Informatics alum creates best-selling app for teachers

Many teachers might feel a bit challenged if they found themselves parenting a newborn and studying for National Certification Boards at the same time. For David Lowe, Informatics ’04, that situation was a blessing in disguise.

“Back in 2009, I needed something to do — besides the Boards — while rocking a baby to sleep in a dark room every night. I started thinking about how my classroom note-taking systems weren’t working,” said Lowe, who earned his masters in teaching at Seattle University. “The notes were hard to maintain, and it was way too cumbersome to try and get good small-group data from them.”

Before long, the quiet nights yielded a solution. Lowe decided to revisit the coding skills he’d picked up at the Information School and see if he could write an iPhone app to tackle his student note-taking dilemma.

“I had a basic programming background in C++ through the iSchool. I’d been wanting to find a project small and manageable enough to get back into it,” Lowe said. “Since iPhone programming is in Objective C, it was relatively easy to get up to speed. The project idea had been bouncing around for years as I kept trying to iterate on this paper-based system that we were using at school. Finally, I decided to start from scratch.”

The result of Lowe’s late-night programming was a feature-rich, note-taking app for teachers he called Confer. Five years later and after several upgrades, Confer, which sells for $24.99, has become one of Apple’s App Store Top 100 Educational Apps, with tens of thousands of downloads — and a growing reputation as an invaluable tool for teachers.

Originally, none of that was part of the plan.

“I really built Confer to use in my own second-grade classroom,” Lowe said. “But teachers in my building who had iPhones or iPods and saw it were interested. They started trying it out and got pretty excited about it. Then a few other teachers in the district began to hear about it via word of mouth.”

Confer’s real turning point came when staff from Teachers College at Columbia University, who were training Lowe and other Seattle teachers in their readers and writers workshop program, became aware of how useful Confer had become to staff at Lowe’s school, Olympic Hills Elementary.

“When they found out about it, they were really excited. Some of the trainers brought the word back to New York and started to mention Confer at the trainings they do — and they train thousands of teachers internationally every year,” Lowe said.

“After that, word started to spread really fast. Confer started popping up on teacher blogs, early childhood literacy stuff, tech solutions for education — it was totally organic. I was teaching full-time the whole time. There was almost no marketing. It’s a hard sell to get teachers to use a new tool. It has to be immediately present in terms of what they really need to accomplish in the classrooms. The fact that teachers were adopting it and talking about it was really impactful.”

Based on this surprising, viral success, Lowe decided to take a leave of absence during 2015 to work on developing a follow-up app, which he calls Snapfolio.

“Confer solves the problem of taking notes on small groups or individual kids,” Lowe explained. “But there’s all this other data that classroom teachers collect, especially at the elementary level. Stuff that’s really informative and really hard to manage. Check-ins, pre-assessments, writing samples — all this data that drives instruction. Teachers have checklists, they have piles of paper, they have notebooks. It’s all over the place.”

Lowe said when it’s finished, Snapfolio should be a great tool to help classroom teachers make formative assessments of all types — and pull them all together into one user-friendly, feature-rich format.

He spent last summer doing research and interviewing teachers and administrators all over the Puget Sound region to make sure the new app would address all the most common problems facing teachers. Currently, he’s working on building out a prototype based on that research. Depending on how funding pans out, Lowe hopes to release the new Snapfolio app as early as August, 2015.

Lowe has also reconnected with the iSchool, visiting with faculty and seeking a student or students interested in working on Snapfolio as a possible Capstone project.

“I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking through user interactions and user process,” Lowe explained. “I think that working with folks from the iSchool would be great, because I really want to follow that process of user-centric design, which is a big part of the iSchool program.”

“I went into education, which in some ways seemed like a departure from what I studied at the iSchool,” Lowe said. “But then I found this problem at the intersection of information, people, and technology, which is the mantra of the iSchool. That’s one of the things that hit me when I was grappling with this problem in the classroom — this was exactly the kind of thing that the iSchool is trying to solve.

“The iSchool taught me to identify places where people are trying to solve a problem with information. So whether you go into an explicitly technology sector or not, there’s tons of opportunities to put a much better solution in place,” Lowe said. “Once I saw it that way, I realized it was the kind of problem I knew how to solve — that I could step into and create a solution. It fits smack dab into the ethos of what Informatics is all about.”