News & Events

ClusterFlunk Launches Jan. 22

Editor’s Note: ClusterFlunk is a student start-up located in the Bedell Entrepreneurial Learning Laboratory on the UI campus.

If you go: ClusterFlunk Launch Party

When: 7 p.m., Jan. 24

What: Music, door prizes, t-shirt giveaways, drink specials, and the introduction of ClusterFlunk, a web-based social learning environment for University of Iowa students.

Where: The Summit, 10 S. Clinton St., Iowa City

Cost: Free

A University of Iowa student start-up company has hijacked the old concept of the student study table and taken it online.

Enrollment begins Jan. 22 for CusterFlunk, the online learning environment that University of Iowa students founded at the UI’s Bedell Entrepreneurship Learning Laboratory.

The platform offers a way for students to chat, share documents, and exchange notes online about the classes they are sharing.

University of Iowa student entrepreneurs Adam “A.J.” Nelson and Joe Dallago had the idea for the start-up about one year ago and have funded it with about $24,000 in student loans.

Nelson, 20, originally of Cedar Rapids, is a business student who transferred in from Truman State University in Missouri. He is chief executive officer of the start-up. Dallago, 21, also from Cedar Rapids, is a computer engineering student. He is chief technology officer.

Adam Nelson and Joe Dallago explain their business plan for ClusterFlunk, a University of Iowa-based social learning platform, at the Dream Big Grow Here competition in Cedar Rapids on Nov. 16, 2012. The company's web-based service is being launched later this month. (Dave DeWitte/The Gazette)

The rest of the ClusterFlunk team includes a user interface developer in Berkeley, Calif., a web designer based in California, and two University of Iowa student interns.

The irreverent name ClusterFlunk was chosen to help the site get the attention of students. Nelson and Dallago then coined the term “flunkers” for students who enroll for classes on ClusterFlunk. Promotional items include T-shirts that proclaim, “Let’s flunk, Iowa City!”

Even before launching, Nelson said there’s been a little negative feedback from some faculty because the site plans to archive class materials posted by students.

After ClusterFlunk has been operating for a few semesters, a student would, for example, be able to look back at tests or other materials posted by students taking the class he is enrolled for the previous semester or year.

“Some of them (faculty) have gotten upset with us,” Nelson said. “They’ll have to start changing out their exams every semester now.”

Nelson and Dallago clearly enjoy being provocative but inwardly regard themselves as pioneers in “learning efficiency.” Nelson compares the service to the online music streaming service Spotify, which provided a social media format for music enjoyment without violating intellectual property laws.

Whether there’s much valuable content on ClusterFlunk to help students through their learning struggles will depend mostly on active student involvement. Realizing how critical student involvement is, the founders have set out to be community builders at the same time they’ve set out as entrepreneurs.

Nelson said ClusterFlunk will closely monitor patterns of student use to see what kind of educational tools to offer on the site, and even what kind of revenue model to build to support the service.

There will be no fee to use ClusterFlunk. Nelson said it may turn out that revenues are generated by advertising or referral fees from online student tutoring services, but the business is keeping its revenue options open.

The ClusterFlunk team has literally taken to the streets to drum up interest, at one point hiring deejays to play loud music at the busy University of Iowa intersection of Iowa Avenue and Clinton Streets while they distributed flyers. Nelson earned a tresspassing ticket from university police and a warning to stop distributing flyers on UI property without permission.

The strategy worked. About 800 students registered last month for a five-day “smoke and mirrors” test of ClusterFlunk, which was intended to gauge how students liked the online experience.

Nelson is a business student, while Dallago is a computer engineering student. Dallago’s tech background, including internships at Google and SurveyMonkey, have been a huge asset to the company. He’s built in tools that will enable ClusterFlunk to closely track usage data that will enable it to improve the platform, Nelson said.

Registrations will be accepted from anyone with a UI email address, regardless of whether they are student, faculty, or staff. Nelson said he expects many students to register under pseudonyms to protect their confidentiality.

Nelson said ClusterFlunk met with UI administrators and consulted the UI’s Academic Misconduct policy in developing ClusterFlunk. Site administrators will remove any content reported as plagiarism from the site, but decisions about whether academic discipline against any students involved will be up to the UI college or department in which they are enrolled.

—not to mention things like the questions used on previous tests and quizzes online with their classmates.

Nelson, 20, and Dallago, 21, came up with the offbeat moniker for their startup in an effort to gain attention.


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