A cloud-based PIM kids will want to use

I lose everything. Most people who know me understand that giving me notes, papers, pens, etc.

I lose everything. Most people who know me understand that giving me notes, papers, pens, etc., is a surefire way to get them lost. My wife won't even send me lunches packed in Tupperware anymore. I'll be lucky to find my lunch, let alone the Tupperware to bring back home.

I don't lose my BlackBerry, though. I live by my BlackBerry. The built-in calendar syncs to my Google calendar, emails are easily searchable, and, if people send me emails, I tend to actually remember and act upon them. If events make it into my BlackBerry, I remember to go to them. I'm not alone, either. Most adults aren't as horrifically disorganized as I am, but an awful lot of people rely very heavily on Outlook or some other Personal Information Manager to keep their lives running.

A lot of kids, however, are as disorganized as me and they don't have BlackBerries as coping mechanisms. Enter School Town. I had the opportunity to speak with the founder of School Town, Michael Kritzman, today and found myself wishing that I'd had access to this cloud-based product when I was a student, struggling to keep track of academics, clubs, sports, and events.

School Town combines a really intuitive, web-based learning management system with student-centered time management tools to provide kids with a macro view of their various commitments (academic, extra-curricular, and, if they choose, social). Parents have easy visibility into their students' schedules, assignments, and commitments, as well, through a separate login.

Schools purchase access to the service (contact School Town for pricing) and School Town then creates student accounts from a CSV file dumped out of the school's SIS. Teachers are also granted accounts and can immediately begin creating groups of students. While these groups can be classes, they can also be groups within or across classes. Since teachers give students assignments, readings, or multimedia materials via these groups, this structure allows for easy differentiation (a group, for example, identified as needing additional phonics work could be provided with remedial assignments while more advanced students could be placed in a group and given a comprehension assignment; this differentiation is transparent to the kids since they only see their own assignments).

Students can turn in work digitally, respond to the assignments, start discussions within their groups (coaches can create groups, as can any teacher or adviser, so that kids can be members of many groups), chat within their groups, and even send messages to each other. All of this is done within the confines of the group structure, preventing senior boys from sending messages to freshman girls, for example.

Features such as chat can be easily added or removed by teachers on a group level and group moderation is built in. Students can use digital lockers and teachers can easily push content down to students. For an additional nominal fee, this content can be integrated with NetTrekker, a standards-based search tool.

Where School Town really differentiates itself from competitors (like Moodle or BlackBoard) is in the way the interface is centered around student needs. Students can keep to-do lists which are automatically integrated with classroom assignments, sports games/practices, etc. A calendar view also tracks due dates and appointments. Similarly, students can build their own profiles and be introduced to social media-style communication without the risks inherent in other platforms.

School Town has also included (at an additional cost) a media library function. Purchased on a per-teacher basis, this library allows instructors to build collections of video and other media and then push them out to students via assignments. The video, including YouTube content or content uploaded directly, is devoid of the usual "related video" to which YouTube is subject and integrates with the learning management tools seemlessly. As teachers build assignments and their content libraries, they can also be archived for use in future classes (i.e., instructors teaching the same class in the first and second semesters don't need to rebuild their course content each term).

Finally, School Town created an Internet Safety Expert (ISE). Again, for an additional cost, the ISE uses the media library and assignment frameworks to lead students through an Internet safety curriculum. Two curricula, one for primary and one for middle school, are included with this service.

As Mr. Kritzman noted, School Town is a place where "kids want to go and then can't forget what they need to do when they get there." I'm inclined to agree that the site will be really appealing to kids, easy to use for parents and teachers, and genuinely useful for all involved. Kritzman actually designed it for his son and his son's friends; he just happened to have quite a few years of enterprise database expertise that he could bring to the project.

While I'm always one to look for free tools, occasionally you get what you pay for. In this case, it's a tightly-integrated, intuitive system that delivers a lot of value to schools and students.

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