The first time 17-year-old Manish* heard about virtual study rooms, the concept sounded “a bit weird.”
“My friend, who I’d met online, had prepared for her final CA exams on a virtual study room and she told me about them,” he says, via a chat on Discord, a VoIP-based instant messaging and digital distribution platform. It was timely advice, though. The class 12 commerce student’s own exams were fast approaching.
“I am not a great student and I hate online classes. I was in a really bad position,” says the Patna resident. “So, sometime in October last year, I got my shit together, cleaned my room and planned to meet her on Study Together’s study room on Discord.”
In the room, students had their cameras on while studying in silence and the first thing Manish noticed was how neat their study tables were.
“My table was very messy so I chose a permanent study area and kept it clean. I began making lists, got more organised. I stuck to a routine and by the end of that first month, I was able to finish my work,” he says.
“Most days, I feel very useless. But when I come here and see so many students working hard, I get right back to it.”
Gujarat resident Jaishree Sharma, who is preparing to attempt the Indian civil service exam for the third time, joined a StudyGang study room last October. “I was not able to concentrate at home as I am used to studying in a library. Students here are motivated and serious.”
Sharma soon connected with other students preparing for the same exam. “About 25-30 of us share our to-do lists, PDFs, and links through Fiveable with each other, and everyone can see whether you have met your targets.”
“There is a positive competitive feeling (on StudyGang),” continues the 24-year-old. “If you are studying for 12 hours and you see someone else studying for 15 hours, you feel like putting in those three extra hours.”
As schools and colleges in India remained shut during the pandemic, hundreds of students like Manish and Sharma have been logging into virtual study rooms hosted by platforms like Study Together, StudyStream, and StudyGang on Discord, Zoom, and often their own websites.
This is “group study” of a different kind.
The numbers say it all.
Roughly 48% of Study Together users on Discord are from Asia, according to Nadir Matti, the Netherlands-based founder of the virtual study room. “And around 34% is from India,” he says. That is roughly 110,000 out of the 3,25,000.
Indians, thus, are the platform’s largest users on Discord.
Avinash Tripathi, the Delhi-based founder of StudyGang, has his own data to share: The number of registered users on his platform increased 8-10 times during the first few months of the pandemic. Today, there are more than 50,000 such users.
Then there is StudyStream: One week ago, about 16% of its traffic came from India. This is significant since StudyStream is most popular on TikTok which is banned in India.
“It shows we are spreading through other ways like Instagram, YouTube or word of mouth. India is definitely one of our top ten countries,” says London resident Tianyou Xu, who co-founded StudyStream with Erfan Soliman and Sarujan Ranjan in 2020.
They are designed like an addictive game.
Study rooms are broadly divided into public and private rooms—in the latter, students can form their own study groups with friends.
Public study rooms generally come with pomodoro timers (where study sessions are timed and have short breaks), carefully selected ambient music and a “cameras on, but no microphones” policy. All rooms have rules against sharing obscene content, indulging in offensive behaviour and the like. Any breach results in a ban.
Students “declare” their session goals and platforms record their progress usually in the form of catchy graphics.
“The more the students study on the platform, the more achievements they get—like unique badges on their profile,” says Matti. “Their progress also gets accumulated in a global ‘study leaderboard,’ where they can also see everyone else’s study statistics. This hugely motivates students to study more.”
StudyGang, too, awards points and badges like “Study Machine,” “Community Builder,” “Marathoner,” “Everest Climber,” and so on to students, based on their consistency, the help they extend to users, and the number of hours they spend studying on the platform.
“It’s based on the psychology of accountability and psychology of imitation,” explains Xu of StudyStream. “You behave a bit differently when you know that you are being watched. And it’s easier to do something when you see someone else doing that same thing.”
Tripathi says students study better when they are in a “social set-up.”
“India has very tough, competitive exams like NEET PG and civil services and the path to clear them is long and arduous. So, we give them a ‘community’ feeling, which is often missing when preparing for a competitive exam. Students…no longer feel isolated or alone in this journey.”
Due to financial constraints imposed by the pandemic, Manish couldn’t afford tuition this academic year. “I had trouble understanding a few concepts about NPOs (non-profit organisations). I posted my doubt on Study Together’s Discord community and in 10 minutes, a tutor helped me,” he recalls.
Matti says they currently have 65 (and counting) volunteer tutors who are screened, selected, and trained by the team.
One of the options listed on StudyGang’s website is the “Interactive Study Room” where a one-hour session is split into 10 minutes of “fun and interactive exercises” and 50 minutes of studying.
“We begin the session with meditation, brain games or puzzles. We also have informal talks on productivity, procrastination, free will versus determinism,” says Tripathi, who also moderates the session along with a teammate.
“Every week, we choose one bad habit to give up and the next Monday, we talk about our progress during the past week.”
StudyStream, meanwhile, has “study pods/rooms” on Discord with between two to 25 students in each room. “We also run a service called ‘StudyStream Secrets,’ where students can share anything with us anonymously and this really builds our sense of community,” says Xu.
Pune-based cybersecurity expert Shweta Chalwa finds the trend “interesting.”
“It builds peer pressure. So, on that front, they are meeting their academic goals. But like with everything else that has cameras on, there could be security concerns. Like people have the tendency to leave their cameras on and forget about them. But right now, and in this particular case, I think the pros outweigh the cons,” Chawla says.
It may have been the pandemic that sparked students’ interest in these virtual platforms, but they are unlikely to log off in a hurry even after “normalcy” returns.
“I will continue to use it for my late-night study sessions and side hustle, content creation,” says Thane-based BTech student Gargi Paul, who joined Study Together last year.
“Since people can see me, I don’t get up from my desk often and I focus on studying. Even though we remain silent and don’t really talk to each other, I feel like I have company and it keeps me motivated. Knowing that someone is working with me makes me feel good. It just creates a whole vibe and zone.”
For a few others, such virtual platforms have provided solace in unexpected ways. “When I feel blue, these students really help me to move forward,” smiles Jaishree Sharma.
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