Think of an educational tool and you might picture beloved standbys from our Tools of the Trade series, like the abacus and the wooden block. But educators are increasingly turning to software and websites like Khan Academy, Google Apps and Code.org to help them deliver lessons, manage collaboration, do real-time assessments and more.
The problem is that juggling all these applications can be messy, complex and even unsafe. Increasingly, teachers' computer monitors are festooned with Post-it notes holding the logins and passwords of various programs. Districts don't always know what applications are being used in classrooms. Student records, including sensitive information, may be shuffled around on filesharing sites like Dropbox and accidentally exposed in the process.
A three-year-old San Francisco-based startup called Clever is catching on in schools by offering a digital-age solution to all these digital-age problems.
The company announced this week that its application has been adopted by 44,000 schools across the country, or approximately one-third of the nation's public and private schools. It's nearly unique for its services offered; one partial competitor is the nonprofit EdFi Alliance.
"Clever does two things," explains Tyler Bosmeny, co-founder and CEO. "It helps apps integrate with student information systems and gives students and teachers a single sign-on for all of them."
The single sign-on brings convenience; the integration part addresses issues of security and privacy.
Student information systems are the digital databases that manage school information like enrollment, attendance and school demographics. Clever passes this info back and forth between these systems and third parties, guaranteeing that sensitive information is properly encrypted en route. It's like using PayPal or Amazon Payments to make a purchase instead of calling the store and leaving your credit card number on an answering machine. Plus, districts can see all the applications their schools are using in one place and can manage which data are shared with which app.
An upcoming survey by the Future Privacy Forum shows 87 percent of parents are concerned about having their child's educational record hacked or stolen.
"Our goal is to set the highest bar in the industry for student data security," Bosmeny says.
The company has also been in dialogue with student privacy advocate Joel Reidenberg at Fordham University.
"I think they're setting up a tool that's really useful for school districts," Reidenberg says. "They're sitting in between school districts and vendors and they're handling aspects of the data handoff, so they're enabling the districts to have a better handle on what data is going to their vendors and how it's getting there."
Reidenberg cautions, however, that school districts can't expect to outsource their compliance with privacy law to a commercial app.
Bosmeny and his two co-founders — Dan Carroll, a former teacher, and Rafael Garcia, a former hedge fund analyst — are all under 30 and were classmates at Harvard.
I first met them in the spring of 2013 at the SXSWedu ed-tech conference in Austin, Texas. At that time, InBloom was the startup of the moment, sponsoring a "lounge" space, a track of programming, a party, and a hackathon at the conference. The $100 million nonprofit initiative was supposed to solve a similar problem to what Clever does, but with a different approach: building a massive, cloud-based infrastructure to centrally store student information.
This effort brought protests from privacy advocates, and InBloom shut down last year. Clever, then just a few months old, won the launch competition at that 2013 conference and has grown largely by word of mouth since then.
Clever isn't a perfect solution, says Bill Fitzgerald at Common Sense Media. It works with around 200 applications of the hundreds of education-related offerings available. Partly, that's because the company requires that apps meet its standards for privacy and security.
At the same time, using the app won't guard the student-information systems themselves against all data breaches or hackers. "Clever is really a conduit for info collected via other apps," Fitzgerald says. "So they have an enormous responsibility as a good steward, but they are also connecting other applications, all of which have their own privacy policies and terms."
What the startup does represent is a broader emerging trend. Increasingly, teachers and schools are seeking an alternative to a classroom technology model that looks more like the old paper textbook market, where a company like Pearson or McGraw-Hill lands a huge contract to provide all things digital to all classrooms in a district.
"What's exciting is schools can buy more apps from more places and create a mosaic of learning software to meet the needs of their specific classroom," Bosmeny says. "I've noticed schools using way more applications than ever before. In 2012 we were helping them power one or two, and this year it's 10 or 15. Teachers want to use more software, and the district is figuring out how this can happen in a responsible way."