The first time 17-year-old Manish* heard about virtual study rooms, the concept sounded “a bit weird”.

“My friend, whom I had met online, had prepared for her final CA (chartered accountant) exams on a virtual study room and she told me about them,” he said, via a chat on Discord, a VoIP-based instant messaging and digital distribution platform. It was timely advice, though. The class 12 commerce student’s own exams were fast approaching.

“I am not a great student and I hate online classes. I was in a really bad position,” said the Patna resident. “So, sometime in October last year, I got my shit together, cleaned my room and planned to meet her on Study Together’s study room on Discord.”

In the room, students had their cameras on while studying in silence and the first thing Manish noticed was how neat their study tables were.

“My table was very messy so I chose a permanent study area and kept it clean,” he said. “I began making lists, got more organised. I stuck to a routine and by the end of that first month, I was able to finish my work.”

“Most days, I feel very useless,” he said. “But when I come here and see so many students working hard, I get right back to it.”

Gujarat resident Jaishree Sharma, who is preparing to attempt the Indian civil service exam for the third time, joined a StudyGang study room last October. “I was not able to concentrate at home as I am used to studying in a library. Students here are motivated and serious.”

Sharma soon connected with other students preparing for the same exam. “About 25-30 of us share our to-do lists, PDFs, and links through Fiveable with each other, and everyone can see whether you have met your targets.”

“There is a positive competitive feeling [on StudyGang],” continues the 24-year-old. “If you are studying for 12 hours and you see someone else studying for 15 hours, you feel like putting in those three extra hours.”

As schools and colleges in India remained shut during the pandemic, hundreds of students like Manish and Sharma have been logging into virtual study rooms hosted by platforms like Study Together, StudyStream and StudyGang on Discord, Zoom and often their own websites.

This is “group study” of a different kind.

Growing popularity

The numbers say it all.

Roughly 48% of Study Together users on Discord are from Asia, according to Nadir Matti, the Netherlands-based founder of the virtual study room. “And around 34% is from India,” he said. That is roughly 1,10,000 out of the 3,25,000.

Indians, thus, are the platform’s largest users on Discord.

Avinash Tripathi, the Delhi-based founder of StudyGang, has his own data to share: the number of registered users on his platform increased eight-10 times during the first few months of the pandemic. Today, there are more than 50,000 such users.

Then there is StudyStream: one week ago, about 16% of its traffic came from India. This is significant since StudyStream is most popular on TikTok, which is banned in India.

“It shows we are spreading through other ways like Instagram, YouTube or word of mouth,” said London resident Tianyou Xu, who co-founded StudyStream with Erfan Soliman and Sarujan Ranjan in 2020. “India is definitely one of our top ten countries.”

Virtual study rooms

They are designed like an addictive game.

Study rooms are broadly divided into public and private rooms – in the latter, students can form their own study groups with friends.

Public study rooms generally come with pomodoro timers (where study sessions are timed and have short breaks), carefully selected ambient music and a “cameras on, but no microphones” policy. All rooms have rules against sharing obscene content, indulging in offensive behaviour and the like. Any breach results in a ban.

Students “declare” their session goals and platforms record their progress usually in the form of catchy graphics.

The stats say it all. Photo credit: StudyGang

“The more the students study on the platform, the more achievements they get – like unique badges on their profile,” said Matti. “Their progress also gets accumulated in a global ‘study leaderboard’ where they can also see everyone else’s study statistics. This hugely motivates students to study more.”

StudyGang, too, awards points and badges like “Study Machine”, “Community Builder”, “Marathoner”, “Everest Climber”, and so on to students, based on their consistency, the help they extend to users, and the number of hours they spend studying on the platform.

Psychology of accountability

“It is based on the psychology of accountability and psychology of imitation,” explained Xu of StudyStream. “You behave a bit differently when you know that you are being watched. And it is easier to do something when you see someone else doing that same thing.”

Tripathi said students study better when they are in a “social set-up”.

“India has very tough, competitive exams like NEET PG and civil services and the path to clear them is long and arduous,” Tripathi said. “So, we give them a ‘community’ feeling, which is often missing when preparing for a competitive exam. Students…no longer feel isolated or alone in this journey.”

Special features

Due to financial constraints imposed by the pandemic, Manish could not afford tuition this academic year. “I had trouble understanding a few concepts about NPOs [non-profit organisations],” he recalled. “I posted my doubt on Study Together’s Discord community and in 10 minutes, a tutor helped me.”

Matti said they currently have 65 (and counting) volunteer tutors who are screened, selected, and trained by the team.

One of the options listed on StudyGang’s website is the “Interactive Study Room” where a one-hour session is split into 10 minutes of “fun and interactive exercises” and 50 minutes of studying. “We begin the session with meditation, brain games or puzzles,” said Tripathi, who also moderates the session along with a teammate. “We also have informal talks on productivity, procrastination, free will versus determinism.”

“Every week, we choose one bad habit to give up and the next Monday, we talk about our progress during the past week,” said Tripathi.

StudyStream, meanwhile, has “study pods/rooms” on Discord with between two to 25 students in each room. “We also run a service called ‘StudyStream Secrets,’ where students can share anything with us anonymously and this really builds our sense of community,” said Xu.

Pune-based cybersecurity expert Shweta Chalwa finds the trend “interesting”.

“It builds peer pressure,” Chawla said. “So, on that front, they are meeting their academic goals. But like with everything else that has cameras on, there could be security concerns. Like people have the tendency to leave their cameras on and forget about them. But right now, and in this particular case, I think the pros outweigh the cons.”

Platforms to stay

It may have been the pandemic that sparked students’ interest in these virtual platforms, but they are unlikely to log off in a hurry even after “normalcy” returns.

“I will continue to use it for my late-night study sessions and side hustle, content creation,” said Thane-based BTech student Gargi Paul, who joined Study Together last year.

“Since people can see me, I do not get up from my desk often and I focus on studying,” said Paul. “Even though we remain silent and do not really talk to each other, I feel like I have company and it keeps me motivated. Knowing that someone is working with me makes me feel good. It just creates a whole vibe and zone.”

For a few others, such virtual platforms have provided solace in unexpected ways. “When I feel blue, these students really help me to move forward,” said Jaishree Sharma.

*Some names have been changed to protect minors’ identities.

This article first appeared on Quartz.