CTO of educational technology platform has his eye on improving schools
For students, the start of the school year means a return to pop quizzes and homework assignments. But for many teachers and administrators, September ushers in a host of information technology headaches.
Helping schools overcome some common IT roadblocks is the objective of Clever, a four-year-old education technology platform co-developed by Rafael Garcia, A.B. ’09, and two fellow Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) alumni.
Clever traces its beginnings to 2012, when Garcia, an applied math and computer science concentrator, was working in the finance industry. He had kept in touch with classmates Tyler Bosmeny, an applied math concentrator with a master’s in statistics, and Dan Carroll, a human evolutionary biology and computer science concentrator. Bosmeny was working for a startup in San Francisco and Carroll served as data and technology director for a Denver school district.
The three friends conceived Clever as a way to solve information technology challenges that were bedeviling Carroll’s district. Today, nearly half of U.S. schools use the platform.
Clever syncs a school district’s databases to the applications teachers and administrators want students to access, enabling educators to easily choose from a menu of classroom apps that are ready to use. The platform’s “Instant Login” provides a single username and password for each student that works across all authorized applications.
“As a teacher, if you are teaching a lesson in a computer lab, the last thing you want to do is spend class time creating accounts for students or trying to debug login issues,” Garcia said. “Clever allows teachers to focus on their lesson plans, rather than the IT logistics.”
Garcia, who serves as Clever’s Chief Technology Officer, works with the engineering team and co-founders to meet the growing technology demands of student and faculty users. Based on the input of several charter schools, the company recently rolled out “Clever Badges” to help young students access applications.
Rather than logging in with a complicated password, students in kindergarten through second grade hold badges with embedded QR codes in front of a computer’s web cam. Clever scans the badge and grants access.
“A lot of times, new features come about through conversations with our districts, based on what their needs are and what they want to accomplish,” he said.
The system, which is currently being used by about 50,000 schools across the U.S., is free for school districts. The company earns revenue based on the services it offers to application developers, Garcia explained.
“Before Clever, these app developers had to write one-off integrations for every district they work with,” he explained. “Now, they can just write a single integration for Clever. Our system gives developers more time to focus on writing their core software.”
And as new educational software hits the market, Garcia predicts that Clever will continue to experience rapid growth. In only four years, the company has expanded from three employees to a team of more than 100 people. Effectively scaling the company and growing thoughtfully have been the biggest challenges of managing the startup through its early years, Garcia said.
The co-founders plan to keep expanding across the U.S. and eventually enter international markets. As they prepare for future growth and anticipate new challenges, Garcia draws inspiration from the rewarding nature of their work.
For example, the company recently worked on a White House-sponsored project to make the New York Public Library System’s ebooks available to all students in Title I schools. The project utilizes Clever’s “Instant Login” feature to provide easy access for students in schools that meet Title I criteria.
“Clever really levels the playing field for a lot of school districts, especially small and under-resourced districts that don’t have the funds to hire an IT staff to manage technology,” he said. “At the end of the day, we want to help improve education.”