Andrew Sutherland
Andrew Sutherland

Everybody learns differently and no two people study the same way. Even when reviewing identical materials, students see the page differently, process information differently and find the work easier or harder on very personal ranges of difficulty.

The genius and challenge of teaching and of educational systems and schools, is that learning is tackled – mostly successfully – on such a huge scale. What all students do have in common is that they need to study. How that happens and what that looks like has changed over the years.

Computers: at-home desktops, laptops, handheld devices and mobile technology, have created new opportunities and options for studying.

Among the new tools available to students is Quizlet, America’s largest online study site and where 43,581 Honolulu students could be found last school year studying languages, math, global studies, algebra, physics or whatever content they created flashcards for. Just since the start of our 2011-2012 academic year, 8,616 students thirteen years of age and older have logged onto Quizlet. The pencil-box has become virtual.

It’s been a classic start-up story. Andrew Sutherland, a San Francisco High School Sophomore back in 2005, was frustrated with studying for a French exam and figured there could be a better, more efficient and engaging way to memorize the French names of farm animals. A computer programmer since seven years old, Andrew went online and built his own study site which he later shared with some friends. Now Quizlet is closing in on five million unique visitors monthly from across the country and remains free to use.

“It just seemed obvious to me that I should be able to share what I’m studying with my friends,” Sutherland explained. “This was before Youtube or Twitter were really known, but there were social sites like Flickr that were great. It’s clear when you use Quizlet how much better everyone’s learning can be if people are working together to post material and compete for the best scores in study games.”

Learning and technology, especially online studying, has always been open to criticism as being a distraction and not an effective tool. The common refrain usually sounds something like “staring at a computer screen is no way to learn; it’s no different than playing video games or losing time on Facebook.” But Andrew is quick to make sure Quizlet isn’t strictly labeled a Social Media site.

“Quizlet is a platform for studying with friends, so in that way it’s social. We’re tied into Facebook so that you can instantly see what your friends there have been studying, but we’re not super dependent on social sites, we’re a study site.”

The San Francisco whiz kid, who is now on a leave of absence from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology after completing his junior year, also stressed that Quizlet doesn’t present the pitfalls that usually trip up users of social media.

“People forget, or never really realize, that almost everything they do online is public. That’s a sometimes embarrassing new reality folks still figure that out every day. With Quizlet, what’s public among your friends is that you’re studying, and that’s precisely the sort of time spent online we hope to see as very contagious.”

If the over 8,000 Honolulu students who have been using Quizlet since September 1st are any indication, Andrew Sutherland may soon be having even more in common with two other Boston-area college students who finished their formal educations earlier than expected to pursue the technologies they founded: Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

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