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 … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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