I'm majoring in Facebook, how about you?
Stanford teaches students how to develop Facebook applications, but is it worth the $2,500 in tuition? Fortune's Lindsay Blakely attends class and reports.
SAN FRANCISCO (Fortune) -- Last Thursday afternoon before the most hyped class at Stanford University was about to start, instructor B.J. Fogg and his four teaching assistants attempted to solve this engineering problem. How do you cram 100 students into a classroom that only seats 56? Arrange chairs at long tables near the fire exits.
The students, though, didn't seem to care if they had to sit on the floor to take the most popular computer science course this fall quarter: how to create engaging applications for Facebook.
Shelling out steep tuition fees to take a class on the social network of the moment may seem like a good payoff in the long-term, but few developers have yet to turn significant profits from writing Facebook applications. More than 5,000 applications have been created since Facebook announced in May that third-party developers could build on its platform, and only four boast more than 1 million users.
Fogg, who has a background in Web development and experimental psychology, polled his students on why Facebook is the most important social network. "Facebook is the most convenient and respectable way to feel connected to friends, get updated on existing friends, find new people, build relationships and express identities," he says. "For me, the interesting part of the class is to do research with a bunch of experts."
Students, however, seem more interested in cashing out. "I want to build a really cool app and then sell it for some amount of money," says Jennifer Gee, a 21-year-old computer science graduate student. Classmates nearby nod in agreement.
Others question whether a Facebook-specific curriculum will be useful to future developers. Social networks like News Corp's MySpace, Google's Orkut and Bebo are all expected to open their platforms to third-party developers soon. "From an engineering perspective, learning to build for the social web on just one platform seems like a short-sighted educational strategy," says Alex Payne, a developer for San Francisco-based Twitter, a service that lets users send short text updates that can be posted to a personal webpage through IM, SMS or blogging tools.
The ten-week course meets once a week for three hours and requires students to build two Facebook applications in three-person teams. They will present their creations to potential investors at the end of the quarter. Thursday's class begins with an easy trivia quiz. What month and year did the Facebook platform launch? According to news articles, which company intends to invest in Facebook? What are the three basic roles that computers play?
"Hopefully it's our last quiz in the class," Fogg says, "but it depends on performance." At that pace, it's unlikely that students will learn any secrets that developers don't already know. However, they will be treated to special guest speakers. About an hour into the session, Facebook sent a representative from its nearby Palo Alto offices. "I'm so excited that you're excited," says Ami Vora, a Facebook platform product marketing rep. "We can't build the entire user experience ourselves." Vora gave a 30-minute presentation on the Facebook platform and highlighted the new FB Fund, a $10 million grant program that provides up to $250,000 to developers building promising applications.
The Stanford students had just hit the jackpot, and they were definitely interested. An instructor asked for the main contact for the new FB Fund. Vora said she was, but declined to give her email address. "Your best bet is to go through your professors," she says. If a winning application doesn't pan out, there are still other networking opportunities. Jia Shen, a co-founder of RockYou, which owns 15 Facebook applications at last count, teaches a supplementary lab session. Shen says he's keeping his eye to recruit talented students for potential openings at his company. "It's definitely going to be a breeding ground," he says.
Three hours later, the students spill out of Cordura Hall with their first class assignment -- to create a Facebook application in two weeks. Computer science major Dave Koslow, 22, won't reveal what he's planning. However he's optimistic that a Facebook class will make him more marketable when he graduates. "I'd never take a class on MySpace," he says.