Text-Messaging Startups: Where Are They Now?

Last year, I chose text-messaging was one of the "top ed-tech trends of 2011." As I explained then, I made the selection as a reflection of a number of important trends surrounding mobile learning: the growth in cellphone ownership by K-12-age students, the acceptance of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) in schools, concerns about an "app gap," and finally, the number of text-messaging-for-education startups that were founded during the year.

SnappSchool was one of the many startups that launched with a text-messaging app to help bridge the communication gap between school and home. Like many of its rival services, SnappSchool offered a simple way for teachers to message the parents of students in their classes -- either through SMS or through email.

Certainly the number of services that came onto the scene last year was a good indication that these startups were all "onto something." But challenges remained: how do you make money? (Charging parents? Charging teachers? Charging schools?) How do you build out something more robust than just an app built on top of Twilio's API? (There's a reason, I would argue, that you see a lot of text-messaging apps built at weekend hackathons -- and that's because Twilio makes it incredibly easy technically to do so.) Is text-messaging a feature or a business?

SnappSchool Expands from "Homework Communication" to "Homework Support"

It's in light of some of these questions that SnappSchool's new service makes a lot of sense -- in terms of the startup's revenue stream, for starters, but also in terms of addressing a larger and more complex problem than simply "how do teachers easily mass-message their students' parents?"

The startup has just launched a special email service aimed at parents. It dovetails nicely with the SMS offering that enables teachers to send updates about homework assignments and the like. But it takes that communication piece to another level, actually helping support parents so they in turn can better support their children's academic work. "Be your child's homework hero," says the startup's new landing page.

I talked to SnappSchool co-founder Alex Weinberg about the decision to offer a weekly email with homework support for parents. He said there were three factors that led the startup to start offering this: 1) parents don't know what their kids are learning in class. 2) when kids ask for help with homework, sometimes parents don't know how to solve the problem. 3) even if the parent knows how to solve it, if the child is still "stuck," many parents don't know how to teach whatever skill or concept is in question. All of this often makes helping one's kid with homework incredibly frustrating, confrontational, and even disempowering.

It's at that point that some parents turn to tutors. But not everyone can afford to do so, nor is a tutor always a necessary or the correct solution.

What SnappSchool is doing now is building a library of content about what kids are learning in class -- starting with grades 1-6 math -- that can be sent in weekly emails to parents. The emails offer a "basic refresher," says Weinberg, to math concepts and include an introduction to how it's being taught, strategies for how parents can help with homework, and links to other related activities. The service costs $11 per year.

Integration with School Messaging and Assignments (Availability TBD)

Currently, the emails aren't tied in with the schools or teachers that are using SnappSchool for email and SMS messaging, but Weinberg says he hopes that integration will come. As it currently stands then, the email lessons might not match perfectly what a child has learned that week in school. But by going on Common Core and state standards, he says that the content is timed to roughly within a month of when a concept is introduced in class.

Weinberg says that he's committed to keeping the emails short and even when the homework help is integrated with teachers' messaging via SnappSchool, he doesn't want to see this become a several-page newsletter that no one actually reads.

But one of the promises of integrating the homework email with schools using SnappSchool's messaging service is that the question of "who's reading" suddenly gets a lot more interesting and potentially effective. Weinberg says he could foresee teachers looking at the analytics from the emails, looking to see which parents opened the homework-help email and helping gauge, for example, whether or not a student was still struggling even with the added support for parents.

Weinberg says that the new feature doesn't necessarily mark a pivot for a startup that was once focused just on text-messaging. "We thought we could change the dynamic between school and home. We realized that parents needed more -- something that helps them 'take action.'" This is one step in that direction.

SnappSchool is offering a free subscription to Hack Education readers. The first 100 can use the code "HACKEDU" to get the parent homework help email service through the end of the school year. You can sign up here.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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