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Betamore, software-makers partner, try out new education tool

When Henry Blue and Win Smith settle into their seats for the next session of the technology training courses they’re enrolled in, the line between teacher and student will start to blur.

Win Smith (left) and Henry Blue, co-founders of Alchemy Learning, show off their SmartBinder product, new educational software that Betamore will be using.

As the co-founders of Alchemy Learning, a Baltimore startup that creates customizable software tools for educators, Blue and Smith helped design the very courses in which they’re enrolled, thanks to a new partnership with Betamore — the Federal Hill business incubator/training center hosting the classes.

The deal, which was announced Thursday, puts Alchemy’s flagship product, SmartBinder, into the hands of the instructors who are teaching the three 10-week courses being offered this fall through Betamore Academy, the center’s education division.

SmartBinder, a cloud-based software program, helps teachers organize curricula, design lesson plans and assignments, deliver content to students (either as homework or in the classroom, if they have access to Internet devices) and collect data about students’ engagement and understanding of concepts.

“We put the teacher in control of the curation process,” Blue said. “And that differentiates it from other products where the teacher doesn’t have as much control over the content.”

Alchemy focuses on providing a “data-centric, collaborative user experience,” Smith added.

Betamore (as well as two schools with which Alchemy is also partnering) is paying a fee for access to SmartBinder PRO, a more advanced version of the software that Blue and Smith are still developing. Alchemy will put SmartBinder PRO on the market in about two months, Blue said, and a free version with fewer features is already available.

When designing Betamore Academy, organizers surveyed potential students and participants in existing programs at the center about what the courses should include, said Mike Passaro, Betamore’s director of education. Many people suggested adding an online component to the courses, which are held in the Federal Hill facility, so students could review information outside of class, Passaro said. That feedback prompted him to do some digging, which he said led him to Alchemy.

Alchemy didn’t launch out of Betamore and hadn’t worked with the organization before this deal. But as a Baltimore-based technology startup, there’s still a kinship between them, which Passaro said was influential in his decision to approach Alchemy and sign the deal.

“We’re a startup, we work with startups, we’re very passionate about startups — especially in the Baltimore area,” Passaro said. “So that’s the first place we started looking. So I heard about them, like, ‘Oh, there’s this one called Alchemy right here [in Baltimore],’ and I looked into them.”

After checking out the program, Passaro said SmartBinder earned the attention by its merits, not just its origins.

“I made a free account on their website and started to mess around with the program, and I really liked what I saw,” Passaro said. “Specifically, the speed of it, the ease of use — I made a sample course in probably 20 minutes, which is incredible. You can drag your content right into [the program], whether it’s documents, YouTube links, whatever. And coming from an environment [at a previous job] where I was working in Blackboard [Academic Suite], which is like the behemoth of online learning-management systems, I just thought SmartBinder was so much simpler and so much faster. I was just blown away.”

The organizations declined to say how much Betamore paid for the software — Smith cited ongoing market research about what the product’s final price tag should be — but emphasized that the partnership is mutually beneficial for reasons other than financial.

As part of the agreement, instructors at Betamore will give Blue and Smith feedback about the software throughout the courses’ duration. The duo said they expect that information to be invaluable, because, ultimately, teachers have to like using the program.

The three courses (digital marketing and sales, front-end web development and back-end web development) are the first offerings from Betamore Academy since the center opened in December 2012, primarily as a co-working space for technology startups. A total of 25 students have enrolled in the courses, which started this week.

Over the past several months, Betamore’s founders have been working to implement the education and training component of the organization, which also emphasizes community-building and networking.

Passaro, who joined Betamore’s team in late summer, said he’s excited to be launching Betamore Academy with the help of a local startup like Alchemy, given Betamore’s mission. And as the center continues to expand its course offerings, Smith said there will likely be increased opportunities for Alchemy — and other education-related tech firms — to both advance Betamore’s objectives and benefit from them.

“Certainly, Baltimore has started to grow its imprint on the technology startup scene, but as the scene grows, there’s going to be a need to cultivate and develop the talent necessary to sustain and grow the emerging companies,” Blue said. “So I think in that aspect, Betamore is absolutely critical, especially to the extent that the Academy is able to push out developers and those with the skills that tech startups need in order to grow.”

Tech startups “like us,” Smith chimed in. “Hence us being students, as well.”

Betamore Academy’s courses meet twice a week for 10 weeks, and Passaro said they’re designed to teach students the core skills they’d need to get a job right after the program.

“What distinguishes us is that we have actual education people in house, who use real educational methods: lesson plans, learning outcomes, learning objectives,” said Passaro, who in his previous job managed curriculum and course development at one of the world’s largest education companies. “It’s like a boot camp … but more structured. It has an educational structure like you would find at a traditional liberal arts college, but we’re doing it much cheaper, much faster and much more intensive and skills-based.”