There are some 3.7 billion web searches every month for education-related topics. However, ask a student how easy it is to find answers to their burning academic questions, and they’ll probably just roll their eyes. Sure, there’s Wikipedia, Google (and Google Scholar), Khan Academy and there are even Q&A sites like Yahoo Answers or Answers.com. While Khan is great for videos, it doesn’t produce quick answers and Yahoo Answers is atrocious. It’s littered with ads and answers are often misleading, incomplete or just flat out wrong.
Quora has emerged as a promising foil to crappy Q&A sites, but, while it can be educational, it’s not geared towards those in school. That’s why Sallie Severns (a former Answers.com executive) founded and launched Answer Underground — a learning utility and mobile app that it designed to help students share info and get fast answers through group Q&A.
The app (now available on the iPhone and launching this week on the iPad) allows students and teachers to post questions and answers regardless of location, allowing them to create spontaneous, ad hoc study groups wherever they are — for specific classes or across colleges. The app isn’t connected to the Web, so it’s not design to become a Facebook or Yahoo Answers or Quora. It’s purely mobile, and Severens believes this is what makes the app’s answers more reliable than the average web-based Q&A site, and the answers more specific.
Students can post subjects or questions in nearly every major subject (math, science, literature, history, arts, etc.), search by subject and find groups and questions that pertain to their area of interest. They can be active in a number of groups, create their own groups and invite classmates, or just join an existing one, whether it be at their school or one across the country.
So, how does it work? After downloading the app, users sign in through Facebook, which is important as this adds at least an initial defense against junk and starts to address the trust issue (why should I listen to you, random person answering my question? Oh, well at least I can see who you are on Facebook, you’re a teacher at the university down the road), which is important. It’s why Quora has been able to be so successful.
Once someone posts a question, others can see it and respond in realtime. Like Quora, others viewing the answers can rate them so that the best (most correct) answers are the most likely to surface. Also helpful: If you post a question, the app notifies you (via text or email) when someone responds to the question.
One potential worry here could be the length of the wait between posting a question and getting a response. That’s just something communities like this have to wrestle with and do their best to minimize, although the Answer Underground founder says that the team has been making an effort to partner with Ph.D candidates and professors across the U.S., who can moderate particular groups. If a student has a question, it might be answered by their classmates, another student taking a similar subject at a different school, or one of the moderators.
For me, this immediately raise the question, “But, don’t professors have enough on their plates, without having to worry about moderating these groups?” Severns said that, so far, the response from professors has been positive, because it’s actually making their lives easier, as they can see where students are getting stuck before an upcoming exam, for example. And, if they solve a particular problem for one student, the whole group (or class) can see the answer.
The app also provides teachers with a page that stores their answers so that they can reference them anytime instead of having to dig up who asked the question, the date, etc., which she believes translates to more value for educators.
Of course, Answer Underground is far from the first to identify the need for better education-related Q&A resources. Anyone who has done a few Google searches for very specific education questions will tell you that. Noodle Education, which launched in May, is trying to address this problem as well, although it’s use case is more broad, focusing on aggregating a variety of education-based resources to help anyone find better/faster answers to, say, pre-K schooling options, guidance counselors, tutors, and so on.
Beyond Noodle, there are also options like Piazza and Edmodo. But Severns says that Answer Underground differentiates from Piazza in that it’s focused explicitly on creating a mobile device-based community and from Edomodo in that it enables students to lead what kind of information and answers they search for, ask and gain access to.
Really, the mobile app seems more directly competitive with tutoring tools, specifically web-based Q&A-based tutoring sites that charge for their services. Answer Underground, in comparison, is free to use. Anyone with an iPhone (and soon an iPad) can use the service.
Of course, being a free app, this brings up the question of how Answer Underground plans to make money. The team isn’t concerned about its business model just yet as it’s still early in the game. Severns says that, in the future, they hope to create revenue by generating sales leads based on user interest. Of course, this is reliant on the app finding a users base whose size is sufficient to be able to do so. However, in the meantime, the team has raised $100K in seed funding from angels like Peter Bordes, Keiron McCammon, Long-Ji Lin and Samir Patel.
Answer Underground will be available for the iPad late next week and the team is currently working on an Android app as well.
More on the startup at home here.