Interview with Inigral CEO Michael Staton
SMCEDU focuses on advancing social media in higher education, largely because of the potential for social media to create greater engagement for students and afford them more control in their learning. We often think of how students can connect to a greater body of faculty, other students, and industry experts to enhance their academic effort. An often recognized but less-mentioned aspect of a student’s success lies in the peer relationships they form (especially during their freshman year) as they maneuver through their higher education experience.
These potential relationships can help students navigate a college experience, provided they meet the right people -- those with similar interests, experiences, and expectations -- that can share the best times and help through the toughest times of a crucial part of their academic career.
It is on this approach that Inigral Inc., lead by CEO Michael Staton, has decided to focus its attention. Recent recipients of a $2 million venture investment from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Inigral has created a Facebook application called Schools that leverages the connected power of Facebook’s social graph with the added functionality of creating “lighter” relationships -- that is, connections that don’t require friending each other -- centered around common hubs like interests, classes, or programs.
It’s not the intention of the Schools app to “fix” eduction, but to make a students’ social experiences richer, which in turn helps them get through school.
I had the opportunity to interview Staton...below are excerpts. You can read more about the Schools Facebook application here.
Yong Lee: Can you tell me about the Schools Facebook app?
Michael Staton: So the Schools app works something like Twitter combined with Yammer combined with a dating game where the objective is to meet as many people as possible and form as many friendships as possible, really, before the first day of school. We work with schools as a traditional vendor, so we contract with them, serving their students and helping them meet their goals, and they share students with us at the point of admissions. A typical school in the US will send congratulations letters to a couple thousand, if not tens of thousands, of students in late March or early April. Schools that are working with us -- our partner schools -- will share the list of students that are receiving those congratulations packages and we’ll follow that congratulations package with an invitation to join the Facebook application.
The reason a student would want to do that is because one of the #1 reasons they choose to go to a school is whether or not they’re excited about the experiences they’re going to have and the people they’re going to meet and they want to get a sense really early on as to whether or not they’re going to fit in. So they’ll add the application and immediately jump into a Twitter/Yammer-like real-time, ongoing information stream, as well as be matched to other users based on common interests, affiliations, similar life experiences, similar identity attributes. And the goal for us is to drive interconnectedness and belonging within the student body focused on each incoming class as the wave comes in.
One of the unique things that our Schools app does...right now I believe it’s the only private, white-label social network that a school can adopt that intelligently brings on an incoming class and then merges that incoming class with all the other students that are at the university. We support students from the point of admission really to the point of graduation.
The reason that a school would be very interested in working with us is typically, administrators stay up late at night and wake up early every morning worried about a couple key measurements or metrics that kind of determine the health of the school: how many applicants are we getting; out of the students that we accept, what percentage of those are actually going to come to school with us; once they’ve made a decision and made a deposit, how do we make sure that all of those students who decided to come to our school actually make it there in the fall and don’t change their mind some time in the summer. And then after that they want to makes sure that a student has a great experience their first and second semesters, their freshman year, so that way they re-enroll and they go ahead and start their sophomore year at the same school.
Retention rates nationally have been disappointingly low, so it’s a national challenge that the Gates Foundation has really set their sights on and they think that our approach to focus on social integration and creating relationships and friendships and interconnectedness is a real opportunity that deserves a seat next to existing retention strategies that schools use.
YL: Why Facebook as a platform?
MS: When we started building on the platform in May 2007, Facebook had about 40 million users, most of them were American college students. It had become the dominant platform for students to stay connected with one another. Most universities were complaining that their internet bandwidth was all being taken up by students that were playing around on Facebook all day.
My experience prior to being an entrepreneur was,I was actually a high school teacher and all my former students were trying to friend me on Facebook and as someone who’s very committed to education and innovation in education, I really thought the Facebook platform would be very transformative. Even as someone who predicted Facebook’s success as both a social network and a platform, I’ve been blown away by
their success and they’re almost to 600 million users now. They’re really the standard social application on the internet...I think if your goal is to help a student body stay connected -- get involved, get engaged with one another -- doing it outside of the Facebook platform is just kind of silly because it’s where students want to be connecting with other students.
YL: You caught my ear when you said you used to be a high school teacher. How were your students using Facebook besides trying to friend you...were they using it in sort of an educational capacity?
MS: Well, there have been a number of studies that show that more than half of students use Facebook as way to connect w/ classmates and discuss issues of academic challenges they’re going through, how to make the right decisions to succeed in a particular class, so I saw that my students were doing that. They were friending me and at the time, I didn’t think it was appropriate to be friends with my students so one of the first things we did was we built a Courses application where teachers could connect with their students through the Facebook platform w/o friending each other, and that’s still one of the basic value-adds to our application: that faculty and staff can interact w/ the students using the Facebook platform but w/o having to navigate the privacy the friend-management waters.
YL: You mentioned the Courses app -- that was the first education-based Facebook app that you launched?
MS: Yeah, we had a Courses application that got around 750,000 - 1 million users, and when we started hanging out with students and with institutions and asked them what they really wanted and needed we just thought the Courses application was going in the wrong direction.
We found that students wanted to interact with the student body as a whole, not just their classmates, that they were less interested in participating in class through Facebook than they were on increasing their social connectedness and their engagement with the university.
And then we found that universities weren’t interested in a Courses app, they were interested in getting their own presence on Facebook in a really unique and powerful way, in a way that was going to help them meet their goals especially as it came to recruitment and student engagement.
So we were doing Courses on Facebook, then Schools on Facebook was born.
YL: From an education standpoint, can you tell me from your own perspective the challenges you see facing higher ed today?
MS: Well, there are so many challenges. The great news is that the U.S. blows every other country out of the water in terms of the diversity and the kind of expertise of educating at the post-secondary level. The number of institutions and the amount of lives that they change and transform is really just unprecedented.
There are a number of challenges that every school is facing, depending on the type of school. Obviously, most schools right now are being asked to do a lot more with less. So there are issues around how do we spend our resources most wisely that maybe weren’t getting asked as prominently in the past.
I think that also we have done a great job as a nation convincing high school students that they need to go on to college. A lot of universities have become a lot more inclusive than they used to be. Inclusion is almost cooler these days than exclusion.
But now that we’ve made sure that all these young people have access to a post-secondary education, we need to complement that with making sure that they succeed, and that’s really the challenge that we as a nation face and the Gates foundation is interested in making sure that we’re trying as many avenues and many different kinds of creative concepts as possible so that we can make sure we’re serving our students effectively once they do enter post-secondary education.
YL: Privacy is a big issue within social media and within education. FERPA compliance is a big issue with teachers and they hesitate to use some online networking tools because of that. Can you explain how Schools achieves FERPA compliance?
MS: FERPA was written in a pretty broad context so that it could be interpreted relatively widely. We’ve studied FERPA quite a lot with lawyers at hand to help us understand what the real issues are.
Essentially, there are two ways we’re compliant. The first is, we only touch what might be called directory information. Directory information can be shared, published, can be put into phone books, yearbooks. We only touch directory information, we don’t touch any information that might be considered more private such as Social Security Numbers, or grades, or financial aid information.
The second thing that we do is, all the information that could be shared within our application is opt-in. A student really has to proactively add the application, they have to proactively fill out information about themselves, they have to accept terms of service, community guidelines, and social media policies as they move in and participate in the application.
At any point in time, they can modify their privacy settings, and at any point in time they can remove themselves and delete all their history within the application.
YL: I read that usage for the Schools app drops after the first year. Do you see this drop in usage attributed more to students just becoming more comfortable on campus after their first year?
MS: Yes. Once they get established, they make their friendships, they form their relationships, they understand how to navigate the institution, they’re less apt to use what our product is good for.
Our product is really great at serving students that have yet to really establish themselves, that are still actively making friends, navigating the institution, that have a lot of questions about how to make the appropriate choices to make sure they’re successful in school. So we really see it as the natural progression of the student life cycle that they’re going to be less interested in what we have to offer.
That doesn’t mean we don’t want to improve that, or that we don’t want to offer more mature students ways to interact that are really powerful. Having peer mentors and peer advisors, maybe bringing in alumni as career mentors and things like that. But that’s an area where we’re hoping for things to expand in the future rather than what we do really well right now.
What we do really well right now is make sure that when students are about to start school they have a place where they can get connected and get involved pretty quickly.
YL: With the Gates Foundation investment, your goals and theirs are to some extent in alignment. Specifically, I’m thinking about their goal to increase graduation rates of low income and first generation college students. Could you talk about that a little bit?
MS: That was really part of the vision of the company from the get-go: how do we be a transformative and positive force for higher education? They came to us because we saw that not only as a business opportunity but a profound mission within the company. And all the investment does is solidify that that is in fact the direction that the company must go.
We’re looking forward to serving institutions w/ diverse student populations, that are serving a lot of students that are coming from low-income backgrounds or are first generation college students because that’s the place that needs the most innovation and creative approaches in making sure that our students are successful.