LearnBoost Bets on Better Tools for Teachers

San Francisco-based LearnBoost made a splash earlier this week with news of a $975,000 venture financing win. But much of the news coverage focused on the fact that four major venture firms, plus an assortment of angel investors, had participated in the relatively small financing round. To get more of the story behind the startup’s actual technology, I met up yesterday with co-founder and CEO Rafael Corrales, near the company’s headquarters at Pier 38. He’s pushing a radical notion: that teachers, students, and school systems are entitled to great software at low cost.

Like the U.S. healthcare system, the nation’s public schools are going through a halting, painful, and often expensive shift to electronic record-keeping. So-called “student information systems”—the education equivalent of corporate enterprise resource planning software—can track matters such as enrollment, class schedules, attendance, grades, disciplinary actions, and student health. Increasingly, these systems are Web-based, meaning teachers, administrators, and often parents can access them from any computer with an Internet connection. Software-as-a-Service products called Blackboard, made by the Washington, DC-based company of the same name, and PowerSchool, made by New Jersey-based Pearson Education, are the leaders in this market.

But schools are paying dearly for this new convenience. Pearson doesn’t share pricing information publicly, but documents available online show that PowerSchool can cost a medium-size school, with an enrollment of 1,500 students, about $45,000 to implement and $7,000 per year to maintain. On top of that, according to Corrales, many educators surveyed by LearnBoost complain that PowerSchool can be hard to use, and that it’s loaded down with features and options that overpower most teachers and administrators.

LearnBoost Attendance List“Teachers are fed up with the solutions they have, both free and paid,” says Corrales. “The customer development work we did confirmed this. A lot of teachers said, ‘I’ve been waiting for you to come along, and if you can deliver what you promise, I would switch in a heartbeat.'”

Corrales says LearnBoost plans to deliver by applying the latest principles of open-source Web software and effective user interface design. “Just look at Apple and the products they design,” he says. “The iPhone, the iPad—they just work, and all of these things seem intuitive. The design is really solid. All of those subtleties are the things we have taken care of, for a field that has been overlooked.”

LearnBoost will release its first product—a free Web-based gradebook designed to help teachers take attendance, develop lesson plans, keep calendars, and track students’ grades—in early August. But that’s just a piece of what LearnBoost is building: If the company can persuade enough teachers to try the gradebook over the course of the 2010-11 school year, Corrales says, it will then be in a position to roll out a more comprehensive student information system that handles the same core functions as PowerSchool or Blackboard but costs schools much less. The basic function of LearnBoost’s system will stay free, while the company will charge for advanced features, Corrales says.

How will the LearnBoost gradebook improve on existing tools? The startup’s website gives a basic sketch of the planned features, but Corrales shared a few exclusive previews that illustrate LearnBoost’s emphasis on ease of use. Few teachers enjoy the daily or hourly task of taking attendance, for example, but LearnBoost has designed interfaces that help to speed up the process. While other gradebook programs require teachers to make a mark beside each student’s name—present, absent, or tardy—LearnBoost offers teachers a list view that records students as present by default, meaning they only have to take action if they see that a student is absent or tardy. There’s also a chart view that shows teachers a seating map. They can simply scan their classroom to see who’s missing, then hover over a specific square in the chart to mark a student as absent or tardy. (The screen shots shown on this page and the previous page are being published for the first time.)

LearnBoost, which won funding from Atlas Venture, Bessemer Venture Partners, Charles River Ventures and RRE Ventures, along with angel investors Othman Laraki, Bill Lee, James Hong, Naval Ravikant, and Karl Jacob, will have competition right out of the gate. In fact, there’s at least one free gradebook application already on the market, called Engrade. Created by a group of wealthy Internet entrepreneurs in San Diego, it has more than 250,000 users. For $50 per year, Pearson also offers a stripped-down tool, separate from PowerSchool, called MyGradebook.

Corrales says there’s lots of room to improve on both tools. “There is a substantial difference between what they offer and what we are about to unveil,” says Corrales. “They’ve been the only things around in the gradebook space, and we want to be a better alternative.”

LearnBoost Attendance ChartAt Harvard Business School, where Corrales just finished his MBA work this June, he was part of what he calls a “tribe” of students planning to immediately launch their own startups. The education field was a natural draw: Corrales’ brother is a teacher, and his co-founders—chief technology officer Guillermo Rauch and product manager Thianh Lu—also have educators in their families.

“We knew we wanted to do something at the intersection of education and technology,” Corrales says. “And we were really influenced by Eric Ries and by Steve Blank’s customer development methodology.”

Ries promotes a “lean startup” process that emphasizes rapid software prototyping and testing, and Blank teaches that startups should stay in constant touch with prospective customers, focusing first on understanding their needs. “We talked to teachers and administrators and school systems and everyone before we even started coding, and asked ‘What is the biggest problem you have today?’,” Corrales says. “The answer that always kept coming up was administrative systems. People were complaining about PowerSchools. So we said, ‘Why don’t we bring some things that we think are new to the table?'”

Those new things included a focus on the user experience akin to Apple’s or Mint.com’s, a freemium business model with zero entry cost, and an emphasis on contributing basic components of the software to the open source community around the basic software components—the better to draw in high-powered software development talent.

LearnBoost’s open source technologies include Mongoose, an interface for the popular MongoDB document-oriented database, and Socket.io, a client for connecting Web servers. Both are optimized for simplicity and speed. Corrales says more than 800 developers are following the two projects on GitHub, a popular software repository.

“By open sourcing Socket.io and Mongoose, we have a ton of people adding back to our code, so it’s extending our resources,” says Corrales. “Then there are two other benefits. The visibility in the technical community helps with recruiting—we’ve had amazing resumes come our way. And these technologies are powering education. Teachers don’t see the code, but they do see that the website is ridiculously fast and that the application works incredibly well.”

Teachers who have seen the latest versions of LearnBoost’s gradebook have reacted with “Multiple wows,” Corrales says. That may be because they’re not used to being lavished with the kind of attention software developers usually reserved for big consumer markets.

“Gradebooks have been a mostly ignored space,” says Corrales. “Blackboard doesn’t really need to innovate, Pearson doesn’t really need to innovate, because those guys are already huge, multi-billion-dollar companies. But we want to move things forward.”

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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