LearnLink retires after 20 years

Photo of people at a software retirement party

Kathy, Pat, Sarah, and John at the LearnLink Wake.

After nearly 20 years of service, LearnLink, the original social media system used to connect Emory students to faculty and classmates, has been retired.

LearnLink was one of the earliest and most robust online communities in higher education. A retirement wake was held in the MARBL Conference Room in the Woodruff Library on May 7 to showcase the transfer of the LearnLink drive to the University Archivist to hold in perpetuity.

Started in Spring semester of 1992, LearnLink was the brainchild of Emory professors Paul Lennard and Pat Marsteller. They were looking for a way to keep students talking about class material outside of class, as well as a way for faculty to keep in touch over the summer.

“We wanted students and faculty talking,” says Marsteller, then a senior lecturer of biology and director of the Center for Science Education. “We really hated that we didn’t have a conversational community. At the time, bulletin board technology sounded great.”

After an initial investment of $5000, the team chose FirstClass as the bulletin board system that was the most sturdy and customizable and they named Emory’s version “LearnLink.” According to Lennard, director of the Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology Program, students immediately saw the benefits “of answering a question only once, online.”

Poster used for LearnLink retirement party

Poster used for LearnLink retirement party.

LearnLink gained a devoted following in Biology and was moved under the control of central IT in 1995. But LearnLink use exploded in 1997 when Kathy Hayes (Faculty Services) joined the LearnLink team. “I was asked to evangelize LearnLink to students. Marisa Benson (PMO) came to me about giving undergrads account access early based on admissions requests. We also set up discussion spaces for them to ask questions about Emory pre-arrival. When we put all undergrads on it for email in 1998, it became an enterprise service.”

Tricia Goddard (Faculty Services) joined the team and LearnLink grew exponentially after they took the steps to build Campus Life relationships as part of the Emory Connect project to get students on the system as early as possible.

At its zenith, LearnLink boasted close to 3,000 simultaneous users. Articles appeared in the Emory Wheel entitled: “E-mail cures those new roommate blues” and “Face the truth: Are you addicted to LearnLink?” In 2008, the Emory Quadrangle published an article called “LearnLink: Emory’s beloved online community,” in which author Hal Jacobs noted survey results that while 97% of Emory students used Facebook, 92% also used LearnLink.

The Fall 2010 server logs revealed some amazing statistics:

  • Number of conference opened: 9,027,472
  • Logins and Logouts: 46,850,286
  • Student Conference Controller (endearingly named “demigods”) logins: 5,917,448

All good things must come to an end, however. Emory switched to Office 365 as its student email system in 2012. Removing the e-mail portion of LearnLink dramatically lowered student usage.

The rich history of LearnLink is not lost, thanks to the efforts of University Archivist John Bence. “Technology connects all of us and the LearnLink archive may contain relevant information,” says Hayes. “Archivists are experts at understanding the value of data. John and the MARBL archiving team have been great partners.”

LearnLink demonstrated the power of collaboration and serves as a model for future social media efforts. Concludes Marsteller, “It built community throughout Emory.”

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