Tucked away near the back of the show floor at EDUCAUSE 2014, past the rotating marquees of well-known brands, you’ll find the startup alley: a cluster of ed tech entrepreneurs — young companies with new ideas for the industry — who are working to make a name for themselves.
Here, two recent college graduates from the University of Arizona have unveiled a learning platform with a social hook that is changing how students and faculty communicate about coursework.
Instead of venturing away from campus after graduation, Andrew Chaifetz and Alex Slaughter got busy rolling out NoteBowl, a web app solution to a fundamental technology problem at their alma mater.
Fragmented Campus Systems Created Chaos for Freshmen
As freshmen in 2010, Slaughter says, he and his peers had to learn to use several different online systems just to take a class. Learning about campus events could prove even more challenging. It was never easy to find what one needed, he says.
"We saw the existing technologies as failing," Slaughter says. "They were fragmented across the university in different silos. We saw this as not being conducive to the learning experience."
NoteBowl, a hybrid social network and learning management platform, brings together many online elements of student life, including a student planner, the course catalog and a friends list. The idea is to make navigating these experiences easier for students and faculty, freeing up their time to do more important things.
There’s a bulletin board for news from faculty, a place for students to share updates on their academic lives and a calendar that marries campus activities with course milestones, all of which can be tied into smartphone notifications.
"I would have loved to have this as a student," Chaifetz says. “It helps remove the excess clutter from academia.”
One of the big draws for the platform is the automated calendar, Slaughter says. NoteBowl speeds along the otherwise laborious task of sifting through multiple syllabi just to pull out important dates and add them to a digital calendar synced with a smartphone — a process Slaughter says is a waste of students' time. The calendar offers seamless integration with other app environments, including Google Apps for Education.
“The idea was to put the best of everything together,” Slaughter says.
Facebook for Academia
On the social side, the interactions are mostly academic in nature. NoteBowl won’t supplant Facebook or Twitter, but it will open a new channel for coursework-focused social interaction. The platform also provides an online pathway to stay in contact with former classmates and receive updates on alumni activities or events at school clubs or Greek organizations, Chaifetz says.
After more than four years of work, the team launched the full platform as a pilot this summer at their alma mater. Getting to that stage involved long nights of coding and designing by Chaifetz and Slaughter as well as rigorous testing from the University of Arizona's IT staff to ensure the software met their security standards.
The NoteBowl team has since grown to nine after securing an Edson Student Entrepreneurship Initiative grant from Arizona State University and a $300,000 angel investment from a former Microsoft employee.
Living together in a small house near campus, the team is working around the clock, excited at the prospect of launching their software on a larger scale this year.
“We go to sleep, NoteBowl. We wake up, NoteBowl,” Slaughter says.
But, Chaifetz adds, "it’s not work when you’re having fun, right?”
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