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Facebook and Education - Do Opposites Finally Attract?

The education revolution is already underway, but will it utilize the pre-existing network created by Facebook, or will a new, education-specific network spring up? 

There is no doubt that Facebook is becoming the dominant social network on a global scale. More and more local players lose ground with their users switching to the US based alternative. I think the same will happen to business networks like the German Xing and the French Viadeo, which will sooner or later admit defeat to their US competitor LinkedIn.

The above brings me to the topic of today’s post. While I believe there will be one dominant player in each vertical of our lives, I don’t think that there will be only one social network to rule them all. Facebook is really strong when it comes to everything friends, family and leisure time, however it (still) feels a bit weird to use it for business even though I recently noticed more people in my social graph started using BranchOut. Having a more playful approach like sending badges to members of your network or picking whom you would rather like to work with, time will show if it will succeed in establishing itself as a serious competitor for LinkedIn.

For the moment, I see LinkedIn in such a strong position and I believe it is going to keep its market share. Let me try and explain why.

Human beings actually like to keep their different “lives” apart. Sure, there are always some intersections where those worlds meet, for example a company dinner you bring your wife or husband to or a colleague you share a hobby with but in general we tend to keep them separated. Sometimes this is even true for our friends.

Since Facebook’s launch there have been a couple of attempts to build education related applications or communities on the platform but none of them actually succeeded in attracting a critical mass of users. The idea though seems to be pretty obvious. Facebook itself started as a closed network for Harvard University.

Only then it has become the world’s largest social network with users visiting the site on a almost daily basis. All the data you need as a developer can be found in the social graph plus you get access to all the friends a user has when signing up for the application you built.

But people did not care, at least not enough to make the applications viable enough. Apparently, learning is something we don’t want to share with our social graph on Facebook, e.g. family and friends. And on the other hand it is pretty clear that managers or other business people won’t share their latest score in English tests or assignments with their network on LinkedIn. That’s one of the reasons why services like the language learning communities I talked about last week in my first post here on Big Think launched outside of Facebook and managed to attract a fair amount of subscribers over the years.

Then things changed again. Zynga came and all of a sudden it became somewhat normal to receive friends’ messages or notifications in the Facebook news stream who found golden eggs or other mystical animals on their farms, a trend the language learning community Busuu realized early on. On their service, people earn berries when completing exercises or correcting other member’s texts. Busuu then connected this feature to Facebook and enabled their members to share their berries / success with their friends on Facebook. It was basically the same as simply writing “I completed an exercise successfully” but using the Busuu berry system it became part of the new social gaming world that has effortlessly been accepted by Facebook users.

The next big thing for start-ups in the education space will be Facebook credits, of course. The potential is huge as it will also open possibilities to get revenue from a younger audience as they can already buy credits directly at the counter in super markets from their pocket money in the US, no credit card needed and I’m convinced that this concept is also going to be successful in the rest of the world.

I am pretty sure that we will see applications linked to communities and other services pop up on Facebook later this year.

There is also one example of a start-up in the education space that is successfully building application directly on the Facebook platform. This company is Inigral. The application was amongst the first that were launched in 2007 when Facebook introduced the developer platform. The application enables freshmen to connect with their future college or university before they actually arrive on campus. They also have the possibility to connect with other freshmen in their year. The twist Inigral is offering is the one of a parallel network based on Facebook but students don’t need to friend their future schoolmates or professors right away. They can of course choose to do so later on but they have also the choice to keep both aspects of their life apart whilst using the same social network, Facebook as entry portal.

Inigral recently received a $2 million funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as program related investment. If you are interested in learning more about Inigral I invite you to watch my interview with the founder and CEO Michael Staton back in February below.

To sum this up, I think it is safe to say that we will see the first successful education applications and games on Facebook coming this year. Nevertheless, those education resources will always have a more leisurely or playful approach, if you will, compared to services outside of the social network. On the other hand we will see more and more applications launched by services outside the Facebook ecosystem trying to leverage the user base and the new monetization options via Facebook credits in particular.

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