Eric Simons didn’t like high school. Despite his obvious intelligence—Simons says he taught himself computer programming at age 13, and worked as a software consultant throughout his teens to earn extra money—he struggled to stay engaged in class. During junior year, his chemistry teacher finally pulled him aside and asked, "What would make you interested in learning what I’m teaching?"
The answer, says Simons, had to do with using the technological tools available now, rather than the tools of a bygone age. "Learning is a process of discovering and exploring," he says. "When you grow up in the Internet age, kids look at an iPad, they play with it with their fingers," Simons explains. "And then there’s a kid who looks at a magazine and says, 'When I touch the magazine, why doesn’t the stuff move around?' With technology, we can create a whole other world that students can explore. Whereas if you’re looking at a page, you’re just kind of sitting there thinking, ‘I don’t understand this.’" He built software to take the class online, where they could share videos, games, and widgets. By the end of the year, Simons’ chemistry class was one of the highest-performing sections in school. "It was pretty shocking to find out that it wasn’t that I didn’t like school," Simons says, "I just didn’t like the way they were delivering content. It was boring."
Now Simons intends to save the entire iPad generation from boredom: This March, he launched the beta version of ClassConnect, a website designed for teachers to share and collaborate on lesson plans via a combination of Dropbox and Pinterest-type interfaces. Teachers post lesson plans publicly, which can then be "snapped" into another user’s binder for future use; there’s also private storage for more sensitive materials (files that might include student info, for example). Simons says he’s surprised at what kind of content is showing up. "Originally we thought it would be lesson plans or Powerpoints… but the number of files on the site is ridiculously small compared to the number of interactive videos and games. We’re seeing a transition from this static classroom, where you have a worksheet and a textbook, to really engaging materials that are catered for each student."
Simons took ClassConnect back into beta this summer to redesign the user interface and change the architecture, but between its initial launch in March and closing for renovations in June, the site’s membership had doubled, from 8,000 teachers and 50,000 parents and students to 16,000 and more than 100,000, respectively. "The initial reason it got out there is I did my homework on the marketing of the thing, so I really penetrated the education technology circles on Twitter, and a lot of tech bloggers as well," says Simon. He also credits some of the growth to ClassConnect’s Dropbox-style notion of giving teachers more storage if they invite their friends to join. (The profit model will similarly involve paying for additional private storage; open-source materials can be uploaded for free.)
Coincidentally, Simons says, his launch also happened to occur just as teachers nationwide were transitioning to the Common Core curriculum, making a network like ClassConnect an extremely valuable resource. "Basically, for the past hundred years, each state has been able to dictate what is taught through K-12," explains Simons. "That’s now going to one [national] standard. So it’s a very unique opportunity that we have in the next two years. All these teachers have to rewrite their lessons anyway. We’re providing a system where they can easily connect."
And of course, the most unexpected publicity of all came in May, when CNET broke the news that Simons had spent two months of the previous fall squatting at AOL headquarters, using the ID badge he’d earned as part of their Imagine K12 tech incubator to move around campus and evade security. "Living out of AOL totally sucked. Being broke and not having anyone else working with you on stuff sucks," says Simons, who has now raised enough funding to move into an actual house and hire actual employees. "I wish I didn’t care as much as I do about this, because I would have just quit. I came pretty close to it multiple times. But I feel like there’s a lot of good that can come out of this, and it’s something that I really believe in, and I know that if I walked away, I would always look back and be like, ‘I can’t believe I walked away from the first thing I actually believed in with everything I had.’ I couldn’t imagine doing that."
This piece is part of Change Generation, our series on young, change-making entrepreneurs. Read the rest here.