Mixable blends Facebook with academics to improve student success

September 28, 2010

Mixable is a new application for Purdue students that blends the social with the academic by allowing them to do coursework within Facebook. The application also is integrated with special Dropbox accounts so that Purdue students can share and synch files. (Purdue University image)

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — A new application lets university students create online study groups within Facebook, and lets the participants synch and share documents via Dropbox.

The idea is to blend students' social and academic lives into a more engaged learning experience.

Mixable, which was developed for students at Purdue University, builds online study groups from classes or learning communities and lets students contribute to these online groups through their Facebook accounts.

Gerry McCartney, chief information officer, vice president for information technology at Purdue and the Olga Oesterle England Professor of Information Technology, says Mixable will help make students more successful by allowing them to be more engaged in the academic studies.

A new mobile app for Purdue students allows them to combine their academic and social lives.  (Purdue University image)

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"Like many social applications, such as Facebook or Twitter, it's less interesting to hear about it than it is to actually participate in it," McCartney says. "In one early demo I saw of how students can use Mixable, a student had taken a photo of an enormous equation -- it covered the entire page in her notebook -- and posted it for her friends from the class to help her solve. That's when I realized this will be an important new tool for students."

Mixable allows students to:

*Synch, share, and back up files through Dropbox accounts.

* Access files while at any computer or with a mobile smartphone.

* Play back audio and video recordings of Purdue classes, from Purdue's BoilerCast system.

* Participate in discussions about the course via Facebook or Twitter.

* Share "intelligent" links to web resources, which will embed an image or video when the user posts a link to it.

* Post items from Mixable directly to Facebook or Twitter for the wider world to share.

* Receive Facebook friend suggestions based on their class enrollment

Dropbox was incorporated into Mixable because it provides students with an alternative to the commonplace USB flashdrives, FTP sites, and e-mail attachments. It is a personal cloud computing service that offers two gigabytes of free storage, with additional storage available at extra cost. Dropbox connects with Mixable by incorporating special APIs (application interfaces which send data from one application to another) that aren't publically available.

 "Being able to access files from anywhere, whether it's on or off campus, can be challenging as students are always on the go,” says Adam Gross, Senior Vice President at Dropbox. "With the Dropbox API, we're helping Purdue to make their students more productive."

The special APIs tell Mixable that a new file or updated version of a file has been posted to the course, and this information is shared on the Mixable and Facebook news feeds of all of the students participating for that course.

"Dropbox has become one of the most popular ways to keep life and work in sync by sharing files and photos across multiple computers and devices," Gross says. “By integrating Dropbox with Mixable, Purdue offers its students a seamless computing experience from beginning to end."

Like study groups in the quote unquote real world, groups in Mixable are organized and maintained by students themselves, without direct faculty involvement, says project leader Kyle Bowen.

"We pre-populate the courses and learning communities information and, if the student chooses, combine this with their existing list of friends within Facebook," Bowen says. "It is up to each student to decide whether to participate and what level of privacy they are comfortable with with the students' Facebook profiles, and then it is up to each student to decide whether to participate and what level of privacy they select. Within Mixable you can share your thoughts or work with one person, with your study group or with the whole class."

In addition to the Dropbox integration, the other key to Mixable is the behind-the-scenes security features within the Facebook app.

"It authenticates with the university system, as well as Facebook, so there are two privacy layers, although they are mostly invisible to the user," Bowen says.

Within Mixable, students can select to "Follow," which allows them to view the activity related to the class, or "Connect," which allows the person to participate in the sharing and discussions, and also allows other members of the class or learning community to know that the student is in the group.

"Even if a student joins a Mixable group within Facebook, his or her other Facebook friends won't see this activity," Bowen says. "But if a student doesn't want to combine Facebook with their academic life, they can still use Mixable as a separate tool and make use of its features."

Brittany Robertson, a Purdue junior studying elementary education, was one of the first users of Mixable. She says she and her friends have been using it to peer edit each other's papers before they turn them in to their professors.

A new mobile and Facebook app allows Purdue students to create online study groups. It features "intelligent linking," which shows a preview of the website or file that is linked. The app can also play video and audio recordings of Purdue classes, and links to special Dropbox personal cloud computing accounts. (Purdue University image)

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"It was cool because when I first logged in using my Purdue account, there was a list of all of my classes on the side," Robertson says. "I could choose to opt out or connect for each of my classes."

Robertson says she isn't a tech geek but says she uses Facebook to communicate much more than she uses e-mail.

"I like it because when I log into Facebook, anything that someone has posted from one of my classes shows up in my news feed, but other people who are my Facebook friends don't see it if I comment or post something in Mixable," she says. "It's also cool how Mixable is set up like Facebook, so on the main page you can see all of the comments or files people from the class have posted in one news feed just for that class."

Bart Collins is a clinical associate professor of communications who teaches a course in emerging technologies. Collins says Mixable addresses some of the common small hurdles students face in doing their work.

"One of the struggles I've seen is that students have trouble managing their own resources," Collins says. "They may have copies of files on a computer and a copy on a USB drive, but the files aren't the same. Mixable, through Dropbox, synchs those files, and lets them get access to those resources. Students today are mobile, and interact through a variety of devices. Mixable lets them keep all of that in one secure place."

Collins says another benefit of Mixable is that it provides a resource for students who are working in collaborative teams.

"When faculty assign students to groups or teams, they usually don't provide space or mechanisms to do the work. Students need to understand how this kind of technology can facilitate their work through the semester." 

Writer:  Steve Tally, 765-494-9809, tally@purdue.edu

Sources:   Gerry McCartney, 765-496-2270, mccart@purdue.edu

                    Kyle Bowen, 765-496-7486, kbowen@purdue.edu

                    Adam Gross, SVP, Dropbox: contact Ashley Seashore, Atomic Public Relations, 510-207-0402, Ashley.seashore@atomicpr.com

                     Brittany Robertson: contact Steve Tally at tally@purdue.edu

                     Bart Collins, 765-496-1586, bcollins@purdue.edu  

Related web site:
Purdue Studio projects

Note to Journalists: For contact information for Purdue student Brittany Robertson, contact Steve Tally at tally@purdue.edu