June 26, 2012 at 16:00 PM EDT
Y Combinator-Backed Clever Launches A Twilio For Educational Data
We're all a bit tired of the "X is Twilio for Y" brand of analogies (though it's refreshing to see more of Twilio in this equation than Airbnb these days), but if ever there were an industry in need of some modern, standardizing APIs it would be education. Thankfully, Clever , a San Francisco-based startup and member of Y Combinator's current batch, is today launching a solution that brings some of the Twilio vision to education.
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We’re all a bit tired of the “X is Twilio for Y” brand of analogies (though it’s refreshing to see more of Twilio in this equation than Airbnb these days), but if ever there were an industry in need of some modern, standardizing APIs it would be education. Thankfully, Clever, a San Francisco-based startup and member of Y Combinator’s current batch, is today launching a solution that brings some of the Twilio vision to education.

Let me explain: The future of education lies in leveraging technology to personalize the learning process. Schools produce and collect an enormous amount of data on their students, and the better the data that makes up our individual transcripts is utilized, the more effective teachers, learning tools, curricula et al become.

Schools currently use legacy information systems, otherwise known as Student Information Systems (SIS) to store this data, which includes everything from class lists and attendance to grades and allergies. But the problem is that these systems differ from school-to-school. Many institutions or districts develop their own ad hoc software or applications to collect, transfer, and make sense of student data.

Really, there’s no standard data format for these systems. So, when a developer builds educational software, or an educational app, they have to manually integrate with whatever specific SIS concoction the school happens to be using. As one might imagine, this kind of development doesn’t scale well for those who want to sell software or products to multiple schools/districts. And, for teachers, it generally means having to enter data by hand.

“Interestingly, when we talk to schools about the biggest hurdles that keep them from adopting new technology or software, their answer is surprising,” says Clever co-founder Tyler Bosmeny. “It’s not cost, or that teachers aren’t willing to try new technology, it’s that they don’t want to introduce yet another data silo.”

So, along with co-founders Daniel Carroll and Rafael Garcia, the three former Harvard classmates decided to tackle the problem by building a simple REST API that would take the grunt work out of having to manually convert data from Student Information Systems. It’s probably not much-recognized at this point, but the founders said they’ve been seeing a surprising amount of developers building some amazing apps for schools.

But they have to spend way-too-much time integrating their apps into complex data systems. As with everything else in the tech industry today, problems and solutions begin and end with data. “Moving and managing data is one of the biggest things that’s holding back education today,” Bosmeny says. So, Clever interfaces with these data systems for developers, making it easier for them to access the information they need from a SIS, so they can get back to focusing on building great software, not doing grunt work.

There are over 100 different Student Information Systems in the U.S. at present, and Clever’s long-term goal is to be able to cover them all. This is an ambitious goal, and they’re not quite there yet. The co-founder tells us that he thinks they now support Student Information Systems for over 60 percent of students in the U.S., and they’re moving as fast as they can to get them all.

The team is building one simple, clean, universal API so that, once schools give authorization, developers can quickly access and port that data into their apps. Student Information Systems were not built for the API Era, so it’s an on-going battle, but the team believes that if they can build a common data platform for educational systems, all sides will benefit as a result.

Clever doesn’t yet allow developers to push information back into a particular SIS (for example, if one builds a math game, the results would be pushed back into the SIS and recorded for the student playing the game), but that feature is what’s up next. Bosmeny says the team hopes to have this ready in the next few months.

And, while it may seem somewhat obscure, Clever has found that schools (and their CIOs) and developers are excited for this kind of tech to enter the fray. At the beginning of June, Clever had integrated with 4 schools. Today, less than a month later, they’ve signed on 70 schools, with more than 25,000 students already in their system.

This, in particular, is also what’s different about Clever’s approach when compared to the typical edtech startup, which often has to rely on a sales force to approach and sell schools directly (and then help them integrate the software). Clever isn’t approaching schools directly, they’ve been using educational software developers as their points of access into schools.

To make money, Clever will be charging developers to use their API, and while that might seem like a deal breaker, developers are incentivized to do this and introduce them to new institutions, the team believes, because their apps/products become more appealing to schools should they come with Clever integration. Schools are so gun-shy about adding new software (which means more manual data entry), many are willing to embrace digital automation, or API standardization, as an alternative.

On the flip side, it also reduces the amount of support the developer has to do in syncing the Student Information System with the software they’ve built. This approach, they hope, can leverage the domino/network effect, because, once a school integrates with Clever, they then want all apps they purchase to support clever.

There are a ton of exciting edtech startups out there building or scaling amazing products and software, but few are approaching it from the developer angle. By making it easier to build and sell ed software, Clever could have a serious impact on the size and shape of the educational software market.

Granted, it’s too early to make sweeping pronouncements, but the kind of traction they’ve been able to get in just a month’s time is definitely cause for optimism. The goal: Become the de facto standard for storing data at schools. If they can do that, they’ll not only help personalize education and push it forward, but they can probably make some money to boot. Something not always associated with educational businesses.

For more, find Clever at home here.



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