Win Smith is fairly confident in the local education technology scene. He ought to be, considering he recently left a job at ABS Capital Partners to cofound Alchemy, the latest EdTech startup to enter a tech space that could be a potential boon to the Baltimore region.
The 30-year-old Smith and cofounder Henry Blue, 29, are “aspiring to build the first Web 3.0” platform for K-12 teachers, Smith said, that has “social and software from the ground up,” and collects and organizes data on students’ comprehension and engagement with different classroom lessons. For that, there’s SmartBinder, the Hampden-based startup’s first product. It’s free, and the duo launched it in late July.
It’s a digital lesson binder, said Blue — who for the last three years was a teacher at Boys’ Latin before leaving to work on Alchemy full-time — that provides teachers drag-and-drop functionality to include or remove a variety of teaching resources, like videos, worksheets, outside websites and more.
- After choosing what materials to include in a particular lessons, teachers port that material into a lesson website that students can access at home or in the classroom.
- In addition to the materials (videos, images, documents, worksheets), teachers can also embed open-ended questions and multiple-choice quizzes.
- As students work their way through the lesson material, they’re able to “Like” lessons the same way they might “Like” a Facebook page. A “Confused” button lets students alert teachers to any lesson material they found difficult to comprehend.
Watch a video about SmartBinder:
But the principal function of the SmartBinder platform, and the aspect of the product Smith and Blue hope to build out more in a paid, “enterprise” version slated for release some weeks from now, is an analytics dashboard that tracks the time students spent with each lesson, where they viewed those lessons (at home versus in the classroom) and which lesson materials were more compelling. Teachers view this data in a single report in one pop-up window.
Launching SmartBinder now is fortuitous timing for the Alchemy cofounders: the free web app also includes the Common Core State Standards for math and language arts in the back-end so teachers can measure the strength of their lesson materials against the new set of learning standards being implemented nationwide. Full implementation of the standards in all Maryland K-12 schools is expected to happen during the 2013-2014 academic year.
Alchemy is a bootstrapped effort so far, and in fairly typical startup fashion, the cofounders piloted a beta version of SmartBinder with around 30 K-12 teachers prior to this summer. They have agreements with one local school and an international school (both of which they said they can’t name) to pilot SmartBinder on a school-wide level once 2013 classes begin.
So from their viewpoint, the signs look good. While consumer tech is about as fresh as the moldy loaf of bread occupying space atop the refrigerator, EdTech is being promoted by more investors as the next attractive alternative — and those investors backed it up with $1.1 billion in funding in 2012. A new market report from the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore (EAGB) all but screams to local IT professionals itching to start something up: found an education technology company in a region with a track record of successful EdTech startups. As if the EAGB’s fall report that said “no region is better positioned for the launch of a new EdTech company” wasn’t enough.
Still, despite the laudatory assessment of the Baltimore region, it is if nothing else crowded when it comes to new EdTech startups. There’s a virtual, 3D environment for learning STEM concepts. There’s a youth-learning subscription service with toys and games. There’s a classroom-management software system that comes complete with proprietary tablets. There’s a mobile app that categorizes book listings. There’s a mobile app that catalogs the experience of teaching itself. There’s another app designed to help school principals visualize the money their schools spend, presumably on all the EdTech in the region they’ll be told they need to adopt.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the technologies are so different — and the market so vast — that some of these startups might gain significant traction without stepping on anyone else’s toes. Coexisting in the same city is doable, especially when a city public school system that seems unable to track its own finances might not be the first, or the second, or even the third customer for some of this new EdTech.
Over the next several months, however, Smith and Blue hope to find a few schools willing to purchase a more robust version of SmartBinder. (More “bells and whistles,” we’re told.) Given the signs, it looks to be an OK bet for now: take a chance on building a company while you’re still relatively young. Get into a sector you have direct experience in that’s being quickly changed by budding technologies. And do it right as a new standard for teaching, the Common Core, is being pushed statewide.
“How will schools and teachers measure the success of implementation?” asked Blue during a June interview.
To Alchemy, at least, that answer is clear: SmartBinder.
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