said 80 percent of Wiggio’s users are in the K-12 and higher-education sectors.

Wiggio recently has implemented two additions that have received a great deal of attention. One is a to-do list feature, which allows users to assign tasks with due dates to group members, making for mini-projects within a larger project easier. The other feature lets all members share their computer screens over the network.

“The most powerful part of this is the screen sharing, so I can show everyone in my group my screen and then do demos, walk-throughs, PowerPoint presentations, and the like,” Lampert said.

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Wiggio also recently created an iPhone application, which Lampert said was met with enthusiasm.

“A lot of our users are taking advantage of being able to check their groups’ content, but also then contribute content back to the group right through their iPhone,” he said.

Other sites also realize that users want an online space to communicate, share ideas, and work with peers.

Sophia.org offers free academic content to all. Using Web 2.0 tools, users can create “learning packets,” or bite-sized tutorials tagged to specific academic subjects or topics, which then are rated for quality and examined for academic soundness by both users and community experts.

“The mantra is we want to flip the student-teacher ratio on its head. We want 30 teachers for every student instead of the other way around,” said Don Smithmier, CEO of Sophia. “When I say that, I don’t mean teachers in the professional sense, I mean teachers in the practical sense. If I can surround myself, as a student, with 30 people who know how to teach the thing that I’m trying to learn, then I have much better odds at finding someone who connects with my learning style and can present it in a way that makes sense to me.”

Sophia users can create content using text, images, presentations, video, and audio, and then post and tag that content to the appropriate subject area. Packets are sorted by subject and age-appropriateness. Sophia also offers a “Q&A” tab for each packet, which lets users find out more information from the packet’s creator or other members of the Sophia community.

“Within Sophia, what we’ve tried to do is emulate what works on the social web. So on Sophia, when you find a packet author that you really like, with Twitter, you can follow that person. You can follow a particular packet, you can follow questions, so you’re always notified what’s going on—and that’s helping create more connections out there among different users,” Smithmier said.

By clicking on the ratings tab, users can see if experts have deemed the packet “academically sound”—noted by a green checkmark—and also can view its overall star rating.

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“There’s a five-star rating system on packets; that is what people would expect from any eCommerce site … and then there’s also an academic rating, so on the site some packets have a green checkmark next to them and others don’t,” explained Smithmier. “When you create a profile on Sophia, you can identify yourself as a subject matter expert. To be a subject matter expert you need to have one of two things—you need to either be a teacher in that field or you need to have a masters of higher education in that field.”

Sophia requires three academic experts to rank a packet as academically sound before it receives a green checkmark designation.

Educators can use these packets to supplement instruction, and they can create an invitation-only environment where members can share content and ideas, ask questions, and get answers within their own learning community.

“We’re at a point in history where it’s actually possible for anyone to teach anyone else, regardless of geography or status,” said Smithmier. “Each of us has the potential to be contributors, to share our knowledge to make education better and more effective, and we want to help fuel that revolution. Sophia connects people wanting to learn with those willing to teach.”

Sophia announced on May 19 that it acquired Guaranteach, a web-based service that provides tens of thousands of tutorials and assessment tools. Guaranteach had previously offered its collection of tutorials on a pay-per-use basis, but Sophia will offer them at no cost.

The acquisition greatly increases the depth of Sophia’s offerings. Guaranteach’s math program includes more than 60,000 quiz questions and has been used in more than 50 schools already, including the School of One in New York. Sophia plans to use Guaranteach’s model to further develop English and science tutorials.

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