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Yammer Trumps Facebook for Some Graduate Students

From networking to collaborative problem solving, Yammer is revolutionizing classrooms.

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Although the enterprise social networking company Yammer isn't nearly as prominent a campus fixture as Facebook and Twitter, it's becoming increasingly hard to ignore—particularly for graduate students. Yammer claims it has more than 3 million users, including employees at more than 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies, and has reportedly raised $57 million in financing.

According to CEO David Sacks, 1,692 of the more than 100,000 organizations using Yammer are in the educational industry. Sacks estimates the overwhelming majority of those educational organizations are colleges and universities, since organizations form Yammer networks around common E-mail domains (the part after the "@" symbol) and high schools rarely issue E-mail addresses to students.

Since its founding in 2008, Yammer has been adamant that its networks remain closed. Only users with an osu.edu E-mail address can access the Ohio State University network, for example­, similar to how Facebook operated before it opened registration to the general public.

"Yammer's whole mission is to be an internal social network," Sacks says. "We are ... pursuing a direction that Facebook decided not to go." 

[Read about five social media tools for college students.]

Not only has Yammer distinguished itself from Facebook, but its internal and communal nature has helped revolutionize classroom teaching, according to Todd Watkins, assistant dean for dental education and informatics at East Carolina University's School of Dental Medicine.

Yammer is unique, Watkins says, because it allows schools to expand problem-based learning (PBL) opportunities, where students look up answers to questions and share information with the group, rather than memorizing lectures. It's what he calls the "brass ring" for teaching problem-solving skills to health professionals.

But swapping the efficient faculty-student ratio of a lecture for a curriculum that requires students to answer hoards of questions is difficult to scale, which is where Yammer comes in. East Carolina dental professors use the tool to grade students' posts and broadcast items for students to look up during class."Yammer accidentally created the ultimate PBL tool," Watkins says.

"The [first year graduate students] in our school have already worked on more cases and problems than in all other U.S. dental schools combined," Watkins says. "Yammer has allowed us to go from 50 cases over four years to literally thousands."

As observed through a temporary account that Watkins set up for U.S. News, East Carolina students, professors, and administrators exchanged about 100 Yammer messages an hour. Students multi-tasked by participating in a classroom discussion with their peers and professor, who were in the room, and Yammering with professors and deans, who weren't in the lecture but still joined the conversation remotely.

[Learn why blended instruction, online and in-class, can be effective.]

Susan Gautsch, director of E-learning at Pepperdine University's George L. Graziadio School of Business and Management, says a "trickle up strategy"—in which she encouraged students to join Yammer, and then faculty members had to join, too—helped get more than 2,000 Pepperdine users on Yammer, where they exchange between 100 and 200 daily messages.

"It's a self-populating knowledge base," she says of Yammer. "Facebook is becoming that now, but up until very recently if you posted something on Facebook—good luck finding it a couple of weeks later, much less somebody else finding it."

Eugene Miller, an M.B.A. student at Pepperdine, says Yammer is a great tool for breaking down barriers that exist in brick-and-mortar classrooms. "I was able to have a great debate with one of my accounting professors [on Yammer] that probably would have never happened otherwise," he says.

When she learned during her admissions interview that she'd have to use Yammer at East Carolina, dental student Hanna Zombek was initially skeptical. She had been told the site was like Twitter, but her opinion quickly changed after she started Yammering and saw how intuitive the layout was—and when she realized how focused the conversation could be when it was just her dental class sharing information.