LearnBoost Unveils Free Online Gradebook for Teachers

8/10/10Follow @wroush

Last month I met with Rafael Corrales, CEO of a small San Francisco startup called LearnBoost, and got the inside story about the company’s audacious plan to help teachers and schools by bringing Apple-style elegance and simplicity to the educational software market. Today LearnBoost took the lid off the first component of its grand plan: a free online gradebook.

Teachers can sign up to use the gradebook at LearnBoost’s website starting this morning. I have zero teaching experience, but after taking the software for a test drive and comparing it to other free Web-based programs, my impression is that LearnBoost’s online app boasts a level of usability and design sense that’s simply absent from most software tools for educators.

“We’re focused on user experience, which is combining beautiful design with a streamlined user work flow,” says Corrales, whose six-person team recently raised $975,000 from Atlas Venture, Bessemer Venture Partners, Charles River Ventures, RRE Ventures, and a group of angel investors. “It means stripping away what is not crucial so that things become more intuitive and simple to use.”

The gradebook has modules that allow teachers to set up class rosters and seating charts, fill out lesson plans, create calendars, enter grades for each assignment or test, and track student attendance. Like a spreadsheet, the software automatically calculates students’ running grades based on their performance on individual assignments. Everything works in a smooth Web-2.0 style that will be familiar to any user of modern Web applications such as Mint or 37signals’ collaboration tools such as Basecamp and Backpack.

Sample gradebook on LearnBoostIn fact, LearnBoost’s whole premise is that teachers, a market long neglected by Web developers, are as deserving of great software tools as ordinary consumers or business users. While the startup’s gradebook achieves has many of the same functions as free alternatives such as Engrade and SnapGrades, LearnBoost’s charts, lists, tables, and popup windows have a far more modern look and feel.

And none of it is done using fussy, proprietary tools like Flash. “We use the latest Web standards,” including HTML5 and CSS3, Corrales says. “HTML5 allows us to build interactive features without needing Flash. Also, CSS3 brings beautiful elements like rounded corners and box shadows without having to use images.” All of which improves the application’s speediness.

As Corrales explained to me last month, the gradebook is merely a wedge for LearnBoost into the bigger market for “student information systems,” the education world’s equivalent of enterprise resource planning or customer relationship management software in businesses or electronic medical records systems in hospitals. Costly software packages from big companies like Blackboard and Pearson Education dominate this market, but Corrales believes that by winning over teachers first with its easy-to-use tools, LearnBoost will eventually be able to sway whole school districts to switch over to its tools, which will come at a lower price.

Corrales is also proud of LearnBoost’s ties to the open source software community—a contrast to the proprietary nature of most other student information systems. A web socket tool, a database interface, and other software components that LearnBoost has openly distributed have earned the company more than 1,000 followers at the open source code repository GitHub, he says.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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