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From Student to Startup Founder: The Story behind Sullstice

by Kelly Walsh on November 17, 2016

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A Simple, Social Class Collaboration Tool That Streamlines Communication in Courses

It’s a pleasure to be able to post an article like this guest post from recent Stony Brook University graduate James O’Sullivan, who has started a successful ed tech start up, coming at it from the perspective of the student. Good luck with Sullstice, James! Hopefully your work inspires other students to innovate, collaborate, and create, while following their entrepreneurial ambitions. – KW 

“I am checking Sullstice several times a day. I enjoy seeing what other students are coming up with, what we may all be struggling with and working together … It’s a great tool for students to think on their own and to help others…”

It’s quotes like these from students that make my job so fulfilling.

My name is James O’Sullivan and I founded an educational technology company called Sullstice. I’m writing to share my journey with you, from initial idea to full customer-driven product.

Sullstice is an online class collaboration tool (think fancy discussion board) that has been shown to improve student engagement, build community, and save professors time.

Idea & Passion

I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship but never 100% certain on what industry to focus on. With many different ways to benefit society, it can be hard to pick how you want to try to make an impact. Education technology provides a unique opportunity for entrepreneurs because when they succeed, they have the potential to make a significant improvement to the world. This is why I admire everyone involved in education. Educators work to make a better society and help ensure the success of future generations.

The idea for Sullstice began in my freshman level computer science course. Back then, lecture class sizes were large and a lot of the information about the subject was available online. I would notice students watching all the YouTube videos they could find and combing the internet for tutorials and learning materials to master the subject. Once learning gems were found, they’d share it with their fellow classmates. Students seemed to be increasingly more engaged online through social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. They clearly had a passion for sharing content and developing dialogue online.

The homework in the course was challenging and I’d almost always find that I needed help when I was at home, outside of lecture and office hour times. The only ways that we had to ask for help were through the clunky discussion board on our learning management system or through email. I would struggle and get frustrated because I’d find myself spending extra hours, when all I needed was a few minutes of help or one question answered.

Upon becoming a Google and YouTube pioneer, I realized a recurring element. Frequently I would run into a tutorial series that was created by a student or an instructor from another school. This inspired me to create my own tutorials. When I created my first tutorial, I went through an amazing process and it felt like different parts of my brain were being engaged that had never been before. With this challenge, not only did I have to know the material, but I had to also know how to teach it and express it in a clear manner so that it would be easy for others to learn from.

This experience really woke me up and made me think that the process I just went through should be the standard. I was not alone, however. Renowned educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom placed a high priority on the ability to create new or original work, as shown in his taxonomy. Albert Einstein placed an emphasis on the ability to teach a subject simply. This made it clear to me that teaching is an important part of the learning process.

Sullstice is Born

With my background in computer science, I set out to build the first version of Sullstice. My goal was to create a “digital classroom”, where you could keep the conversations going, even after the whiteboard was erased for the day. I wanted students and instructors to be connected and to foster a community of learners that could be helping each other out along the way. I wanted students to have opportunities to teach others and expand their ability to do so. Lastly, I wanted professors to save time and smile as see the beauty of watching their students create, share and help one another.

The first version of Sullstice was released in the fall of 2014 and had great results. About midway through the semester, Sullstice was introduced to one class. Up until this time, the class was using the learning management system’s discussion board and it only had about 7 posts. For the rest of the semester, the course used Sullstice and the discussion board on the learning management system. Over 290 posts from the students were created on Sullstice. It was clear that the medium used for discussion mattered and Sullstice was on the right track to increase student engagement.

From there on out, each winter and summer, I continued to build and learn from how professors and students used it. I found students to join me on the team. We ran private betas with more classes and different subjects and saw similar results. Finally, I graduated and decided to work full-time on Sullstice, to make the dream a reality. We were fortunate enough to compete in the New York State Business Plan competition and won 2nd place in the local and regional levels. This provided us startup capital to build Sullstice further. We expanded Sullstice to more professors and schools.

Now, I am on a mission to find more professors who are interested in trying new things and light up their course discussions with Sullstice. Feel free to comment below to tell me what improvements you would like to see in course discussion boards. I would be happy to start a dialogue with you here or privately. I can be easily reached from the chat box on the bottom right corner on Sullstice.com.

About 

Kelly Walsh is Chief Information Officer at The College of Westchester, in White Plains, NY, where he also teaches. In 2009, Walsh founded EmergingEdTech.com. He frequently delivers presentations and training on a variety of related topics at schools and conferences across the U.S. His eBook, the Flipped Classroom Workshop-in-a-Book is available here. Walsh became the Community Administrator for the Flipped Learning Network in June of 2016. In his "spare time" he also writes, records, and performs original music ... stop by kwalshmusic.com and have a listen!

[Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are my own, or those of other writers, and not those of my employer. - K. Walsh]

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