ClusterFlunk co-founders start new service geared for professors

Getting an entire college class on the same page is often an arduous task. Some people prefer communication through email, others prefer text. Some people set up Facebook groups, and others use Dropbox and Google Drive. It would be easier to get everyone using the same service, wouldn’t it? Enter Pi, based in Chicago. Pi…

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Getting an entire college class on the same page is often an arduous task.

Some people prefer communication through email, others prefer text. Some people set up Facebook groups, and others use Dropbox and Google Drive.

It would be easier to get everyone using the same service, wouldn’t it?

Enter Pi, based in Chicago. Pi the company was just recently co-founded by former University of Iowa classmates AJ Nelson and Joe Dallago and is a web- and mobile app-based service for college professors looking to connect with their students outside of class without using clunky services or dealing with hundreds of emails coming their way.

“In our research, we found that professors were spending a ton of time on email,” Nelson says. “They weren’t happy with the level of engagement with their class.”

This led to the birth of Pi. Perhaps an apt comparison would be a Facebook wall for the classroom. Or a service such as Blackboard, except, in Nelson’s view, “10 times better.”

How Pi works

Services such as Blackboard often involve extensive registration and tutorials. But the process to get started with Pi is incredibly easy. A professor simply provides his name, university and the class that he teaches – and the class page is set.

Once set up and students have been invited, both professors and students can post on the class wall, favorite those posts, and reach out to other members privately using the message function.

“The level of sophistication is pretty bare bones,” Nelson says, noting that was intentional. “Professors don’t even have to sit at their computer to connect with their class. They can do it on the go.”

Of course, things could change at the nascent company. Pi is currently in private beta, with hopes to launch publicly around the time colleges begin their second semester. Right now, about 250 professors are participating in the beta. These professors teach on four different continents, and Nelson says these professors were chosen because he and his team believed that they would provide the critical feedback necessary to take the company to the next level.

The ClusterFlunk team rides again

If Nelson’s name sounds familiar to Silicon Prairie News readers, it’s because he also co-founded (with Dallago) ClusterFlunk in January 2013, a service providing people the opportunity for students to ask questions about their academics and to upload files such as class notes, past exams and study guides. The information is then available to the entire community of students signed up.

ClusterFlunk’s team of eight people has all moved over to Pi, and many are based at Lightbank, the venture capital firm that invested in the original company. Although day-to-day work on ClusterFlunk isn’t taking place anymore, Nelson noted the service is still growing.

“It’s pretty much running itself now,” Nelson says.

Why the switch over to Pi? Nelson notes the ceiling for the new company is a lot higher than for ClusterFlunk. While the beta testing is currently focused on individual professors, Pi looks to eventually bundle their services to entire departments or even colleges themselves, putting them squarely in competition with companies such as Blackboard.

Nelson notes services such as Pi are long overdue.

“We take pictures of our food and put it on Instagram, we’re on Tinder all the time,” Nelson says. “It seems obvious that people should be able to communicate with people they sit next to in class at the same level that we do everyone else.

“It’s funny that in the higher education world, some of the simplest things have yet to be accomplished.”

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