“Juggling my time during finals was very stressful,” Operations and Information Management (OIM) junior Nick DeCastro recalls about the end of his first year at UMass Amherst. “I found customary to-do list apps too standardized, too inflexible.” In response, DeCastro and Shelby Anderson, a computer systems engineering major at UMass, devised a tool that split up blocks of study time according to a schedule adapted to an individual’s own study preferences.
Their work led to development of an app, ClassMate, that has now been downloaded from the App Store by users at 200 colleges and counting.
“Seeing that it worked for us, I asked myself, Why not make it available as an app for other students?” DeCastro says.
Over the summer of 2019, DeCastro (top photo) and Anderson (middle)—who leads programming design, coding, and other things tech—determined how students might use the app to prioritize and schedule assignments, and they brainstormed to create additional app features. The app’s progress accelerated that fall: They added OIM major Igor De-Sousa Vieira (bottom photo) to the management team to “anchor us and manage our finances,” and they signed on as a “client” with OM/IM Lecturer Radu Vlas’s project management class. In the course, student groups help early-stage entrepreneurs tackle challenges accompanying their development and growth.
The team test-marketed an early version of the app in February 2020—weeks before Covid-19 led most colleges and universities to close their campuses. “We recruited forty of our friends in schools across the nation as social media ambassadors,” DeCastro notes. “They and their contacts gave us valuable insights.”
Even though the idea for the app arose long before Covid-19, the added stressors accompanying today’s largely remote learning environment have made it even more timely. “For many of us, losing the ability to talk in person with our classmates makes it harder to discuss and keep track of assignments. That can detract from our learning experience,” DeCastro observes. “Our app can help students navigate this ‘new normal.’ ”
One feature that differentiates ClassMate is its ability to incorporate each user’s individual quirks, including sleep schedules and study habits. “If I can only work for two hours at a time, while you can work for three hours at a time, our work schedules will differ,” Anderson explains. “For me, the app would split a 6-hour assignment into 3 different days so I won’t get overwhelmed by the work. And it would split your 6-hour assignment across two different days.” The bottom line: “ClassMate helps students reduce stress from time management,” she says. “That allows them to focus on learning—to have a better college experience both inside and outside the classroom.”
ClassMate already has about 150 student users at UMass, and is also in use at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Villanova, and UCLA. Its current free version offers a GPA calculator, personal productivity report, a calendar, and the app’s unique task manager. The team foresees a mid-fall-semester update and a second-semester fee-based premium version. “A long-term goal is to partner with the universities themselves,” Vieira observes. Beginning in late September, AdLab—a student-run advertising agency on campus—has become involved in handling the startup’s advertising and marketing. And when growth hits a target, ClassMate will deploy Amazon Web Services in scaling up the business.
“We didn’t, of course, anticipate Covid-19 and the rapid expansion of distance learning,” DeCastro confesses. “Remote learning has given us added momentum, but time management has always been a student concern. With that said, our goal remains the same for traditional and virtual approaches—helping students spend less time stressing about time management so they can focus on learning and make the most of their college experience.”