What do you get when you cross teachers, tech, and social networking? A BetterLesson.
Although not the first or the only Web site that hooks teachers up with friends and new curriculum, BetterLesson takes a different approach.
"Teachers mine content on other sites," says Erin Osborn, the field director for BetterLesson, based in Somerville, Mass.
But here, teachers are compelled to create and add content, she says. The Web site, still in beta, has been built with a curriculum organizing and filing system specifically for teachers, that's done using cloud computing, so teachers don't need to worry about carrying around a flash drive.
Most new teachers, for example, start at square one, testing what works and what doesn't, and often feel like it's difficult to sustain re-developing content year after year. This is something the founder of BetterLesson is familiar with, since he, too, was a teacher.
After two years of working in a high needs school for Teach for America, BetterLesson founder and CEO Alex Grodd felt a certain frustration at having to reinvent the wheel with each lesson plan. He thought getting a job at a high-achieving charter school, Roxbury Preparatory, would be better. But it wasn't, he still had the same frustrations.
Grodd joined forces with Osborn, and two other team members, another teacher, and a techie; they brainstormed and came up with BetterLesson. They've spent the last year doing research, outreach, and coding to get the site ready for private beta. The goal?
"We want people to stay teaching longer than two years," says Osborn.
Part of what can help teachers stay teaching is to give them a strong network and support system that assists them to creating robust lesson plans tailored specifically to the needs of their kids, she says. This is where social networking comes into play.
Right now, there are dozens of social-networking Web sites for teachers, but most fall into one of two existing models, intranet or open source, they say. With the intranet model, the community tends to be limited to one school, network, or district, which makes for limited material and oftentimes locked platforms that can't be build out.
Conversely, the open-source model, whose goal is to make all knowledge shareable, has massive open sharing platforms. While there is a lot of material, it can often be overwhelming and difficult for teachers to navigate, they say. Also, the actual networking aspect and community feel is lost.
"We're taking an intermediate approach," says Osborn. "It's the nexus of technology and personal teacher experience."
Similar to Facebook, each user has their own profile and can join groups and networks. Members can "colleague" each other and then keep up through a news feed. On each person's profile page, there is general information, courses taught, and curriculum overviews.
The part that really differentiates the site, its creators say, is the teacher-specific design, where teachers can upload their multifile 180-day curriculum. They can show supplies, texts, related lessons, and create discussions. Digital files can also be exchanged, including video, audio, and images.
Members have rating charts that show how many people have downloaded each lesson plan, which encourages content contribution. And teachers can do key word searches to find information on specific topics and click "add to my curriculum." There's also a state standard tagging tool, so teachers can tag and search for files that use state standards.
"Hopefully they take this and cobble what's out there to create something meaningful in what they teach," says Osborn.
As for a business model, Osborn says they don't have plans to advertise because they'd like to keep the user's experience as clean and unencumbered as possible. So, the start-up is looking at several other ways to monetize the site, including a freemium model, in which it will offer free services while charging for advanced or special features.
BetterLesson has been in private beta for the past five months. Starting this month, it will bring in 10 select schools to start building up content and giving feedback. Over the course of this upcoming school year, it plans to do serious ramping up and bring in hundreds of schools. By next summer, it hopes to be fully open with a content-rich site that can fold in teachers who need extra support.
This post was updated at 3:05 p.m. PDT to better describe the founding team members.