Today’s guest post is by Jennifer Funk, a former teacher who couldn’t leave the classroom behind when she became a freelance writer. Now, she writes about education news, trends and best practices and supports innovative edtech companies that improve the lives of teachers and learners. She tweets about education and more at @jennfunk.
Meritful says it’s “taking students seriously” with its online platform that allows high school students to develop professional portfolios and connect with mentors.
Just before its launch into public beta nearly a month ago, Meritful made headlines as the potential LinkedIn of high school. The comparison makes sense considering its founder, Dr. Azarias Reda, is a former LinkedIn researcher.
To build Meritful, Reda drew upon his work studying data at LinkedIn — including trends in adoption of online social networks across geographies, from Africa to North America — to gain an understanding of how these networks form and what makes them work.
He also drew upon another experience: teaching high school math while completing his PhD in computer science at the University of Michigan.
that time he casually observed students’ use of online social networks.
What he saw was typical of what we know to be true about students’ behaviors online — they post hundreds of photos of themselves engaging in teenage (read: sometimes immature) activities and they make personal (and occasionally inappropriate) comments on their own and their friends’ profiles.
This worried Reda who told NPR’s All Things Considered that while he saw teens generating lots of online content, he saw something else too.
“You had admissions counselors and employers who were trying to find out more about their applicants, so they were Googling them and they were not necessarily finding the things that reflect well on students,” he said.
According to John Cunningham, one of three Mertiful team members, this experience sparked Reda’s interest in building a platform specifically for high school students — one that would allow them to present a more polished virtual image.
“He saw a need for an alternative platform where students could engage in different kinds of behavior online,” he says.
So, Mertiful was born.
With $25K from Ann Arbor accelerator SPARK, Meritful spent six months in private beta at four Michigan high schools, during which time Reda and his team discovered what features would be most useful to high schoolers.
As a result, they developed two kinds of accounts: student and mentor.
With a student account, members can build a profile (like the one pictured below) that features academic projects and extracurricular activities, complete with pictures, videos and other forms of media to go along with each. It also allows students to write short bios and list their interests and goals.
Once they complete their profile, students can connect with peers and mentors, collect testimonials and feedback on their projects, and even compete to be in the “top 10″ at their school for the best projects and activities.
The goal is that the online profile will also serve as a portfolio to present to college and internship recruiters. And, when those recruiters do their own searching, the first thing they’ll find will be an award-winning science project instead of pictures of shenanigans at the movie theater.
On the mentor side, teachers, guidance counselors, recruiters and other professionals can build profiles very similar to students’ and use them to connect to students for their own reasons, such as to facilitate class projects, offer feedback on those projects, and share relevant information and resources.
Cunningham says some mentors will join out of a sense of social good, in the same way a sports coach works with youth, but the Mertiful team is also testing the utility of the site for people who already work with students.
“Some adult mentors can actually use the platform as a way to engage or streamline their interaction with students,” he says. “For high school counselors, if they have 500 -1,000 students under their charge, they’re basically trying to help students figure out what they’re going to do with their lives, and something like Meritful could be useful.”
Cunningham says the site is currently adding 20-30 users a day, about two-thirds of which are students.
“The value of any network increases for its users the larger the network grows,” he says. “So, our goal is to be a go-to place for high school students across the country to create their online professional image and connect with like-minded students and mentors, and the opportunity exists for the platform to expand around the world.”
Ultimately, Cunningham says the Meritful team wants to create a place where students can state their aspirations and realize their dreams. He says, “To a certain extent, Meritful is a social venture as much as an Internet startup.”