Chalkable Brings Apps, including Khan Academy Math, to Classrooms

8/21/12Follow @jpruth

With the fall semester just a bell ring away, educators and students will be faced with an onslaught of apps and software competing for spots in their computer desktops. New York’s Chalkable, a recent grad from the 500 Startups accelerator program, believes it can bring order to the crowded education technology space. Chalkable plans to launch its Web-based platform at some 50 high schools and middle schools in September offering teachers and administrators a simple way to discover, purchase, and install education apps for use in class.

Co-founder Zoli Honig says the Chalkable platform makes it easier to buy and install third-party education apps for one user or an entire school all at once. Thus far, education technology has been largely focused on learning management systems such as Blackboard Inc., the distribution of e-books, and connecting with tutors through online services such as Tutorspree in New York. Chalkable is a clearinghouse for finding and ordering third-party Web-based apps that students can use on tablets and computers. Honig says the platform can also handle certain administrative tasks such as recording grades and taking attendance.

Given rampant claims by app makers about revolutionizing classrooms through software, Honig says his company can help educators cut through the hype. “There is a lot of noise and news surrounding innovation in teaching,” he says. In spite of much hoopla in this space, Honig says for now apps remain on the fringe of education. “It’s not mainstream yet,” he says, however Chalkable is positioning its platform to be the destination teachers and administrators want when the technology is embraced more widely.

Momentum in education technology has been picking up, Honig says, especially in the past two years. “Khan Academy kind of kicked it off,” he says, referring to the provider of free online education. For Chalkable’s September launch, Honig says about a dozen Web-based apps will be available through his company’s platform. The apps will include Khan Academy Math, YouTube Education, Project Gutenberg’s library of more than 100,000 books, and BioDigital Human, which is a 3D animated model of human anatomy from New York’s BioDigital Systems. “We don’t want to step on anyone’s toes,” Honig says. “We don’t want to go against Khan Academy and start producing [our own] content.”

Chalkable charges schools $10 per student per year to use the platform. Half of that fee goes back to the schools towards purchases of apps from the store. Up to five teachers per school can try out the service for free before committing to paying for the service. Chalkable also takes a 30 percent cut of the revenue that developers generate from app sales through the platform.

Co-founded in 2010 by Honig and longtime friend Michael Levy, Chalkable was born out of their shared frustration using education platforms such as Angel Learning and Blackboard in college. Honig says the interface could be more user-friendly. He and Levy also believe K-12 schools, in particular, can benefit from an updated way to discover and access apps. “There were learning tools not being used in the classroom because it’s hard to find and pay for them,” Honig says. “Teachers don’t have the time.”

A large hurdle, he says, is the purchase order procedure—involving sending documents back and forth between a buyer and a seller—many schools use to acquire academic material. That kind of bureaucracy conflicts with many online order systems, which require credit cards for immediate payments. Chalkable’s platform rectifies that issue by accepting purchase orders, as well as credit cards, and giving educators different ways to make those online app purchases.

In addition to managing apps, the platform can be used by administrators and teachers to set up calendars, assign homework, and send alerts to students. Academic performance trends and analytics in the schools can also be gathered, with consent, for review by parents and administrators.

Chalkable launched a public beta of the platform in January with a handful of schools. Now the two-year-old company is eager to serve 50 schools, its first big test since emerging from the 500 Startups accelerator. The company is also in talks with publishers of education material to distribute their content through the platform, but Honig says it is too early to disclose names.

He confesses that entering 500 Startups was not part of the original plan to scale up Chalkable. Honig and Levy were exploring a seed round in the spring of 2011. However, Dave McClure, founder of 500 Startups, compelled Chalkable to hold off on the seed round, pursue a small advisory round instead, and join his accelerator program. Honig says Chalkable secured $200,000 in the advisory round and now his company is in the midst of raising a $1 million round.

If Chalkable can build on its momentum, Honig says his company can be a conduit for education app makers to reach more schools and tap into this potentially lucrative market. “Once we make that first sale we’re able to open the doors for developers,” he says.

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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