LearnLink's New Look

Emory's beloved online community gets an upgrade

Stephane Jorisch

When LearnLink was conceived in Everybody’s Pizza in the fall of 1991, just a few months after the public launch of the World Wide Web, it was meant to build community at Emory. Biology professors Pat Marsteller and Paul Lennard, and Marsteller’s son, Sean, a Georgia Tech computer science graduate, came up with the idea to address the concern that students had no centralized way to communicate with each other and their professors outside the classroom.

By all accounts, LearnLink—one of higher education’s first and largest online communities—exceeded their wildest expectations.

Originally a simple, but adaptable, text-based bulletin-board system built on the FirstClass software platform, LearnLink quickly evolved into a Swiss army knife of multifunctionality, used across the university for emailing, conferences, calendaring, instant messaging, and posting.

After more than twenty years, though, University Technology Services says Emory is ready for a more modern online platform.

“LearnLink was a great home for us to develop in our youth as an online institution, but as we mature, we need a richer, more comprehensive online experience,” says Director of Academic Technologies Alan Cattier. The decision was confirmed when the department learned that Open Text, the company that owns LearnLink, had an uncertain commitment to their product going forward.

Introduced this summer, Microsoft’s Office 365 was selected to take over the emailing and calendar functions for all undergraduate students. By the end of the transition, more than twenty thousand Emory accounts will have been moved to Office 365, a web-based service hosted in the cloud.

The Office of Student Leadership and Service will use the program Community for online support for Emory organizations. Through Community, student organization charters, budgets, photo galleries, and event calendars will be available for all participating students.

The transition involves feelings as well as functionality. Emory students past and present are emotionally attached to LearnLink, which has been the source for help from classmates on study questions the night before exams, exchanging notes with new roommates, finding community service projects, and keeping track of syllabi and reading lists for classes. It retained its popularity even with the advent of MySpace and Facebook because it was a closed, Emory-only community.

“LearnLink was easy to access and easy to use,” says Faisal Pirani 12OX 14C. “Its primary function was communicating with professors in an academic manner, but I also used it to see which other students were online and to message them.” But Tomas Aclan 12OX 14C says Office 365 is “visually more organized and efficient. LearnLink was more archaic.”

This winter, University Technology Services is working with the College Council and the Student Government Association to select and test other possible LearnLink successors.

“Although the term ‘social media’ didn’t exist when LearnLink came to fruition,” says Gary Falcon 91C, a business analyst who helped professors get up to speed with LearnLink during the mid-1990s, “the notion of bringing people together to a common place to share information is the essence of both.”

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