Some might see Facebook and Twitter as little more than time-wasting diversions, but a trio of recent Washington University graduates found that social networking helps keep kids focused on their studies. That’s the philosophy behind their “web-based learning management system,” Schoology.com, which lets students, teachers and administrators communicate through a Facebook-like interface. Study groups can share tips, teachers can send out homework assignments, and tennis coaches can announce that practice is rescheduled. Users are “pinged” whenever they receive a new notice. It’s as simple as it is ingenious.
“Social networking is very good at keeping people online for hours,” says one of Schoology’s founders, Timothy Trinidad, BSBA ’09, BSAS ’09. “And not just for friends and photos, but by aggregating information and keeping people engaged, which is what teachers want students to be.”
Investors agree, and the company announced its acceptance of $1.25 million from a Pittsburgh venture capitalist in June 2010. Now based in New York City, Schoology has hit the ground running. Initially focused on grades K-12, the site has expanded to all educational levels, and students and teachers at thousands of schools around the world, from Mexico to Malaysia, are signing up. Last year Entrepreneur magazine profiled Schoology.
It all began when Trinidad met his partners, Ryan Hwang, BSBA ’09, and Jeremy Friedman, AB ’09, who both hail from Westchester County, N.Y., during their freshman year at the university. Trinidad — who comes from Glendale, Calif. — lived next door to Hwang at old Liggett Hall. In the summer of 2007, Trinidad and Friedman began working together on a website to share class notes, and after joining forces with Hwang, they debuted the first version of Schoology a year later.
However, they soon scrapped their original idea in favor of expanding on the concept behind Blackboard.com, a “learning management” site that allows teachers to post assignments and grades (among other functions), and is used by many schools, including Olin Business School. Trinidad, Hwang and Friedman’s key innovation was to set up “alerts,” meaning that, say, whenever a teacher posts new information about a course, the student is “pinged” on the site or sent an e-mail. It works just like Facebook. “We wanted to combine a learning management site with a social networking site,” Trinidad says.
In the fall of 2009, they began working on the project in earnest, spending nearly all of their free time talking to each other on the phone and writing code. Under Clifford Holekamp, a senior lecturer at Olin, they took a pair of courses, “Introduction to Entrepreneurship” and the Hatchery entrepreneurship class. Even though Holekamp would become one of their biggest supporters, he says their initial presentation wasn’t inspiring. “It was lackluster,” he says. “But what impressed me was that when I started critiquing their performance, rather than being defensive, they seemed to want more. That was the point when I realized they were really focused on achieving something.”
They found another tough crowd, however, when pitching their idea to St. Louis school teachers, who raised concerns. “High school teachers were asking about cyber-bullying, privacy security and all these things we hadn’t thought about,” Trinidad says. “We were torn apart.”
But instead of despairing, they began implementing many of the recommended changes, allowing schools to control the way students interact with each other. For example, if administrators are worried about students, say, sending flirty notes to their classmates, they can turn off the private messaging function. Over time, Trinidad, Hwang and Friedman’s creation became increasingly flexible and adaptive to classroom needs, from its “drop boxes” for students to turn in homework to resources aiding instructors developing curriculums.
Teachers and administrators can sign up individually, or schools can make the system their main, front-end web portal. Use is free, but institutions may purchase dedicated support contracts (which allows them to receive tech support by phone) and custom branding, which incorporates their school colors and logos into the site’s interface.
Friedman says that, moving forward, one of Schoology’s main priorities is to expand its functionality. “We’re putting a heavy focus on content, resources and applications,” he notes. They hope to build a resource library that teachers can share across schools, and add “apps” that do things like check for plagiarism and automatically grade quizzes.
All three men — still in their early 20s — credit Washington University for allowing them to pursue their interests in both business and technology. Each took classes at Olin, and Friedman and Trinidad studied computer science together. Hwang majored in marketing and international business, while working as a freelance web designer in his spare time.
Today, Friedman is Schoology’s CEO, focusing largely on strategy and business development, while Hwang, the creative director, works on design and marketing. Trinidad, meanwhile, is the CTO and specializes in the site’s back-end development. They each wear multiple hats. “Quite frankly, I think they all possess interchangeable skills,” Holekamp says. “They’re all strong managers and have great understanding of the technology. It’s a deep team.”
They’ve also been particularly adept at fundraising, impressing angel investors and venture capitalists from all over the country. The $1.25 million they received allowed them to expand their operations quickly, and they’ve hired four additional employees.
But that doesn’t mean they’ve been able to relax. They arrive at 9:30 in the morning on a typical day and leave about 14 hours later — that is, when they’re not pulling all-nighters. Still, you won’t hear them grumbling. “When you take a step back, we’re living the dream,” Hwang says. “We’ve been working on this for three-and-a-half years. It’s great because after all the time we’ve spent, it’s on the market, a ton of schools are using it, and everyone just loves it.”
Even better, the camaraderie from their freshman year is still alive and well. “It’s fun being able to work with your friends, to be your own boss,” Hwang concludes. “[Our business] is growing every day, and that’s exciting.”
Ben Westhoff, AB ’99, is a freelance writer based in Chatham, N.J.