Clever Breaking Sign-on Barriers to Make Edtech Easier for Teachers

5/19/14Follow @tanseyverse

One of the chief imports of Northern California is former Harvard undergraduates and MBAs who flock to the Silicon Valley to change the world. The arrival of Facebook’s founders set the storyline for other alumni teams, including the three Harvard friends who reunited to form Clever, a fast-growing San Francisco educational technology startup with a mission.

Tyler Bosmeny, a 2009 Harvard grad with an MA in statistics, arrived in the Bay area first to work for a software company. He says he soon acquired a serious Silicon Valley attitude. “Anything in the world that seems broken, you can fix it,” as Bosmeny phrases it.

Meanwhile, his Harvard friend Dan Carroll was in Denver learning all about “broken.” He’d been put in charge of educational technology at West Denver Prep, and the teachers were eager to use exciting new learning apps like Dreambox Learning with their students. But Carroll’s department faced a barrier that’s surprising in this plug-and-play era. The teachers had to spend hours manually typing in students’ data to create individual accounts for them with each third-party learning program they wanted to use, Carroll told Bosmeny.

It was a pervasive problem in US schools, Carroll found—a bottleneck that mired the each technology project in significant delay. “School districts measured this in a number of weeks or months,” Bosmeny says. The Harvard friends, who had loved computer learning programs like Mathblaster as kids, started thinking about solutions.

Fast-forward to summer 2012, and Bosmeny, Carroll, and their Harvard classmate Rafael Garcia were at the tech incubator Y Combinator in Mountain View as new co-founders of Clever. There they started to market their technical fix for the missing interface between schools and educational program developers. Think of Clever’s solution as a sort of IT Lego adapter.

This was the problem: There are plenty of digital learning applications such as Algebra Nation for schools across the country to choose from. But there’s no standardized database where schools keep student records—it’s a product category that’s fragmented across a hundred vendors, Bosmeny says. That means app developers such as Dreambox, Algebra Nation and Khan Academy often have to work with each school’s IT department—or teachers themselves—to acquire student data to create accounts. To break that barrier, the Clever team developed a computer platform that extracts student information from school databases of all kinds, and automatically feeds it into the account set-up systems of the educational program developers who are its partners.

“It’s been great for us,” says John Krull, executive officer of technology services for the Oakland (CA) Unified School District, which uses a variety of education apps from companies such as Google. “They can hook them together easily.”

Clever had signed up a thousand schools by the end of its Y Combinator session, and now serves 20,000 kindergarten through 12th grade schools in the United States.

Clever provides the service free to schools, and charges educational app developers between $6 and $25 per school per month. The startup currently partners with more than 100 edtech companies, including Google Apps and Houston, TX-based non-profit Reasoning Mind, whose programs teach math and critical thinking skills.

Reasoning Mind external affairs executive Andrea Foggy-Paxton says she expects that the new partnership with Clever will help the non-profit save substantially on the cost of getting new schools started with the math skills program. The ease of creating student accounts in bulk could also overcome resistance from people who believe the use of digital learning in classrooms is unworkable, says Foggy-Paxton, a former program officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports educational technology.

“My concern has always been how to get it to scale,” Foggy-Paxton says. “Now we can really look at scalability.”

Clever itself is scaling up, thanks to a recent Series A round that yielded $10.3 million from lead investor Sequoia Capital and individual backers including Y Combinator founder Paul Graham and Y Combinator president Sam Altman. The financing follows a $3 million seed round in 2012 from investors including Google Ventures, software pioneer Mitch Kapor, and actor-tech investor Ashton Kutcher. Bosmeny says the latest infusion of funds will be used to enlarge Clever’s staff of 25 to meet demand and maintain levels of support for customers.

Clever ScreenshotBeyond that, Clever has just unveiled another service called Instant Login, which will allow students to sign on once to a Clever page and then move freely among all their different digital learning apps without further, separate sign-ons. For more than a year, schools including Bret Harte Middle School in the Oakland, CA district have been beta-testing Instant Login, and the new feature will be available to all schools in July. More than a dozen educational developers have committed to supporting Instant Login, including Dreambox, Code.org, Achieve3000, and Reasoning Mind.

Clever developed the log-in gateway to solve another problem Carroll had observed in Denver schools. Teachers, especially in elementary school, were hobbled in their use of edtech apps because they had to help students keep track of their usernames and passwords—which are sometimes different for each app.

“I can barely remember all my own passwords,” says Reasoning Mind executive Foggy-Paxton. She says a single sign-on is an important boon, because time is the “highest commodity” for teachers.

In a recent survey of 204 elementary and middle school teachers commissioned by Clever, the marketing information firm MDR found that teachers spent an average of more than 25 percent of their time in digital learning sessions just getting students logged in or troubleshooting.

Clever is planning its next moves into more services that “make life easier for teachers,” says Bosmeny, Clever’s CEO.

Clever’s users have their own ideas about how the startup can do that. For example, they’ve proposed that the company develop analytics to figure out how well edtech programs are working, and that it expand into higher education and institutions outside the United States, Bosmeny says.

“You kind of become the canvas for people to paint their hopes and dreams,” Bosmeny says.

Krull, the educational technology executive for the Oakland school district, says teachers now have so many digital learning choices that they’re looking for a sort of home base on the Web where they can manage all the options. He compares this to the way the proliferation of smart phones and tablet computers in workplaces sparked the creation of new platform companies dedicated to mobile device management. (One of these is Mountain View, CA-based MobileIron.)

Clever wants to be that go-to place for schools. Its long-term vision is to “build the platform for educational technology,” Bosmeny says. By linking thousands of schools to scores of electronic learning enterprises, he says, Clever has started laying the foundation for that platform.

While Clever has positioned itself as a hub between key players in the digital learning environment, a number of companies have already been vying to create one-stop digital learning platforms, or portals, for teachers and students. These include San Mateo, CA-based Edmodo; Schoology in New York, NY; and Santa Monica, CA-based Engrade, which was acquired in February by digital learning company McGraw-Hill Education. These companies have constructed ready-made sites where teachers can post calendars, assignments, readings, and other resources for their students. By offering their services free to teachers, they’ve acquired millions of users. They now offer enhanced services to schools for a fee.

The Engrade portal is a dashboard that includes a gateway to the edtech programs each school uses, and templates for designing tests of student progress. The dashboard allows K-12 teachers to tailor their lesson plans and assignments by plucking elements from a number of different third-party digital learning providers. For example, a teacher could assign a video from Khan Academy plus an exercise on fractions from BrainPOP.

Krull says the Oakland school district has pilot programs running with Edmodo, Schoology, and Engrade, and each has its fans. Clever’s automated account creation service has helped the Oakland schools gain quick access for students to another platform, Google Apps for Education, Krull says.

Bosmeny says schools can use both Clever and any of the platforms like Edmodo, but students would need to sign on separately to any platform that isn’t a Clever customer.

Clever has a valuable place in the mix because it not only gets student accounts set up quickly, but also updates the data daily as students add courses, move away, or otherwise change their status, Krull says. The details about each student can include their grade level, their class schedule, and the names of all their teachers.

Such granular detail could help teachers move toward Oakland’s goal of “personalized learning,” Krull says. Edtech platform companies could help teachers customize lessons for each grade level, as well as design assignments for individual students who need to pick up specific skills. Krull is looking to companies to build tools to make that simple for teachers to do.

Bosmeny says Clever is considering a range of projects as it decides “what the elements are for a complete and total educational technology company.” The startup is not just angling to become a useful acquisition for a larger firm, he says.

“We see Clever as becoming an enduring company in education,” Bosmeny says.

Clever doesn’t disclose the revenues it has pulled in from digital learning providers as it signed up thousands of schools over the past two years. Sequoia Capital Partner Bryan Schreier, who’s a member of Clever’s board of directors, says, “As far as we know, Clever is the fastest growing technology company in education—ever.”

“We believe Clever has a huge opportunity for growth with technology that is enabling the next generation of learning,” Schreier says.

Bernadette Tansey is a freelance journalist based in Berkeley, CA. Follow @tanseyverse

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