A version of this story first appeared on College Town, a web site for college students in the Triangle.
It’s a problem many college students have faced – being stumped on an assignment and having to search out classmates, a teaching assistant or even an elusive professor to get a passing grade.
Triangle natives and college friends Erika Williamson, 45, and Paul Mosca, 47, are trying to make it easier for students to find help with their website moteeapp.com, which they hope to launch in late August when students are starting the fall semester.
Students can register for free with their college email address and connect with other users at their college to study together, tutor or be tutored (students pay through PayPal, and Motee takes a cut). Any student can sign up, but the developers are focusing on growing a Motee network at Duke University.
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What sets their site apart from tools like the app StudyRoom is that Williamson and Mosca highlight encouraging others – something that’s important but often neglected, they learned from interviewing college students and professors.
“They confirmed that those moments of frustration can really add up, and they can lead to people dropping classes, switching majors or even leaving school,” Williamson said. “Our idea for Motee is hoping to help students avoid getting to that point.”
Williamson and Mosca also referenced a May article in The Atlantic about a study claiming that female engineers with female mentors are more likely to stick with their major, not because they get better grades, but because they know it’s possible for them to reach their goals.
It all connects to the idea that academic success is a combination of head and heart, Motee’s developers said, and they’re banking on the hope that college students will take a break from their snarky tweets to encourage one another. A user can send public “motee” messages to another student complimenting him or her on anything from a question asked in class to how helpful they were as a tutor.
“When people send you a motee, they can put in hashtags like #greatatcalculus,” Williamson said. “When it comes time to form a study group or look for a peer tutor, it’s easy to find people who are good in the areas that you’re wanting to connect with.”
Mosca wishes he’d had Motee when he decided he wanted to be a doctor. After graduating from Greensboro’s Guilford College (where he and Williamson met), Mosca was working full time in real estate. Then in 2005, he decided to go to medical school, and that meant taking a few prerequisite classes at N.C. State University.
Biology was a breeze, but chemistry was not. Mosca tried to juggle work and his classes at N.C. State, spending hours at the chemistry lab but not getting the help he needed from the teaching assistant, who usually had to split time between 30-plus students.
“Today, I am not a doctor, and I just stumbled over chemistry,” Mosca said. “Motee’s my way of trying to solve that problem.”
Working with software is nothing new to Williamson, who runs her own database consulting company called Small Biz TLC. Mosca (whose success with real estate allows him to focus on Motee) and Williamson are “bootstrapping” it. They call themselves Protagonist Lab and work out of The Frontier co-working space in Research Triangle Park.
They reconnected over LinkedIn in 2016 and soon were talking about creating something that would help college students. From August to October, Williamson and Mosca interviewed students from schools like N.C. Central University, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and more. Online study tools didn’t cut it, many of the students said.
“People said you could stay up all night watching videos about calculus, but you wouldn’t retain it very well,” Williamson said. “If you’re working through problem sheets with a friend, you learn it a lot better.”
After a few months planning the site, they were ready to start creating it with help from hired programmers in February. Even Williamson’s 14-year-old twin daughters have helped.
“They’ve been really fun to bounce ideas off of, and they’ve been interested too in the idea that you can build something,” she said. “You can just decide for yourself one day that you want to create something new, and you can go do it.”
Evie Fordham: @eviefordham 919-829-4654