New Jersey firm links students, professors


Donald Doane, pictured November 8, 2011, in Wayne, New Jersey, is cofounder and CEO of ConnectYard, which creates communications systems that let college students connect with professors and other students through text and Facebook, without sharing personal info. Photo by David Bergeland and courtesy of MCT Campus.

Joan Verdon

An Upper Saddle River, N.J., entrepreneur and his college professor business partner saw a growing campus communications gap between professors and students as an opportunity and jumped on it.

They created a Wayne, N.J.-based company, ConnectYard, that offers colleges and university professors the ability to send messages that will reach students where they are most likely to read them and allows students to get an email in text form, as a tweet, or as a private Facebook message.

ConnectYard grew out of an observation that Donald Doane and Howard University Professor Grant Warner made in 2007 that while professors love to use email, students increasingly were ignoring their email inboxes in favor of Twitter feeds, texts and Facebook updates.

The two have recruited 50 colleges thus far for the service. New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark this month signed a contract with ConnectYard. Colleges pay an annual fee to subscribe to the service. Fees start at about $5,000 for 500 students, or about $10 a student, with large institutions getting volume discounts.

The company has received start-up financing from the Jumpstart New Jersey Angel Network. They’ve also begun to get inquiries from high schools and businesses that say they need a similar system to cut through the tangle of different technologies and reach students or salespeople.

“The whole goal really is to lower the barrier to communication, so technology does not get in the way,” said Doane.

The Upper Saddle River, N.J., entrepreneur has been involved in a number of technology start-ups. He also founded OpenDemandSystems Inc., which creates testing programs for universities to make sure their registration and other online systems can withstand peak demand times.

“There are real communication challenges given how much communication has changed over the last five years,” said Warner, an engineering professor at Howard. “You’ve gone from a world where social-networking sites didn’t exist to one where they’re now ubiquitous.”

Reaching people on the social network or mobile device they check most often has become a key objective for entrepreneurs in the electronic era. Two Princeton University graduates last year created a platform called that allows Princeton student groups to send text messages to members, according to the campus newspaper. The members can also use the system to RSVP.

Colleges for several years have had systems in place to send text alerts to students in case of emergencies or weather-related closings. The ConnectYard system differs from those because it allows students to receive, and reply, to messages in whichever format they choose to use. The professor, in turn, receives the reply in the format he or she prefers, usually email.

“What we hear from our students is that they want to be communicated with in the spaces where they’re hanging out,” said Blake Haggerty, assistant director for instructional design at NJIT. ConnectYard, which NJIT hopes to debut in the spring, works with a college’s existing message and information system typically called a “learning management system” to “push” important email bulletins to students through the method or methods they select: cellphone texts, Twitter or Facebook. The professor can reach them by sending out the same kind of emails he or she has always used, and without having to “friend” their students on Facebook, learn how to tweet or know a student’s phone number.

“We like the fact that the instructor doesn’t need to leave the space that he or she feels comfortable with,” Haggerty said.

Such a system is becoming increasingly essential, Haggerty said, because if you need to get information to college students about coursework in a timely fashion, the best method “wouldn’t be to send them an email, and it wouldn’t be to ask them to log into a website. Our hope,” he said, “is that once they get the text of that tweet that it will alert them that there’s something going on in their course and help remind them to go there and stay on top of their material.”

Doane, 37, said ConnectYard was originally inspired by a conversation he had with his wife, who was juggling a college course and motherhood, and was lamenting the fact that she couldn’t connect with other students as easily as she could connect with friends on Facebook. They mentioned the problem to Warner, a friend of Doane’s from Cornell University, and he added that as a professor he was frustrated about how difficult it was to connect electronically with some students.

“It’s not uncommon for students to not log in (to email), but it is very common to see them logged in to Facebook or texting away on their mobile devices,” Warner said. Doane said ConnectYard has not turned a profit yet, “but we’re working on it.”

Originally posted in The Record. Courtesy of MCT Campus.