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Co-design

The rise of the virtual study space

The pandemic has created a new market which aims to meet the needs of the huge numbers of students who have been forced to study at home rather than where they might usually choose to, such as libraries, computer rooms, and other co-working spaces. Students seek these spaces out for a variety of reasons. They can be quieter and better equipped spaces than they have access to at home, provide opportunities for socialising and studying with peers, or simply offer a place that is not where they sleep and relax. As a result of these spaces being unavailable, students are looking for the next best thing, and products have emerged which to seek to create virtual versions of these physical study spaces.

The Edtech and Co-design team at Jisc have recently been exploring this new market and will continue to do so in the coming months to assess the potential of driving further innovation through new products and partnerships.

The existing product landscape

Although still an emerging market, a number of platforms offering virtual study spaces have sprung up or been adapted for use which claim to enhance productivity through improving focus and boosting motivation. Their various approaches can be roughly placed into one of three categories:

One to many – Only a streamer or content creator has their video and/or audio on and broadcasts themselves studying to viewers either live or pre-recorded on YouTube, Twitch and other video/streaming platforms. This concept first gained traction in South Korea, hence is sometimes referred to as gongbang (a combination of “gongbu” and “bangsong” which translates to “study broadcast”), but there are videos with millions of views from all over the world. Content creators use a variety of methods to attract viewers, such as the use of ambient background noises and lo-fi music. Study sessions on these platforms often use the Pomodoro technique which breaks down long sessions into 25 minute intervals (pomodoros) with short breaks in between, with a longer break every four pomodoros. Video and streaming platforms offer streamers and content creators ways of monetising their content through running advertisements or accepting donations from viewers.

Many to many – There are several platforms offering virtual ‘study rooms’ or ‘focus rooms’ where large numbers of random participants from all over the world come together to study. Camera use is encouraged but there is usually no audio. The most popular by far is currently StudyStream which claims to have over 100,000 daily users in over 30 countries. Others in this space include Krowl, Bindr, and PhDForum. UCL and IE University have started offering a virtual study space to their students which library staff monitor and are available to answer questions about library resources.

Access is normally free to these platforms if you can get in (StudyStream focus rooms sometimes hit a limit on the number of users), but some services are now offering paid-for options including the ability to set up private rooms for friends and classmates, opportunities to socialise, or rooms with a lower limit on the number of users. They are also starting to offer individual mentoring or support services.

One to one – Finally, there are platforms like Focusmate and Dive which offer a matchmaking service between individuals for a set period of time. At the start of each session both users will introduce themselves and what they are aiming to accomplish, before studying in silence together with cameras on. Focusmate offers a limited number of free sessions per week and has a paid for plan which removes that limit.

Do they work?

Many products cite the psychology of mimicry and/or social pressure as reasons that their users can be more productive. In much the same way that being in a real library surrounded by others who are seemingly hard at work might motivate someone or make it easier to focus, these products claim that a similar effect can be maintained virtually.

For some, these psychological tricks can be very powerful. Indeed, as someone who wrote my dissertation and revised for all my exams in the university library, these products are appealing. I have used Focusmate and, after overcoming the social awkwardness that inevitably comes with meeting a stranger, I was noticeably less distracted and more productive for that hour.

However, many of my colleagues prefer total silence and isolation in order to focus and be productive, or find the social stigma of being on a video call with strangers too much of a distraction in itself. This social awkwardness or stigma is something that we are keen to understand better, and we plan to conduct interviews with colleagues and students. One student we have already spoken to said that the idea of being watched on camera while studying reminded them of Black Mirror which represents a considerable barrier to adoption.

What virtual study spaces cannot replicate is the physical environment that many students seek out when visiting physical study spaces such as large desks, bright lighting, ergonomic chairs, and lower noise levels.

What’s next?

This is an emerging and immature market with many products still in MVP or beta stages, so feature sets are not rich and roadmaps are unclear, but it will be interesting to see what comes next from both new and existing products. Users may have valid concerns around cyber security, surveillance, and data handling and retention. There is also obvious potential for misuse of these platforms by bad actors, and it is not clear to what extent these virtual spaces are moderated, nor how effective that moderation is.

Most platforms are attempting to grow their user base as fast as possible, going after users from any age group and location. There may be a need for virtual study spaces specifically for use in educational institutions in a similar way that UCL and IE University are exploring. Products like Gather and Mozilla Hubs offer versions of this but often come with a raft of extra features which make them too expensive or unsuitable for simply creating a virtual version of a physical study space. There is also potential for virtual study platforms to create communities of like-minded users, which may be more appealing to some than the high levels of randomness which exist currently.

Looking beyond the pandemic, will there still be appetite for platforms like these after most students return to studying in person with full access to their favourite study spaces? In their current form they may remain a valuable resource, particularly for students studying remotely, but it will be interesting to keep track of how these platforms adapt as restrictions are lifted worldwide.

We think this is a fascinating market, with plenty of potential for innovation. Over the coming months we plan to conduct empathy interviews to understand perceptions of these platforms among students, understand their effectiveness, identify any key issues or concerns, and see if there is a role for Jisc to play.

If there are users, institutions, or product vendors interested or active in this space we would welcome your input at innovation@jisc.ac.uk.

Update 11/10/21: I have just published a follow-up blog looking at the growing relevance of Discord in education, including as a virtual study space.

By Sam Thornton

Product Lead, Edtech & Co-Design

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