SLATE high school learning management tool soft launches, Jarvus Innovations pursues vision of education reform

Updated: Feb. 27, 2012 @ 12:42pm with additional perspective from co-founders. John Fazio got kicked out of high school. Then he dropped out of Drexel. He says his mentors recommended he do it. So it might seem ironic that the product that Fazio’s web development shop Jarvus aims to make its biggest splash yet is […]

Updated: Feb. 27, 2012 @ 12:42pm with additional perspective from co-founders.

John Fazio got kicked out of high school.

Then he dropped out of Drexel. He says his mentors recommended he do it.

So it might seem ironic that the product that Fazio’s web development shop Jarvus aims to make its biggest splash yet is its long-planned SLATE, an open source high school management tool that is already in use at two area high schools, with plans to be introduced at ten more this summer.

Fazio says there’s nothing ironic about it.

Fazio and Jarvus cofounder Chris Alfano, a fellow Drexel dropout, are passionate about reforming education. Fazio hopes SLATE will revolutionize the high school experience he hated. In the meantime, they’ve taken some of that responsibility into their own hands, as evidenced by the rotation of high school students they train to be programmers.

“I was the kid who got really good [test scores] and failed classes because I was not interested in the linear progression of knowledge,” Fazio said. “Chris was the same way.”

SLATE is a management tool that could most easily be compared to Blackboard, the learning management system (LMS) giant commonly used on college campuses to facilitate communication between students and teachers. If you’ve been to college in the last five or so years, it’s likely you’ve used it. If you know the startup landscape, you’ve read about the constant march of purported Blackboard killers entering the market — Wharton’s Coursekit among them.

But SLATE is not just Blackboard for high schools, says Fazio. It’s also intended to be a student information system (SIS) that allows administrators and faculty to coordinate and share information about students.

Fazio boasts that combining the two systems is what gives the still maturing Jarvus the edge over other education management systems, and anyway, he is quick to point out, Jarvus isn’t interested in gunning for the university market just yet.

“We target high schools because we think we’ll have a larger impact on society through high schools,” Fazio said. Yes, they have big goals.

So what inspired this commitment to education in a couple of local, entrepreneurial dropouts who spun Jarvus out of Devnuts, the cavernous coworking space they created in Northern Liberties?

Get ready for the real irony: an inspirational educator.

“It wasn’t until we met Chris Lehmann at Ignite Philly in 2008 that I understood there are people who understand the paradigm we recognize,” said Fazio. “His philosophy is project-based learning. That just hit home for me. That’s what I think education needs to move to. That’s how we will build smarter people in our future.”

To be fair, Lehmann is not your average high school educator. He is the founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy (SLA), the celebrated science and technology-focused Center City magnet charter high school that embodies his project-based learning philosophy. He is also a vocal public figure and prolific writer in the world of education reform.

Fazio says he and Alfano — their recent third partner Matt Monihan left late last year for a gig with RJ Metrics — hit it off with Lehmann and the trio hatched a plan to combine Lehmann’s passion for project-based learning with Fazio and Alfano’s vision for using software to learn. Conveniently, they already had the perfect test school: SLA.

SLA has been using the SIS component of SLATE for the last three years, but the LMS — the part students can use — is a work in progress. Fazio promises SLA will have both systems up and running in the next six months. It’s a slow moving progress — murmurs of the origins of SLATE have been around since at least early 2010.

But take a walk into Devnuts on a given afternoon and you’ll see Jarvus isn’t waiting for SLATE to put their education reform ideas into action. In addition to the usual cast of Jarvus employees — two of which are SLA alumni who learned to program under the tutelage of Fazio and Alfano and skipped college to take jobs with the firm — there are a crew of high schoolers who Fazio and Alfano train to code, among other things.

Developing SLATE has been a piecemeal process at SLA and Abington Friends School, the other test case.

Updated: Fazio writes in to clarify that Abington is not a project based school. “Our software is¬†indiscriminate¬†and aims to fix problems that all schools feel,” he writes.

This approach is partially the result of Jarvus’s inexperience, but it’s also built into the business plan. SLATE will be sold using a freemium model that makes the product free and open source to all schools, while those that want customized features can pay for it.

Updated: Alfano writes in to further make this point: “By making this open-source, we are aiming to provide top-quality education management tools available to public high schools who otherwise wouldn’t have the means or funding to use such software”

But the business focus on customization seems at odds with Fazio’s conviction that project-based learning is the way forward on education. Surely not all schools who opt to use SLATE will share the same philosophy. Jarvus is young and it’s not yet clear where their idealism ends and their business begins.

But backgrounds and agendas aside, a limited demo of SLATE’s various parts suggests a degree of connectivity that is hard to imagine if you graduated high school before the Web 2.0 tidal wave. Imagine being able to register for classes, search for a fellow student’s contact information, see teacher feedback and post homework assignments all in one place. Jarvus has also built in a social feedback system where teacher’s can report bugs or suggest new features. It’s easy to imagine teachers using SLATE to engage students, like Fazio himself, who might otherwise fall through the cracks.

Right now, though, the open source availability is still just a vision — SLATE’s website is still just a splash page. And there are plenty of questions about how SLATE will continue to develop at SLA and Abington Friends, not to mention the unknown ten new schools Jarvus plans to take on this summer.

Updated: Fazio writes in to clarify: “This is a mature and tested piece of software,” he writes. “the fact is Chris and I have been developing together for almost a decade and have 3 years of actual use-case testing for SLATE and our software.”

Like the Jarvus team’s dropouts-reforming-education persona, the vision for SLATE is compelling and the promise is high, but the execution has a little ways to go.

Companies: Jarvus Innovations / Science Leadership Academy

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