ConnectYard, a New Jersey startup that provides educational institutions with a centralized social media platform, recently announced raising a $500,000 first round of funding round.

The company’s tools allow students, teachers and administrators to communicate securely through established social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and introduce game mechanics, analytics, and recommendation engines into the online learning experience.

ConnectYard was founded in 2007 and is based out of Wayne, NJ. Don Doane, chief executive of ConnectYard, said, “We are thrilled to have additional capital to implement our expansion strategy while continuing to invest in innovative teaching and learning technologies.”

During a phone interview, Doane explained that his almost 30 customers are primarily in higher education and include Cornell University and Howard University. The company will begin targeting the K-12 market shortly. ConnectYard’s solution is being employed to improve student engagement, campus-wide communications, and expansion of student networks with assisted selection of faculty mentors and study partners.

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Many universities employ software called Learning Management Systems (LMS), or software that manages digital course material as well as communication between students and professors. ConnectYard integrates with popular LMS software from providers such as Blackboard, Moodle, and Moodlerooms (a Moodle partner) although such systems usually are not well-integrated with social media such as Facebook.

With some estimates of the online education market approaching a billion dollars, the industry is generating interest from VCs and established companies alike with much activity recently around integrating current systems with social media and collaboration platforms. For instance, market leader, Blackboard recently acquired two companies with a forte in collaboration technologies and Moodlerooms recently raised $7.15 million.

The company’s QuickConnect widget provides students and faculty with access to the communication tool they’re most comfortable with (e.g., email, text messaging, etc.) and allows data about user behavior to be centrally aggregated and managed.  As a result, ConnectYard is able to offer customers detailed analytics about student behavior, a recommendation engine for helping students choose mentors and study partners, and some gaming mecanisms to help faculty promote greater interaction with course material.

Jumpstart, a leading New Jersey-based angel group that invests in early-stage technologies, funded the round. Gina Tedesco, Jumpstart’s lead investor, will join ConnectYard’s board.