An Experience to Love

Inspired by frustration, a recent college grad creates a next-generation LMS.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Justin Chando of ChalkupHis first real introduction to learning management systems came when he was in college. “I was using one of the most widely-used LMSes in the country to receive and submit assignments,” says Justin Chando, who earned a Bachelor of Arts, Economics and Business from Lafayette College in 2013, “and it was just a terrible experience. Besides being massively difficult to use, the LMS I had to work with did very little to connect me with my classmates and share resources. Discussion threads were empty and using the system was a formality, if it was used at all,” he says. “Most of my classes opted to forge ahead without the system, even though the college was spending lots on the service.” For a school with such vast resources, recalls Justin, “I couldn’t figure out why we were using a system that hadn’t received any major updates since it was launched in the late

As scary as change is – we need it. It’s important. It’s the only way we’re going to make ourselves and our students better.

1990s, early 2000s.” There had to be something better out there, he thought. When it didn’t look like there was, he got a group of friends together to create Chalkup, a next-generation LMS and class collaboration platform. That was in 2012. The platform is simple on the surface, but dig deeper and you’ll find a powerful learning tool – something Justin would have wanted for himself as a student, and something he’s making sure to provide to others. Here’s more from Justin.

You have written publicly about the shortcomings of classroom technology. How did you become passionate about this issue?

Justin: Well, my college experience was really what made me understand that there is so much work to be done as far as classroom technology is concerned. I felt underserved – and the more research I did, the more I realized there were many others who felt this way.

But it was actually a piece of engineering homework that started it all and convinced me learning management systems had it all wrong in general.

I was stuck on a homework question and knew that there were 18 other students in my class working on the same problem as I was (basically at the same time). I just didn’t have any easy way to reach out for help because LMSes were created to manage the learning process, not to facilitate collaboration.

That’s when I gathered that group of equally-frustrated friends and we got to work. We wanted to create the LMS our classrooms deserved. We built the system from scratch, engineering solutions from the library basement and our dorm rooms. We put connection and collaboration above all else and built a system that was ridiculously easy to use.

And as this was happening, I developed a genuine passion for making tools that allow classrooms to do and learn more. I want to make stuff they want to use – technology that enhances their experience. When I was a student, I didn’t feel like there were tech companies trying to do that for me.

What’s something interesting about its development history? Why do you choose not to call your product a learning management system?

Justin: I quickly threw my hands up when I was researching LMSes. Despite the way these companies were marketing themselves, every single one I tested was designed as a glorified assignment machine, or was suffering from gross feature creep. They just tried to do everything, and in that pursuit, they did nothing because the experience was so overwhelming.

I was still in college at the time and my school kindly let me pilot the product there to get more feedback from teachers and students – which instantly made Chalkup better. As we started to figure out how to better design the platform so it was as collaboration friendly as possible, I realized that I wasn’t making a learning management system. I was making something different altogether. Chalkup fundamentally values a different user experience than any other LMS.

Soon after we decided to start calling Chalkup a “class collaboration platform.”

How is Chalkup any different than the classroom technology that’s come before it?

Justin: As I learned more about different types of classroom technology, I started to appreciate feature creep. As far as learning management systems go, it boggles my mind how many say they’re all about connecting classrooms, but really they’re just creating a new feature for every need. It’s overdeveloped and overwhelming.

In short: by trying to serve everyone, they serve no one.

So in the LMS field, I think we’re different because Chalkup is amazingly able to do what any other LMS can, but we’ve steered clear of making it a do-everything-for-everyone platform that ultimately teachers stop using.

Overall, I’m proud that we approach product development by asking what is going to be the most useful, connective, and relevant features for teachers and students. We don’t do things just because we can.

I really respect the edtech companies that have created products that aren’t technology for technology’s sake. We approach Chalkup the same way, and I think that puts us in an elite group.

How was it working in the classroom, talking with the students, collaborating with specialists? Any lessons learned? Was it a shock going from development theory to classroom practicality? Did you make some key adjustments at that time due to student or teacher feedback?

Justin: Yes times 1,000.

It all started to click when we piloted the product with real classes. I felt like we had a head start because we were approaching the development of Chalkup as students who wanted a different experience. But wow, even then. We learned a lot.

Shortly after our initial testing we adjusted the entire interface to make Chalkup easier to use and to optimize collaboration features.

So early feedback was everything. Getting in classrooms was huge. And we still have a lot to learn from our users to keep making Chalkup better. With that, the next year will see expanded mobile features, new product integrations, and stronger school-wide messaging capabilities.

First on the list is our expanded iOS and Android apps this spring. We can’t wait for the release.

Anything interesting about your own background that informed your current approach?

Justin: I said this in another interview recently, but my role has always been the starter. I like to bring people together and make things happen. I started my first company when I was 12 and I used the profits from that experience to create another business when I was 16.

But at the end of the day: I love the grind, I love the work. And I learned from these early entrepreneurial opportunities; I felt ready to make Chalkup. I also felt like I had an extra edge being fresh out of the classroom and building something to make that experience better. With Chalkup, we really got the right team in place and found great advisors to help along the way.

What’s your 60-second pitch to someone on what exactly it is, benefits?

Justin: Definitely – okay, here it goes:

Chalkup is the world’s first class collaboration platform.

We do everything a learning management system can, but with a gorgeous, user-friendly interface that is optimized for keeping classes in touch and sharing resources.

Beyond being ridiculously easy-to-use, Chalkup integrates seamlessly with Google Drive. From online conversations to grading to assignments, it’s simple, it’s beautiful, and it’s effective.

And when you build a platform that is as easy-to-use and powerful as Chalkup is – something really cool happens: teachers and students actually use it.

Do you consider that you have any direct or indirect competition? 

Justin: We understand that even though we believe we’ve built something fundamentally different than the modern learning management system, we’re competing against all the other LMSes out there in both K-12 and higher ed environments.

We’re the only ones doing what we’re doing, but it’s not lost on me that we’re going head-to-head with lots of other LMSes.

I hope that we can spark more dialogue on technology in classrooms – its role, what we want out of it, how tech is really going to be a value add – and further distinguish ourselves from what LMSes have traditionally been.

Any highlights about test marketing it or starting out; any interesting feedback, reaction to it?

Justin: It was important to us that we waste no time getting the product in real classes. So we developed it for two months, and by the third, Chalkup was in classrooms.

We had the opportunity to be in those classes every day and gain feedback about how it is being used. It was crazy helpful to improving the product. We even did a pretty drastic redesign early on because we learned so much from our users.

We’ve maintained this practice, but now our scale is so much larger. We no longer get feedback from 10 classes, now it’s thousands.

I take a lot of pride in how we developed Chalkup initially to solve for the student first so that students would spend more time thinking about their learning and getting un-stuck.

Solve for the student, empower the educator. That’s the way we like to do things.

As far as getting Chalkup on the market, one of the largest factors in our growth has been how closely the product works with Google Apps for Education. We really carved out a niche and went about working with Google in a different way from other LMSes.

What else can you say about the value and benefit of Chalkup?

Justin: In a nutshell, we’re doing something that no one else is. We’re optimizing for connection and collaboration, and we’re making a beautiful user experience along the way. Powerful tools don’t need to be ugly tools. We’re putting the care and thoughtfulness behind designing a user experience that works for students and teachers (not just one or the other).

And let’s also talk Google Drive. We integrate seamlessly with Google – you can even sign in with your Google account. This is a great example of how we’re trying to be smarter with functions traditionally performed by LMSes. By last count, there’s over 40 million Google Apps for Education accounts.

We know a lot of teachers love using Google Drive with their classes. But when it comes to powerful grading or creating a classwide discussion space, there is something left to be desired with Google Classroom.

You can access your Google Drive to upload documents anywhere in Chalkup. We even change the file permissions automatically. You can share, you can assign, you can submit, and you can even grade using a rubric.

Anything else in the works?

Justin: On the product side, we’re all about developing the best mobile learning experience right now. Our expanded native iOS and Android apps will be released this spring.

We’re also internally working on quite a few completely new projects that we’ve identified as real opportunities to help both students and teachers.

On the blog side, we’re thrilled to be releasing a new series of Q&As with amazing, innovative teachers who are using Chalkup to stay connected with their students. Meeting these educators has been a treat. It’s been really inspiring to hear their stories and how they’re using the product.

Your thoughts on education in general these days?

Justin: You know, as much as there is that we need to work on, education has been moving forward. We’ve developed new resources and new opportunities for students. U.S. high school graduation rates are up. Good things are happening.

But I do believe we’re at a crossroads as we reach critical mass with education technology. It’s more potential than we’ve ever had before and it’s easy to lose focus.

At the end of the day it needs to be about the students. When implementing edtech, it’s easy to get caught up in the needs of administrators and teachers – who need to be heard and play a role in the process – but when their needs overshadow students’, it’s clear we’re forgetting why we’re doing this in the first place.

Your thoughts on technology’s role in education?

Justin: I obviously love education technology. It’s incredibly exciting. But make no mistake – I don’t think technology is the silver bullet. Technology is a vehicle. It still comes back to what we do with it.

I wrote a post recently on Medium about why your classroom technology needs to be smarter than paper. It’s all about not adding technology for the sake of adding technology, but to achieve new learning gains.

First, I think we need to make an agreement that we can’t throw devices at classes and believe that we’re done. We can’t just post assignments online and have that be the end of the conversation. We can’t keep teaching as we always have even though the game is fundamentally changing.

Any guidance or advice to educators these days?

Justin: I understand that I approach Chalkup – and the edtech world – as a student who wanted a different experience. So far be it from me to offer advice to teachers.

The only thing I’ll say is that Chalkup has allowed me to speak with educators from around the world about how they use technology, what they like, what they want, and what they worry about.

A consistent thread in many of my conversations is that change can be scary for instructors who have done the same thing in their classrooms for years. And I understand that.

But as scary as change is – we need it. It’s important. It’s the only way we’re going to make ourselves and our students better.

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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