Adil Lalani was still in high school when he conceived the idea for SurfYourWork.com, a free, web-based school management system that lets teachers and administrators post assignments and other documents online for students and parents to view and download. Now, little more than a year later, a New York-based educational software provider has purchased the product, prompting schools across the country to take a serious look at this one-time classroom project–while reportedly making Lalani, 19, a millionaire in the process.
The company–Jasmine Technologies Inc.–reportedly offered Lalani, who currently is enrolled at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, $1.25 million in cash and stock for his fledgling, one-man technology outfit. Jasmine, which helps U.S. schools meet the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act with technological solutions designed to increase student-teacher interaction and include more parents in their children’s education, also took Lalani on as full-time employee, promising him a place to continue his pursuit of a career in computer engineering when he graduates.
Lalani, who first resisted taking his product into the commercial space, said he agreed to the deal after realizing the difficulties inherent in trying to run a start-up technology firm from his dorm room.
“The money helped,” said Lalani in a recent interview with eSchool News. But mainly, it was the challenge of maintaining his grades. “I didn’t want to see this turn into a disaster,” he said. “The [product] was taking up a lot of time … I still had to worry about my marks.”
Through an agreement with his university, Lalani will go to school part time over the next four months, devoting the majority of his days–at least 40 hours a week–to Jasmine’s acquisition and continued development of SurfYourWork.com. He then plans to head back to school and finish up his degree before returning to Jasmine to work on the product full time.
At its most basic level, SurfYourWork.com allows teachers to assign homework to individual students. Teachers also can attach files, such as PDFs or Microsoft Word documents, to each homework assignment, providing students with continuous access to resources online and saving schools unnecessary printing costs. Students then turn their assignments back in to their teachers through the system, alleviating the need for paper-based transactions. It also provides a means for parents to see and access students’ work online and for administrators to post events and perform other administrative and calendaring functions.
Lalani originally developed the web site for his eleventh-grade computer science independent study unit at Lower Canada College, a K-12 private school in Montreal. The goal he set for himself was to learn the web programming languages PHP and MySQL by developing an online homework community that would be more intuitive and enticing for students and teachers to use. Lalani said he grew tired of watching frustrated teachers and classmates attempting to manipulate these often hard-to-manage systems.
As a student himself, “I know students and I know teachers,” said Lalani. “They don’t want something that is so complicated.”
When he set out, his goal was to create a system to simplify that process. But the reaction he’s received from teachers and students is beyond anything he ever dreamed.
“I clearly never expected anything like this,” said Lalani, who estimates students and teachers in more than 350 schools now use his product. He counts among his customers one of the largest school systems in the United States: San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), which began piloting the program in two schools earlier this year.
“There is a real need for student storage,” said Dennis Cowick, technology resource teacher for SDUSD. The seventh-largest school district in the nation, SDUSD is in the market for an affordable solution that promises a more collaborative work environment for students and teachers, providing real-time access to coursework, personal learning portfolios, and other online learning tools.
“We are looking for a solution that will resolve the problem of student access,” said Cowick. If the pilot goes well, he said, SDUSD might consider adopting the program throughout the district.
Such a decision would be a coup for Lalani–and for Jasmine, which began its pursuit of SurfYourWork.com not long after eSchool News first reported on it in Oct. 2004 (see “Student deserves ‘A’ for homework-ware“).
“We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, so to speak,” said Jasmine Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Terrence Elliott regarding the company’s purchase of SurfYourWork.com. Elliott said Jasmine–which makes a product called Karisma for educators to log attendance records, grades, and other administrative functions–wanted to acquire a pre-existing web portal that could serve as an access point for educators to tap into the company’s suite of online tools and services.
When Jasmine approached him with the offer, Lalani says, he knew he had found the perfect fit.
“I looked over Jasmine’s existing products and services,” he said. “And what they offered was exactly what I had in mind for SurfYourWork.com.”
As part of the initial transition, Lalani said, he just finished working with Jasmine to migrate his original portal onto a new, faster internet server–a move designed to increase the product’s speed and functionality, making it more attractive for larger school customers.
Moving forward, Elliott and Lalani say the basic SurfYorkWork.com functions will remain free to schools. The company eventually plans to make money off the product by offering a variety of add-on tools and services that schools can purchase as part of a premium subscription.
Additional functions now under development include a live online chat feature that will enable students and teachers to communicate in real time with on another over the internet for homework advice and group projects; a Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feed that will let students and teachers further customize their individual portals to their specific needs; more grading features; and the addition of more than 6,000 Jasmine-designed tutorials and supplemental course materials in subject areas ranging from math and science to language arts.
Though the pricing structure for this new model is still being worked out, Elliott said, Jasmine doesn’t intend to break the bank with these upcoming features.
“We want this to be affordable for schools,” he said. One pricing structure currently under consideration is to offer add-ons for a dollar apiece per student, per year–meaning that for each student using the system, schools would pay a dollar for every additional feature, with further discounts based on the number of features purchased by the school. But, Elliott cautions, such details are still being worked out.
Lalani is especially proud of SurfYourkWork.com because he says it gives students and teachers more of the services they need and less of the bells and whistles they’d just as soon do without. “Schools buy all these fancy systems, but if students aren’t using them, then it’s a waste,” he said.
Jasmine Technologies Inc.