There has been a lot of excitement about bringing social networking tools into the classroom in recent years. These technologies have been touted as ways to encourage students to collaborate and communicate -- both with teachers and with one another. It's a way for students who might feel too shy to speak up in class to actually get to fully participate in class discussions. These tools also offer an important way to bridge school and home, particularly if students (and in some cases, their parents) can log in at any time to monitor school activities.
But is there a way to take what we've seen with educational social networking and extend that community into a life-long relationship with a school? That's the hope, in part, of a new education startup called Alumn.us that is tackling an important, but largely unrecognized problem faced by many schools: there is no alumni network. There is no connection to a school once you've graduated.
Sure, you might be able to find the folks you went to school with on Facebook now. Indeed, there have been suggestions that Facebook will soon replace the traditional ways by which we connect with the people we went to school and graduate with.
But those Facebook connections -- as interesting as though they might be -- really do not fulfill the same sort of role of an alumni network. Connecting alumni from the same graduating class is only part of the picture; connecting alumni with other alumni and with students currently enrolled is still important.
Also important: getting alumni to donate back to their school. This is something that universities have long excelled at doing. People do tend to donate money back to their "alma mater." But "alma mater" means "university." Not "high school." And certainly not "elementary school."
While public schools might not have a strong alumni network, private schools certainly do. Indeed the endowments from alumni at private K-12 schools are substantial, if not mind-boggling. These donations fund "wonderful touches: computers in the classroom, trips, enriched curriculum," noted a New York Times story on private schools' alumni funding.
Alumn.us wants to be able to develop just this sort of network for the public school system, as well as for the community college level -- both of which have failed to ever develop a strong network that keeps alumni interested in what happens at their schools. It's less about connecting alumni with their fellow graduates (indeed, Facebook does seem to have won that game) than it is connecting alumni back with their schools -- in terms of fundraising and in terms of mentorship.
It's a tough sell however, as many of us who attended public high schools might not be as inclined to contribute financially to those institutions (a very different attitude than alumni from private schools who do so regularly). Alumn.us co-founder Kevin Adler is working to address some of those obstacles as he designs the framework for his startup. Part of it means "priming the pump" for donations -- conjuring the good memories about high school, for example, rather than focusing on the bad.
Alumn.us won the most recent Startup Weekend EDU in San Francisco (back in October) and since then the startup has continued its work, piloting its platform that includes ways to connect alumni to students as well as ways to help schools raise money. The startup is working with a number of schools to help design and build out its platform.
Whether or not Alumn.us can "nail" the problem of keeping alumni interested and committed to their schools, the startup does highlight that very important question: how do we take what we've learned from social networking -- the way in which it has fostered a relationship between school and home -- and make that last for a lifetime? How do we put students in contact with alumni and how do we encourage alumni to help support students at their alma mater?