Usually when I interview a startup’s founders and prepare to write a story about them and their product, I ask for screenshots. I could grab them myself, I suppose, but the ones that founders share can be pretty telling: it’s an opportunity for them to show me what they think are their most interesting or important features, their most eye-catching design, their best use-case.
The LearnSprout co-founders laughed when I said I was skipping my typical screenshot request in their case. After all, there’s not really an image that can showcase what they’ve built. “We could show off our API documentation,” joked Anthony Wu.
The lack of imagery here shouldn’t be interpreted as an inferior product. In fact, I think this startup is working on one of the most important challenges facing ed-tech, and with an incredibly sharp founding team, I’m confident they’re up to engineering a solution. (Wu is a former Googler, Franklyn Chien a former Facebooker, and Joe Woo an ex-Microsoftie.)
What LearnSprout has built is all “under the hood,” if you will – hence this screenshot-less post. It’s an API that allows other developers build education apps that are integrated with schools’ student information systems. It’s akin to a Facebook Connect so that there’s an authorization/authentication process that makes it easier to provision accounts for students (and teachers) without the old process of exporting a roster (a CSV file) and either uploading that file into another piece of software (or worse, doing the manual date try).
I’ve written before about precisely this problem: the lack of APIs in educational software, for one, but also the resulting data silos. Those silos are part and parcel of SISes. It’s how they operate by design: data is locked down and locked in.
Chien says that the team first considered building an alternative SIS, one that would rectify this problem. And while this might not have been too tough an engineering challenge, selling schools a new SIS is certainly a tough sales problem.
Of course, selling an API platform to schools might not seem that easy either, but LearnSprout has a smart way to do so. Their tool is free to schools. (That helps with sales, no doubt). But the distribution and sales is actually driven by the third party developers who want to be able to integrate their apps with SISes. LearnSprout offers its API for free to developers who bring in a new school. Subsequent users of the connection to that school are charged.
The goal, says Chien, is to be a “Twilio for education” – a reference to the popular telephony API provider which has become an integral building block in many apps. Of course, flipping the switch to turn on SMS and voice mail is arguably an easier task than integrating with an SIS. There’s a lack of standardization with the data that comes out of various school information systems and an unwillingness to offer read/write access (as such, the LearnSprout API is read-only currently), but Chien stresses that his startup is “data agnostic.”
LearnSprout is in closed beta at the moment, with plans to open soon. In the meantime, it has released a Chrome app that helps educators address login/password fatigue.
LearnSprout is one of the recent graduates of the ImagineK12 incubator program.