2014-03-27

Co.Labs

Why Education Startup ClassDojo Is Entering The Messaging App Wars

What can the WhatsApp acquisition teach education startups searching for a route to disruption?



Messaging has proven to be an enormously valuable part of the consumer app ecosystem, justifying multibillion-dollar acquisitions. Now the message wars are bleeding over into the education space—and it could be exactly the disruption that sector needs.

Education startup ClassDojo is hoping it can get teachers communicating directly with parents over messaging using a major feature update. If ClassDojo can get messaging right, it will be far better positioned to start experimenting with whole-school features and revenue models.

With other startups vying for home screens in the some way, will ClassDojo's gamble pay off?

Teachers Hate Detention, Too

Until now, ClassDojo’s growth has stemmed from its singular focus on a pain point that unites teachers worldwide: discipline, or lack thereof. Cofounder and CEO Sam Chaudhary heard a common refrain when he first interviewed teachers: "‘I want to do something good. And instead I punish or bribe these kids.’ It's this big ball of negativity," he says, "and the biggest reason teachers leave teaching."

Since it launched three years ago, ClassDojo, a mobile app, has been spreading like wildfire. More than a third of the teachers in the U.S. are using it—1.4 million, plus another 600,000 teachers overseas—all the more remarkable given that the app’s distinctive "little monster" avatars are most at home in elementary school classrooms. For teachers, there’s nothing else like it: a simple and fun way to make positive reinforcement of good behavior a viable strategy for classroom management.

Inspired by emerging research on the importance of character as a predictor of students’ long-term success, Chaudhary set out to create a mobile solution that would help teachers positively reinforce good behavior. "The best performing school chains in the country, they say that more than half of what they do is instill things like grit and persistence and optimism," he says. "You need to have the socioemotional foundation for life."

But as any educator knows, encouraging qualities like respect and honesty is an uphill battle without being able to count parents as equal partners. What’s more, parents are more than eager to get involved: Manoj Lamba, who leads marketing for ClassDojo, says he was "blown away" by the number of parents already downloading the weekly report that the app can automatically generate. "There was clearly demand for parents to learn more about their kids and play a bigger role in what's happening in the classroom environment," he says.

Fighting For The Home Screen

When ClassDojo launched, it benefitted from a lack of competition—indeed, that was part of the appeal of solving the problem of classroom management and student behavior. "Most ed-tech companies at the time were focused on delivering academic content in new ways, assessment software, or school infrastructure," Chaudhary says. ClassDojo, in contrast, "is not about developing what you know, it's about developing who you are."

But with messaging, ClassDojo enters a more crowded market. Remind101, so far the leader in the space, was founded at the same time as ClassDojo, during the summer of 2011, and is gaining momentum thanks to a $15 million Series B announced last month. "We have a very audacious, mission-driven goal of connecting every teacher, student, and parent in the world," says Brett Kopf, cofounder and CEO. Nearly 600,000 U.S. teachers have downloaded the Remind101 app, a footprint approximately half the size of ClassDojo's.

Investors are optimistic that ClassDojo is well positioned to compete, thanks to the loyalty it has nurtured among its use base. Niko Bonatsos, an investor General Catalyst Partners, which participated in ClassDojo’s $8.5 million Series A last spring, described the messaging functionality as a way to lay the foundation for further growth: "With the release of this feature, the team doubles down on the network effects they are creating between teachers and parents, and enables a rich new communication channel that brings school and home closer together," he said in a statement.

Bring It On Home, Like Sam Cooke Said

ClassDojo Messaging becomes available today, making it possible for teachers to communicate with parents via an interface that resembles iMessage, complete with "read" receipts, without requiring teachers to divulge their personal contact information. Teachers will be able to send direct messages or broadcast announcements to all parents associated with a class.

"We're hoping that because of how simple it is to message, teachers will send a lot more positive messages home and keep parents involved in a very positive way," says Lamba.

The impact could go far beyond morale. A Harvard Graduate School of Education study on communication between teachers and families at a charter school in Boston, Mass., found that regular engagement improved behaviors associated with academic outcomes:

"On average, teacher-family communication increased the odds that students completed their homework by 40%, decreased instances in which teachers had to redirect students’ attention to the task at hand by 25%, and increased class participation rates by 15%."

What researchers have studied, teachers know firsthand. Eusebio Jimenez, a fourth-year teacher at an elementary school in Davenport, Iowa, says that he started using ClassDojo in the fall after he struggled to stay on task with a particularly rowdy class. "It’s really hard for me to teach when I’m disciplining students constantly," he says. When the class took a quarterly assessment this winter, scores had "jumped dramatically" since the fall.

Jimenez attributes the change to ClassDojo’s effect on students as well as their parents: Students "love customizing their own avatar and seeing many points they have," while parents report that "‘it gives me something to talk about with my kid.’"

Rapid Prototyping, Backed By Research

ClassDojo Messaging came together fast, thanks to the regular data analysis and in-person conversations that the small ClassDojo team leverages to stay on top of trends in user behavior. The team’s experience is a good reminder that product development can be even more lean when it builds on a shared foundation of customer insight.

To kick off the project, a product manager, a designer, and a teacher support specialist "quickly mocked up some ideas," Lamba says. "In the course of one week we went from knowing that we wanted to do something in messaging, to having a design. Three weeks later we had it mostly built. All our [past] research informed everything that we did."

ClassDojo expects the feature to be a "major step forward" for teachers frustrated with disconnected phone numbers and printed notes gone missing. Down the road, the team is considering updates that would allow teachers to mute messaging during certain hours, and make available standard messages like the classroom equivalent of Airbnb’s "Go ahead and book it." But for now, Lamba says, "We want to launch this and learn from it." With 5 million "feedback points" being awarded on ClassDojo each day, the team will soon have enough data to do just that.

Teachers’ track record of dedication to the brand gives Chaudhary hope for the startup’s future. Thanks to the presence of users in 180 countries, for example, teachers have crowdsourced translation of the ClassDojo site, now available in more than a dozen languages. "Teachers have done it with almost no management from us," he says. "When you make something people really want, they will do extraordinary things for it."

[Image: Flickr user Phil Campbell]




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