A chit-chat with the creators of the owlcove portal

(This exclusive interview first appeared here on Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts on 24 November 2013.)

The owlcove resource sharing portal (http://owlcove.sg) of late has been gaining a fair bit of traction and popularity in cyber-space; we managed to get in touch with the fun-loving bright sparks behind this project and steal them from their busy schedules for a quick conversation. Read on as we pick their brains and attempt to learn more about this initiative of theirs.

QN: Welcome guys, thank you loads for agreeing to this interview. How about taking turns to properly introduce yourselves and your responsibilities as far as running Owl Cove is concerned?

Jerrold (J): I'm the resident do-a-little-bit-of-everything guy at owlcove! Usually I'll design the features and graphics, and Zhicong will give me his programmer's take on how to improve the functions (and whether the crazy stuff I sometimes dream up are actually doable...). And because I also enjoy writing a lot, most of the stuff on the site - the articles, prompts, blog posts and so on are by me. Again, Zhicong provides me his input quite a lot and helps me refine them. Also, since I'm responsible for the content I pretty much manage the marketing (mostly our facebook and twitter efforts) too.

When I'm not busy with owlcove, you can find me trying to wrap my head around the piles of reading a typical Year One NUS Law student needs to do.

Zhicong (Z): I'd liken our roles to me building the framework, and then Jerrold filling it in with stuff and bringing it out there. I pretty much coded the whole site - or in snazzier terms, I'm the technical co-founder of the team. I actually hadn't touched programming for a few years prior to owlcove, and had to amp up my skills significantly for a project this size. When I'm not on my laptop, I'll be out doing hip-hop dance or spinning on my head... or trying to wrap it around the piles of engineering homework handed to freshmen at UC Berkeley.

QN: You have a pretty interesting name for a website-why Owl Cove?

J: I CLAIM CREDIT FOR THE NAME!!! Oh it's 'owlcove' btw - one word, no capital letter.

We took REALLY long to think of a name - initial ideas were like notescafe, mugspot - horrendous names honestly. We knew we wanted a short, two syllable name (because all the successful names are bisyllabic: Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin...) but couldn't quite think of one. Until one day I had this idea that OWL would be a cool short form for Open Web Learning, and not to mention owls would be a suitable mascot for a site that's about learning. Y'know, since owls are wise and bookish and all.

"Cove" came in later when we were searching for something which would fit "owl". We realised "owl" did sound a little like "al", as in 'alternate' or 'altruism'. So we literally did a google search for "words beginning with al" and tried every one on the list. When we came across "alcove", we knew we had our name. An alcove's a snug little corner to chill at, while 'cove' has that nice and cool 'beach' feeling. It was exactly the kind of space we wanted to create for our users.

Z: Well then, I'll claim credit for that fateful Google search, haha.

QN: Under what circumstances was owlcove being conceived?

J: All of us were doing our NS last year, and we individually realised that the period after ORD and before uni starts would be the perfect time to do something cool. I rang up a few friends and asked them if they'd be interested to work together. Everyone was keen. When we first started off, we didn't quite have a clear idea what we would make, only that we'd try to create something useful. So we had some brainstorming sessions, and the idea for owlcove started to take shape. We then spent the next few months (from July to October) discussing site's features down to arguing over the smallest details, like the background colour.

Z: Back then, we'd just graduated from JC and the long hours spent studying were fresh in our minds. I happened to have had created several of my own notes for A-Levels and shared them online through Facebook, and noticed that some other friends were also doing the same. You can still find my early notes on owlcove today. At the same time, people are actually selling off their school notes in online marketplaces. (This should ring "MARKET FAILURE" for all the Econs students out there.) We figured we could step in to bridge this gap, especially since the A-Levels worked out well for us in the end, so we wanted to share our experiences and resources with those after us.

QN: Did you face any memorable challenges/issues whilst prepping your baby to rock and roll on the internet?

J: One of our initial challenges was the lack of a designer. None of us could even draw! The site design as you see it now... let's just say every bit was a hard-fought battle. I had to learn to use Adobe Illustrator, Fireworks and Photoshop from scratch. We spent hours designing and redesigning even the most basic functions - you wouldn't believe how many times we tweaked the 8 colours used for the tiles on Learn. At the end of the day though, it was really rewarding to see everything working out. :)

Z: We've always been, and still are short on the most important asset of any organisation: People. Especially when we're all working for free here! I ended up doing virtually all the coding on the website. On the bright side, this meant my coding skills improved dramatically - there's nothing like toughing it out on your own. As things got more and more difficult to code, we did try asking other friends and programmers on board, but couldn't really find someone wasn't already busy with lots of other things... like well, life.

QN: There have been many resource sharing websites (set up by equally driven people like yourselves) sprouting up in recent years, such as Open Lectures and Notes Academy to name a few. How is owlcove different in terms of its offerings?

J: Our take on the concept of "open" is slightly different from OL. As we were building owlcove we knew about OL and the video lectures they were sharing - and we were like: that's a great way of making good lectures open to everyone, but there's still lots of room for the kind of learning you don't already get in school. In building owlcove, we wanted to create an 'open' landscape in the sense that students themselves are empowered to access, create, and work together on notes and ideas. In fact, we're still working towards that.

Z: As for other notes sharing sites, we did our research before we started and found that all of them, unfortunately including Notes Academy, were not being actively maintained. We've since reached out to several of them and even had dinner with Zhuoyi, the brains behind Fiveless Notes. We really wanted to create a fun space for students to learn and chill. That's why you'll notice we chose to use a more vibrant and 'airy' colour scheme. Another key aspect of the owlcove is our independence from any official organisations, which means we can pretty much build anything and everything we dream of.

QN: Sidetracking a little, what do you guys feel about our education system? Many say our youngsters are mere suckers for notes, notes and more notes for rote memorization and articulation in examinations, nothing more. Whoever has access to quality learning materials will enjoy an unfair advantage, and is thus more likely to win (read: score good grades).

J: These observations have been repeated so many times they themselves are rote. I wouldn't deny they're true though. Like if this interview was 'graded', I'd totally study for it. It's something the education system drills into us. About the unfair advantage - thing is, in every society those with more resources are going to 'win', and it's not something limited to education. That's just how capitalism works. The problem's when inequality gets so bad that people with less resources don't even have a shot. We may even be witnessing it right now, what with all the expensive 'premium' tuition agencies popping out everywhere. Sadly, inequality goes into the heart of society itself. What we can do is to acknowledge it exists and try to keep it in check.

Also, I think people who point fingers at system often forget we're all part of it. I would admit I benefited from it myself. Honestly, I feel MOE has been trying to change things - just look the number of initiatives they try to roll out every year. The problem however is that for every new thing the Ministry tries, you'll have schools and tutors coming out with new rote ways to "guarantee As". It's really difficult to blame anyone for it though. Rather, we should acknowledge that the Ministry has its constraints, and for something as important as education we cannot and should not just rely on the authorities. Some things are better changed from the ground up. And that's exactly why we're working on owlcove.

Z: I think Jerrold nailed your question and then some, haha. I'll just add on a small point here: We've all been conditioned to think that the end goal of education is the grades. Parents are perhaps the most kiasu ones, if only because they want the best for their children. Such a mindset will take a whole generation, perhaps even more to change. What we can do however is to make the academic process a less painful one so students have more time to focus on other pursuits beyond exams, and we hope that making quality notes available to everyone will contribute towards this. At the same time, this helps to reduce inequality, by levelling the resource game for students.

QN: You guys graduated from Hwa Chong Institution, your take on the quality of lecture notes produced in your alma mater?

J: What a dangerous question! The school is going to come looking for us soon... But honestly speaking, I don't think you can't link the quality of notes to the school itself. Usually it's the teachers who produce the notes, and for certain subjects like the Sciences notes are far easier to make because the syllabus isn't as dynamic as the Arts. Within any school the quality of notes will differ greatly from teacher to teacher, subject to subject. My personal experience? The notes were fine, but as an Arts student I got most of my content from my Literature texts themselves and Wikipedia. I don't think any school can produce notes better than Google!

Z: From my experience, the notes provided by the school have been effective in the learning phase. Generally though, once students progress pass basic concepts, they need consolidated notes to prepare for exams, and schools generally do not provide those. Talking to many peers and juniors, we realised a fundamental misunderstanding among educators: Students need less notes, not more! This is especially true for content-heavy subjects like Biology or the humanities - there's only so much the brain can absorb. The fact that some of our notes have been able to compress the whole syllabus into several pages, the equivalent of a single handout, shows how much redundant information there is in terms of exam preparation.

QN: Word has it the Ministry of Education is planning to create a portal of sorts which shall aggregate school subject notes and exam papers, do you think this is a good move or plain redundant given the proliferation of revision websites these days?

J: As always, this sounds like a good idea but whether it works really depends on how it is implemented. It's great that MOE itself is taking such steps - it sends a strong signal to the entire education system that collaboration and cooperation should be emphasised. However, my experience is that the moment students hear its an MOE initiative, they will immediately be turned off. It will be a challenge to get students genuinely interested in the portal. Nonetheless, I do hope it works out! Then Zhicong and I will have an easier job too hahaha.

Z: Yep, it's definitely a good initiative in line with our idea of open education. However, I can imagine that the main objections will come from schools themselves, because they will be keen to maintain their competitive advantage in terms of their teaching materials. Teachers will also not want to simply give away notes they have put so much effort into. These protectionist tendencies is why we chose to allow only student-created notes on our website, and not official school notes.

QN: Going forwards, what are your ambitions and plans for Owl Cove?

J: To get more people interested in contributing their notes, ideas and maybe even time to building owlcove. Meanwhile, we'll continue to reach out to as many people as we can!

Z: And we also want to progress past just notes to build a whole online student community in Singapore. We've just recently launched "Discuss", which are Q&A-style boards for students to ask questions, trade jokes or just hang out. Through the web, we hope to make education more enjoyable/less depressing for everyone!

QN: Any last words or advice you wish to put across to our readers?

J: I wish to share one of my favorite quotes from Thomas Jefferson. He said,"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." This is important not only for educators, but if students themselves can understand that learning is about lighting that spark of curiosity within yourself and fuelling that desire to excel, then learning suddenly becomes infinitely exciting and energising - even to those around you.

Z: As they say, schools only produces great employees. Don't study so hard lah!

It's been extremely lovely talking to you guys. Our best wishes to your future endeavors and may owlcove grow from strength to strength!