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Service drives education software maker: Angel Learning quickly weathers PR setback

June 4, 2007

When The Indianapolis Star reported on its front page in mid-May that Indianapolis Public Schools had accidentally exposed thousands of private student records online, it was a potentially enormous public relations setback for locally based education software maker Angel Learning.

Angel Learning had provided the software, and CEO Christopher Clapp said he immediately asked staffers to send explanation emails to all 300 of his customers. They then followed up with phone calls. He wanted to assuage clients' worries right away.

Within a day of The Star's story, IPS announced the problem was not with Angel Learning's software, but with its own implementation. Clapp said the rest of his users understood that was the case all along.

The news turned out to be just a speed bump for the fast-growing IT firm, which has increased its work force from 50 to 70 over the past six months. Clapp said the 10-year-old company's sales have been growing at 70 percent annually, though he declined to provide specifics.

"Our customers know how seriously we take security and privacy, that we do independent audits of our system, and they gave us the benefit of the doubt," Clapp said. "We've built up goodwill over time."

Angel Learning makes software with a host of applications for educators-from course-schedule management and content delivery to collaborative learning and student evaluation. Its most recent edition includes virtual-communication features, including blogging and podcasting.

The company has been able to post torrid growth even though the education software market long has been dominated by Washington D.C.-based Blackboard Inc. Angel Learning's publicly traded rival expects $233 million in sales this year. Last year, Blackboard bought its former biggest rival, WebCT, for $148 million. The combined company has more than 3,700 customers.

The good news for the local upstart: Angel Learning has developed a reputation for strong support and service. That's a real differentiator, said Marti Harris, a research director specializing in higher education strategy for the Stamford, Mass.-based technology analysis firm Gartner Inc.

"I talk to customers using all these systems. You hear complaints from everybody, but you hear less complaints [from Angel Learning's customers]," she said. "They seem to be able to stay on top of service and support."

Angel Learning's origins trace back to IUPUI, where its software was developed by students and faculty in the early 1990s to manage course enrollment online. David Mills, Angel Learning's chief technology officer, helped write the original code. Eventually, system designers added capacity to access classroom content online, and Indiana University rolled it out across its campuses. In 1997, IU allowed developers to create a variation called "A New Global Environment for Learning," or Angel, to sell on the open market.

Company officials say they have been able to make inroads on Blackboard by emphasizing service and continuously improving the software based on users' feedback. It's the challenge of making the software better that keep innovators like Mills punching the clock.

"As the market has matured, the definition of a course management system has as well," Mills said. "[In the future], I see course management systems becoming more and more customized to meet the needs of teaching and learning."

Denny Spinner, director of instructional services for the St. Meinrad seminary in southwestern Indiana, said he experienced the company's personal touch first hand at a recent software users conference. Even though Angel Learning had far larger university customers to attend to, such as Penn State and Michigan State, Clapp made a point to track Spinner down, check how the software was performing at St. Meinrad, and ask whether anything could be enhanced.

"That's the kind of relationship that makes you buy into their product," Spinner said. "It's the people that make it what we want to stay with."
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