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Apps for Education: Launching, Iterating, and Thinking Big

In February, seven Code for America fellows spent 28 days in Boston, embedded in the heart of City Hall and the Boston Public School system. We heard stories of all kinds: a teacher who Tweets daily reminders to her class, a principal who helps families learn to navigate the internet, and students who use an AIM chat room to discuss their Algebra homework. These stories were profound partly because of the dedication they illustrated amongst Boston’s educators, but mostly because we saw our work already underway. Technology and education were intersecting. Now, it was our job to help amplify the trend and institutionalize some of the change we were witnessing.

In February, we repeatedly found that the hub of most students’ lives was their phone: a quick call to dad, a text message (or five) to a friend, an update to Facebook, an email to Mr. B about yesterday’s homework. And so emerged the foundation of our first app, ClassTalk.

Simply put, ClassTalk is an out-of-classroom communications platform. The current version allows teachers to schedule SMS blasts to classes of students, sending targeted, precisely timed messages straight to a student’s phone. Imagine: homework assignments, relevant links, test reminders, a museum to visit this weekend—all straight to the one thing most students never leave home without, their phone.

Last week Fellow Joel Mahoney and I visited Boston to share some of what our team has been up to in the Code for America offices. We demonstrated ClassTalk to Mayor Menino, Superintendent Johnson, their staff, and several high school teachers. In the true style of a v1.0 release, there was interest all around but, more importantly, a never-ending stream of imaginative new ideas. After a rich discussion, we are now planning exciting features like on-the-fly language translations, moderator message approval, bulk student upload, and maybe even a touch of Active Directory integration. These ideas came not from us, but from the public servants who deeply understand the problems of our cities.

For me, our ClassTalk discussion in Boston last week demonstrated the power that lies in Code for America’s model. We are not here to single-handedly develop a perfect technology solution for an age-old city problem. Instead, we aim to empower and partner with those looking to improve their community. For Boston, it’s starting in schools. But if Silicon Valley is any measure, once the revolution starts, it spreads like wildfire. So while ClassTalk may be a small but exciting step, its true value lies in the ideas it generates, the excitement it inspires, and the movement it creates.

Our team has already begun work on the second version of ClassTalk. Meanwhile, a whole city of public servants are back in Boston dreaming up ideas for their next application.