Tutoring business-in-a-box service Clark has been acquired by edtech startup Noodle

Clark, the tutor management business-in-a-box service, has been acquired by the New York-based education startup Noodle for an undisclosed amount, TechCrunch has learned.

Founded by John Katzman, the serial entrepreneur behind education technology giants including The Princeton Review and 2U, Noodle offers education search services to help people apply to the right programs that meet their needs.

Megan O’Connor, the co-founder and chief executive of Clark, actually met Katzman two weeks after she launched the company, which is backed by investors including Lightspeed Venture Partners, Winklevoss Capital, Rethink Education, Flat World Partners and Human Ventures (where O’Connor worked as the chief growth officer).

It’s not a stretch to call Katzman the godfather of tutoring, and, from the beginning, the seasoned executive took an interest in what Clark was doing, according to O’Connor.

With the acquisition, Clark’s shareholders will receive an equity stake in Noodle and O’Connor and her co-founder, Sam Gimbel, will take roles within Noodle to build out a tutoring service within the company, O’Connor says.

Going forward, Gimbel and O’Connor will build up the tutoring component of Noodle’s business as a complement to the company’s higher education and elementary and secondary school divisions.

One of the core components of the new tutoring platform within Noodle will be a focus on the individualization and personalization of tutoring sessions, buoyed by a community of tutors who share information on the most effective teaching strategies for different kinds of students.

What the tutoring practice won’t do, O’Connor says, is teach to a standardized curriculum. “If we can give them the software of shared services, then they can be more hands-on with the student,” O’Connor says.

How the Valley can get philanthropy right with former Hewlett Foundation president Paul Brest

Paul Brest didn’t set out to transform philanthropy. A constitutional law scholar who clerked for Supreme Court Justice John Harlan and is credited with coining the term “originalism,” Brest spent twelve years as dean of Stanford Law School.

But when he was named president of the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, one of the country’s largest large non-profit funders, Brest applied the rigor of a legal scholar not just to his own institution’s practices but to those of the philanthropy field at large. He hired experts to study the practice of philanthropy and helped to launch Stanford’s Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society, where he still teaches.

Now, Brest has turned his attention to advising Silicon Valley’s next generation of donors.

From Stanford to the Hewlett Foundation

GettyImages 1172033932

Photo by David Madison / Getty Images

Scott Bade: Your background is in constitutional law. How did you make the shift from being dean at Stanford to running the Hewlett Foundation as president?

Paul Brest: I came into the Hewlett Foundation largely by accident. I really didn’t know anything about philanthropy, but I had been teaching courses on problem-solving and decision making. I think I got the job because a number of people on the board knew me, both from Stanford Law School, but also from playing chamber music with Walter and Esther Hewlett.

Bade: When was this?

Brest: I started there in 2000. Bill Hewlett died the year after I came. Walter Hewlett, Bill’s son, was chair of the board during the entire time I was president. But it’s not a family foundation.

Bade: What were your initial impressions of the foundation and the broader philanthropic space?

Brest: Not having come from the non-profit sector, it took me a year or so to really understand what it [meant] to use our assets in each area in a strategic way.  The [Hewlett] Foundation had very good values in terms of the areas it was supporting — the environment, education, population, women’s reproductive rights. It had good philanthropic practices, but it was not very strategically focused. It turned out that not very many foundations were strategic.

Paul’s framework for thinking about philanthropy

Paul informal photo

Photo provided by Paul Brest

Bade: What do you mean by ‘strategic’?

Brest: What I mean [by] strategic is having clear goals and having an evidence-based, evidence-informed strategy for achieving them. Big foundations tend to be conglomerates with different programs trying to achieve different goals.

[Being strategic means] monitoring progress as you work towards those goals. Then evaluating in advance whether the strategy is going to be plausible and then whether you’re actually achieving the outcomes you’re trying to achieve so that you can make course corrections if you’re not achieving.

[For example,] the likelihood that the roughly billionaire dollars or more that have been spent or committed to climate advocacy are going to have any effect is quite low. The place where metrics comes in is just having kind of an expected return mindset where yes, the chances of success are low, but we know that the importance of success — or putting it differently, the effects of failure — are going to be catastrophic.

What a strategic mindset does here is say: it’s worth taking huge bets even where the margins of error of the likelihood of success are very hard to measure when the results are huge.

I don’t want to say the [Hewlett] Foundation was anti-strategic, or totally unstrategic, but it really had not developed a [this kind of] systematic framework for doing those things.

Bade: You’re known in the philanthropic community for putting an emphasis on defining, achieving, measuring impact. Have those sort of technocratic practices made philanthropy better?

Brest: I think you have to start by asking, what would it mean for philanthropy to be good? From my point of view, philanthropy is good when I like the goals it chooses. Then, given a good goal, when it is effective in achieving that goal. Strategy really has nothing to say about what the goals are, but only how effective it is.

My guess is that 90 plus percent of philanthropy is intended to achieve goals that most of us think are good goals. There are occasions when you have direct conflicts of goals as you do with say the anti-abortion and the choice movements, or gun control and the NRA. Those are important arguments.

But most philanthropy is trying to improve education or improve the lives of the poor. My view is that philanthropy is good when it is effective in achieving those goals, and trying to do no harm in the process.

Current debates on philanthropy

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey gets an educational mode — complete with quizzes

In my review of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, I was blown away by the authenticity and level of detail in the game world. The game itself — well, it was fine. But the highlight was ancient Greece in all its classical splendor, and a new educational Discovery Tour mode aims to teach the history of that society through a gaming lens.

The free update, available now to anyone who owns the game, adds dozens of historical “tours” guided by a NPC, in which you can learn about the cities of ancient Greece, the life and crafts of the people who lived there, what they believed and how they were governed, and of course the many famous battles of the era.

It’s an expanded version of a similar feature created for Assassin’s Creed: Origins, which was set in ancient Egypt. It seemed wasteful then, as in Odyssey, to create such a rich world and just have you stab your way through it. Obviously others at Ubisoft felt the same way, especially Discovery Mode director Maxime Durand, who says he envisioned a feature like this a decade ago.

teach odyssey

And how could you not with the Assassin’s Creed series? From the very first one players were immersed in a painstakingly recreated period of history that gave variously accurate but always compelling experiences of really living in that bygone era. All the work that went into making it convincing can easily — well, perhaps not easily, but directly — be applied to educating the player as well as thrilling them.

And quizzing them! The end of each guided tour will have an optional live quiz-type chat with the guide, which Ubisoft assures players will be fun and not for a grade. I’d probably skip it myself. But history teachers will probably make you do it for extra credit or something.

lostwax

There are 30 discovery sites, each with its own tour and modern-day context, so for example an artist in-game may explain how they sculpt, but then you’ll also see a museum artifact showing the process in “real life.”

Here’s hoping the history lessons are a little less lenient on the topic of slavery than some of the quests were.

“I think learning is a lot about agency… as soon as someone tells you you have to learn about something, there’s some of the fun taken away from it,” said Ubisoft’s Alicia Fortier. “So if we look at learning as play and as exploring, we need to make sure players can focus on what’s interesting to them and then they’ll naturally get more curious.”

The Discovery Tour update is free for all players today. Go, learn something.

The new marketplaces connecting school and work

Evidence continues to roll in that American workers are out of position for the high-value jobs of today and tomorrow. Start with the fact that there are 7.3 million unfilled jobs, millions of which are high-skill positions in IT, professional services and healthcare. Then add that employment growth in IT is stagnant — a phenomenon that is entirely a supply-side problem.

What are America’s colleges and universities doing to solve the problem? Until recently, they’ve been a big part of the problem. Academic programs at colleges and universities are controlled by faculty members who typically aren’t incentivized to align curricula to employer needs. Few are interested in what employers are seeking, particularly for entry-level positions. Many have never worked in the private sector or have only outdated or tenuous connections to non-academic employers.

Most educators simply resist the idea that instruction should be aligned to employment opportunities. Colleges have always positioned themselves to help students gain the skills they need to get a good fifth job, not necessary a first job. Unfortunately, the labor market has changed: If you don’t get a good first job, you’re unlikely to get a good fifth job. And currently, around 45% of new college graduates are not getting good first jobs and find themselves underemployed.

In early August, EMSI, a provider of labor market analytics that is part of the Strada Education Network, released a study showing that our current system of post-secondary education is not providing linear paths to good first jobs, but rather a “crazy flow” or “swirl.” The report analyzed millions of graduates from six very different majors and found that graduates of all six are effectively going after the same jobs in sales, marketing, management, business and financial analysis.

Commenting on the study in Inside Higher Education, experts concluded that straightening the swirl might require integrating actual work into academic programs. “This really makes a strong case for work-based learning,” said Jane Oates, a former official in the U.S. Department of Labor during the Obama administration, now president of WorkingNation. “Colleges and universities need to provide students with practice in the context of the workplace,” agreed Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Creating clearer pathways to good first jobs by connecting school and work becomes even more critical considering that a recent survey found that 61% of all full-time jobs seeking entry-level employees at least on the surface ask for at least three years of experience, and that summer employment for students remains near an all-time low. With this backdrop, perhaps 45% underemployment for new graduates is as good as we can do.

New models are emerging to better connect school and work. New career services management platforms like Handshake offer much more functionality than legacy systems to connect students with employers recruiting on campus. Portfolium — a division of Instructure — allows students to create ePortfolios of their work and show their skills to employers.

Many colleges and universities have invested in experiential learning and work-study programs. Some schools do this better than others; Northeastern University offers the most comprehensive co-op program of any American institution. But few have been able to do it systematically, for the same reasons academic programs aren’t well-aligned to employer needs. That’s all changing with the rise of new marketplaces connecting students and faculty with real work from real employers.

If you don’t get a good first job, you’re unlikely to get a good fifth job.

One such marketplace is Parker Dewey. Named for progressive educator Francis Parker and philosopher John Dewey, Parker Dewey helps employers create “micro-internships”: real projects that employers need done but that can be outsourced to college students. In Parker Dewey’s micro-internship marketplace, the employer defines a project and sets a fixed fee for completing the work. Parker Dewey reaches students through career services postings and attracts applicants for the project. Then the employer selects one or more students to do the work. The marketplace makes it easy for employers to try out students who may have no work experience and therefore reduces “Hiring Friction,” i.e. the reduced propensity of employers to hire candidates who literally haven’t done the same job before, and the reason so many entry-level jobs seem to be asking for experience.

Another marketplace that’s gained even more traction is Riipen, a platform that got its start in Canada, connecting Canadian colleges and universities with employers, but now growing rapidly in the U.S. While Riipen works with employers in a manner similar to Parker Dewey, its approach to colleges and universities is very different. Rather than approaching career services, Riipen incorporates employer projects directly into college and university courses, thereby connecting employment and employability with the beating heart of colleges and universities: individual faculty.

Riipen’s three-sided marketplace of employers, educators and students appears to provide a more effective vehicle for gathering talent (and employers) on the platform; once faculty incorporate projects into their coursework — e.g. a professor of marketing adding a project reviewing and analyzing Google Ads data — the projects become mandatory and more students complete them. On Riipen, small and mid-size businesses tend to provide real-time projects, while larger companies have begun to re-use the same projects in a bid to test dozens or hundreds of students and recruit top performers. Over the past year, Riipen reports an order of magnitude increase in platform usage by employers, faculty and students.

New marketplaces like Riipen have the potential to be win-win-win-win. First, employers recruit better talent, and more reliably; content valid simulations are more than twice as accurate as any other talent screening mechanism or criteria. And it’s more cost-effective than attempting to recruit on campus. Second, universities augment career services and improve employability of graduates, which should allow them to attract more students. Third, for the first time, faculty can easily incorporate real work projects into their courses — projects that students will be energized to complete knowing there’s a real employer on the other end. And last but not least, students gain a way to stand out from the pack by exhibiting their abilities in a meaningful context, hopefully clearing a path to a good first job at the same employer, or if not, gaining valuable relevant work experience.

In a few years, as a result of marketplaces like Riipen, completing real work projects as part of an academic program should be commonplace. So there’s also a fifth winner from marketplaces that connect school and work: the overall economy. Millions of new college graduates will get relevant work experience, many more will find good first jobs and our workforce will be better positioned for the high-value jobs of today and tomorrow.

India’s Vedantu raises $42M to expand its live and interactive online tutoring platform

Vedantu, a Bangalore-based startup that operates an online tutoring service, today announced it has raised $42 million as it races to expand its reach in the nation where tens of millions of students enter formal education and prepare for under-graduate level competitive exams each year.

The Series C financing round for the five-year old startup was led by Tiger Global and WestBridge Capital, with existing investors Accel, Omidyar India and TAL Education and Vedantu co-founders also participating in it. The startup has raised $58 million to date.

Vedantu offers a mix of recorded and live and interactive courses. Students who have enrolled for the interactive sessions are required to answer questions every few minutes by tapping on their smartphone screen. They can also raise their doubts at the end of the session.

Vedantu, which serves students aged between 12 to 18 (serving students in grade 6 to 12), offers a large catalog of recorded sessions at no charge to users. It generates revenue from selling subscription to live and interactive sessions, Vamsi Krishna, co-founder and CEO of the startup, told TechCrunch in an interview.

vlcsnap 2019 08 29 16h15m14s925

These subscriptions can vary from Rs 100 ($1.4), for students looking for sessions around a particular topic, to Rs 50,000 ($700) for long-term courses that focus on training students for under-graduate level courses, Krishna explained.

More than 1.5 million students watch educational videos on Vedantu each month, of which 30,000 are paying subscribers. The platform has amassed users from more than 30 nations, mostly those of Indian diaspora.

As part of the offering, Vedantu also tracks how much time a student takes in answering questions to determine the topics that they might be struggling to grasp. It then challenges those students to solve more problems from those topics and alerts the teachers and their assistants to follow up, Krishna said.

Additionally, teachers take a break every few minutes to check with students if they understood the topic. If a substantial number of students say they have doubts, teachers share more examples to explain the subject.

Students also get to interact with teachers throughout the session through chat and their microphones. Krishna said these offerings are necessary to better coach students. It also differentiates Vedantu from other edtech startups in India.

Before starting Vedantu, Krishna, who is a teacher himself, ran Lakshya Institute that helped students prepare for under-graduate level courses until early 2014, before selling majority stake to Mumbai-based K-12 tutoring and test preparation firm MT Educare.

He said he will use the fresh capital to broaden the startup’s engineering team and product offerings, and find more users. Because Vedantu does not rely on previously recorded footage, scaling it prove challenging.

But the startup is not looking to aggressively expand its courses and its current live format has provided it with room to allocate more students in a session, Krishna said.

From Right to Left Vamsi Krishna CEO Co founder Anand Prakash Co founder Pulkit Jain Co Founder and Head Product

From left to right: Vamsi Krishna, CEO and co-founder, Anand Prakash, co-founder, with Pulkit Jain, co-founder and head of product.

Vedantu competes with a number of local players including unicorn Byju’s, which is widely believed to be the largest edtech startup in the world with its valuation nearing $6 billion. Byju’s, which has more than 2.4 million paid subscribers (and over 30 million users), offers courses for students in kindergarten to year 12, in addition to those preparing for competitive under graduation level courses.

Unacademy, another edtech startup in India, focuses on the same space and recently raised a $50 million round.

India has the largest population in the world in the age bracket of 5 to 24 years. The education space in the nation is estimated to grow to $35 billion in the next six years.

More to follow…

Udacity names former LendingTree executive to CEO post

Online education startup Udacity has hired former LendingTree executive Gabriel Dalporto as its new CEO, an appointment that follows months of layoffs and a restructuring directed by the company’s co-founder and executive chairman Sebastian Thrun.

Dalporto comes to Udacity after seven years at LendingTree, where he served in numerous positions, including chief marketing officer and chief financial officer. Dalporto stepped down as CFO in 2017 to join the company’s board and become executive advisor to the CEO. Dalporto left the executive advisor job in 2018, but remains on the board.

Thrun, who stepped in as CEO after Vishal Makhijani left the top post in October 2018, will stay on as executive chairman.

“He’s extremely strategic and pragmatic,” Thrun said in a recent interview, describing Dalporto.

Dalporto is known for his turnaround skills. But the new CEO says his focus at Udacity won’t be slashing costs and other activities often associated with that skill set.

“I was hired as a growth executive; I was not hired to be a turnaround executive,” Dalporto told TechCrunch.

udacity Team H IMG 5639

Dalporto isn’t ready to provide details of his plans as CEO. Monday is his first day at the startup. But he will likely focus on growth areas such as the startup’s enterprise and government programs, as well as retaining and recapturing students into the Udacity ecosystem. Udacity’s enterprise clients include AT&T, Airbus, Audi, BMW, Capital One, Cisco and the Royal Bank of Scotland. It also has government relationships with Australia, the MENA region and New Zealand.

Dalporto is coming into a startup that is leaner and more productive, in terms of launching new nanodegrees, than it was a year ago.  It’s also cash-flow positive, according to Thrun, who has spent 2019 revamping the company.

When Thrun took over the CEO post, he found a company that had grown too quickly and was burdened by its own bureaucracy. Udacity, which specializes in “nanodegrees” on a range of technical subjects that include AI, deep learning, digital marketing, VR and computer vision, was struggling because of runaway costs and other inefficiencies. Its nanodegree programs, which had grown in 2017, became sluggish in 2018. 

Staff reductions soon followed as Thrun sought to get a handle on costs. About 130 people were laid off and other open positions were left vacant. Thrun then cut further in April. About 20% of the staff was laid off and operations were restructured in an effort to bring costs in line with revenue without curbing growth. The company streamlined its marketing efforts and downsized and consolidated office space. As of April, the startup employs 300 full-time equivalent employees and about 60 contractors.

Other changes included the launch of a global technical mentoring program, switching its direct-to-student business from fixed to monthly subscription pricing to incentivize individuals to move through courses faster. Lalit Singh, who joined Udacity in February as chief operating officer, has been critical to the turnaround, according to Thrun.

Its productivity has also improved. In first six months of 2019, Udacity launched 12 new nanodegree programs compared to just 8 in all of 2018.

“In the three months since we’ve initiated these changes, the consumer business has grown by more than 60%,” Thrun wrote in a blog post Monday announcing the changes.

Udacity’s enterprise and government programs have also grown, with bookings increasing by more than 100% year over year.

Sphero has acquired LittleBits

Sphero and Little Bits have long been kindred spirits in the world of entertaining STEM toys, and soon they’ll be one and the same. Sphero this morning announced plans to buy the New York-based electronic building block company.

Founded in 2010 and 2011 respectively, Sphero (nee Orbotix) and Little Bits took separate approaches, but ultimately ended up in similar spaces. Sphero first brought to life a smartphone controlled 3D printed ball that debuted at CES in 2011. That same year, Ayah Bdeir’s electronics kit side project became a serious business under the LittleBits banner.

Both companies were alumni of Disney’s accelerator. Sphero leveraged that connection in the break out Star Wars: The Force Awakens toy, a remote control BB-8. Ultimately, however, it flew too close to the sun with its licensed products, creating an R2-D2, Lightning McQueen and talking Spider-Man toys. Early last year, the Colorado-based company ended the Disney deal, laid off dozen and announced that it was moving full time into educational toys.

After several of its own Marvel and Star Wars licensing deals under the Disney IP banner, LittleBits faced similar difficulties earlier this year. In a statement to TechCrunch, the site noted that it, too, would be experiencing layoffs as it shifted its focus to K-12. “As you can imagine, the education market’s needs are vastly different than that of retail,” the company said at the time. Given this, we had to re-shape our internal structure, which ultimately led to a reduction in staff.”

Per Crunchbase, LittleBits and Sphero have raised $62.3 million and $120.3 million respectively. LittleBits notably made its own acquisition almost exactly a year ago, bringing DIY.org under its banner to add a subscription-based education element to the company’s offerings. Two months prior, Sphero purchased fellow Colorado startup, Specdrums and has since begun to offer the company’s music educational products under its banner.

image001

“We’re thrilled to bring littleBits into the fold here at Sphero,” CEO Paul Berberian told TechCrunch ahead of the acquisition. “Teachers need proven solutions that enhance learning for their students, and kids want technology that allows them to have epic experiences. Now, Sphero is better poised to introduce the best coding tools and hands-on STEAM tools like littleBits to even more classrooms around the world.”

The deal will help Sphero expand its office footprint into New York. Bdeir, however, will be moving on to other projects after nearly a decade at the helm of LittleBits.

“When I studied engineering, it was top down, test-based,” she said in a statement offered to the press. “I hated it and wanted to quit every semester. Then I got exposed to the pedagogy of learning through play and my life changed; no one could peel me away from learning, inventing, creating. Together, littleBits and Sphero are now bringing this experience to kids everywhere.”

No word on how many LittleBits employees will remain under the Sphero banner, though the aforementioned layoffs have certainly decreased the likelihood of redundancy between the two companies. With LittleBits under its wing, Sphero now holds 140 patents in the fields of robotics, electronics, software and IOT. It remains to be seen how or if the lines will work together, or whether they’ll remain independent under the Sphero banner much as Specdrums has thus far.

Between the two brands, however, there’s some solid classroom outreach and goodwill here. And both despite and because of its own struggles, Sphero makes sense as a home for the company. Both have experienced solid growth into beloved brands in a similar timeframe, even while getting ground through the sometimes unforgiving startup grind. Hardware is hard, and both Sphero and LittleBits have the war wounds to prove it.

The deal bodes well for the companies in terms of positioning. Sphero has made some serious headway into schools (a notoriously difficult market to crack) and LittleBits has been delivering a good and innovative product for a number of years that would fit well alongside it in a STEM curriculum. The combination could prove a solid one-two punch.

Terms for the deal have not been disclosed.

Reliability concerns raised over pi-top’s STEM learning laptop

TechCrunch has learned of a safety issue and a number of product reliability questions being raised about a modular computer made by a London edtech startup that’s intended for children to learn coding and electronics.

The product, called the pi-top 3, is a Raspberry Pi-powered laptop with a keyboard that slides out to access a rail for breadboarding electronics.

A student at a US school had to be attended by a nurse after touching a component in the device which had overheated, leaving them with redness to their finger.

A spokesperson for Cornell Tech confirmed the incident to us — which they said had happened in June. We’ve withheld the name of the school at their request.

In an internal pi-top email regarding this incident, which we’ve also reviewed, it describes the student being left with “a very nasty finger burn”.

Cornell Tech’s spokesperson told us it has stopped using the pi-top 3 — partly in response to this incident but also because of wider reliability issues with the device. They said some of their grad students will be working on a project with the K-12 team next semester with the aim of creating an alternative that’s more reliable, affordable and safe.

We have also been told of concerns about wider reliability issues with the pi-top 3 by a number of other sources.

We asked pi-top for comment on the safety incident at Cornell Tech and for details of how it responded. The company provided us with a statement in which it claims: “pitop incorporates all possible safeguards into our products to ensure they are safe.”

“As soon as we became aware of this incident we immediately investigated what had happened,” it went on. “We discovered that the incident was a one-in-a-million occurrence. The user dropped a piece of metal, with a specific size and shape, under the unit. This fell in such a way that it touched a particular pin and caused a linear regulator to heat up. They received a small minor burn to the tip of one finger when they tried to recover that piece of metal.”

“This is the only reported incident where a user has been hurt whilst using one of our products,” pi-top added.

It is not clear how many pi-top 3 laptops have been sold to schools at this stage because pi-top does not break out sales per product. Instead it provided us with a figure for the total number of devices sold since it was founded in 2014 — saying this amounts to “more than 200,000 devices in 4 years which have been used by more than half a million people”.

pi-top also says it has sold products to schools in 70 countries, saying “thousands” of schools have engaged with its products. (The bright green color of the laptop is easy to spot in promotional photos for school STEM programs and summer camps.)

The London-based DIY hardware startup began life around five years ago offering a ‘3D-print it yourself‘ laptop for makers via the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform before shifting its focus to the educational market — tapping into the momentum around STEM education that’s seen a plethora of ‘learn to code’ toys unboxed in recent years.

pi-top has raised more than $20M in VC funding to date and now sells a number of learning devices and plug-in components intended for schools to teach STEM — all of which build on the Raspberry Pi microprocessor.

pi-top adds its own layer of software to the Pi as well as hardware additions intended to expand the learning utility (such as a speaker for the pi-top 3 and an “inventors kit” with several electronics projects, including one that lets kids build and program a robot).

The pi-top 3 — its third device — was launched in October 2017, priced between $285-$320 per laptop (without or with a Raspberry Pi 3).

The distinctively bright green laptop is intended for use by students as young as eight years old.

Unusual failure mode

In the internal email discussing the “Cornell failure diagnosis” — which is dated July 16 — pi-top’s head of support and customer success, Preya Wylie, conveys the assessment of its VP of technology, Wil Bennett, that the “unusual failure mode was likely caused by an electrical short on the male 34-pin connector on the underside of the protoboard”.

She goes on to specify that the short would have been caused by the metal SD-card removal tool that’s bundled with the product — noting this was “reported to have been somewhere underneath the protoboard at the time”.

“[Bennett] has recreated the same conditions on his bench in China and has seen the pi-top enter similar failure modes, with an electrical short and subsequent overheating,” she writes.

An additional complication discussed in the email is that the component is designed to stay on at all times in order that the pi-top can respond to the power button being pressed when the unit is off. Wylie writes that this means, if shorted, the component remains “very hot” even when the pi-top has been shut down and unplugged — as heat is generated by the pi-top continuing to draw power from the battery.

Only once the battery has fully depleted will the component be able to cool down.

In the email — which was sent to pi-top’s founder and CEO Jesse Lozano and COO Paul Callaghan — she goes on to include a list of four “initial recommendations to ensure this does not happen again”, including that the company should inform teachers to remove the SD-card removal tool from all pi-top 3 laptops and to remove the SD card themselves rather than letting students do it; as well as advising teachers/users to turn the device off if they suspect something has got lost under the protoboard.

Another recommendation listed in the email is the possibility of creating a “simple plastic cover to go over the hub” to prevent the risk of users’ fingers coming into contact with hot components.

A final suggestion is a small modification to the board to cut off one of the pins to “greatly reduce the chance of this happening again”.

pi top 3

We asked pi-top to confirm what steps it has taken to mitigate the risk of pitop 3 components overheating and posing a safety risk via the same sort of shorting failure experienced by Cornell Tech — and to confirm whether it has informed existing users of the risk from this failure mode.

An internal pi-top sales document that we’ve also reviewed discusses a ‘back to school’ sales campaign — detailing a plan to use discounts to “dissolve as much pi-top [3] stock as we can over the next 8 weeks”.

This document says US schools will be targeted from mid August; UK schools/educators from early September; and International Schools Groups from early September. It also includes a strategy to go direct to US Private and Charter Schools — on account of “shorter decision making timelines and less seasonal budgets”.

It’s not clear if the document pre-dates the Cornell incident.

In response to our questions, pi-top told us it is now writing to pi-top 3 customers, suggesting it is acting on some of the initial recommendations set out in Wylie’s July 16 email after we raised concerns.

In a statement the company said: “Whilst it is highly unlikely that this would occur again, we are writing to customers to advise them to take a common-sense approach and switch off the unit if something has got lost inside it.  We are also advising customers to remove the SD card tool from the unit. These simple actions will make the remote possibility of a recurrence even less likely.”

In parallel, we have heard additional concerns about the wider reliability of the pi-top 3 product — in addition to the shorting incident experienced by Cornell.

One source, who identified themselves as a former pi-top employee, told us that a number of schools have experienced reliability issues with the device. One of the schools named, East Penn School District in the US, confirmed it had experienced problems with the model — telling us it had to return an entire order of 40 of the pi-top 3 laptops after experiencing “a large volume of issues”.

“We had initially purchased 40 pi-tops for middle level computers classes,” assistant superintendent Laura Witman told us. “I met one of the owners, Jesse, at a STEM conference. Conceptually the devices had promise, but functionally we experienced a large volume of issues. The company tried to remedy the situation and in the end refunded our monies. I would say it was learning experience for both our district and the company, but I appreciate how they handled things in the end.”

Witman did not recall any problems with pi-top 3 components overheating.

A US-based STEM summer camp provider that we also contacted to confirm whether it had experienced issues with the pi-top 3 — a device which features prominently in promotional materials for its program — declined to comment. A spokesman for iD Tech’s program told us he was not allowed to talk about the matter.

A separate source familiar with the pi-top 3 also told us the product has suffered from software reliability issues, including crashes and using a lot of processor power, as well as hardware problems related to its battery losing power quickly and/or not charging. This source, who was speaking on condition of anonymity, said they were not aware of any issues related to overheating.

Asked to respond to wider concerns about the pi-top 3’s reliability, pi-top sent us this statement:

pitop is a growing and dynamic company developing DIY computing tools which we believe can change the world for the better. In the past four and a half years we have shipped hundreds of thousands of products across our entire product range, and pitop hardware and software have become trusted assets to teachers and students in classrooms from America to Zimbabwe. pitop products are hard at work even in challenging environments such as the UN’s Kakuma refugee camp in Northern Kenya.

At the heart of our products is the idea that young makers can get inside our computers, learn how they work and build new and invaluable skills for the future. Part of what makes pitop special, and why kids who’ve never seen inside a computer before think it’s awesome, is that you have to build it yourself straight out of the box and then design, code and make electronic systems with it. We call this learning.

The nature of DIY computing and electronics means that, very occasionally, things can fail. If they do, pitop’s modular nature means they can be easily replaced. If customers encounter any issues with any of our products our excellent customer support team are always ready to help.

It is important to say that all electronic systems generate heat and Raspberry Pi is no exception. However, at pitop we do the very best to mitigate thanks to the cutting-edge design of our hardware. Faults on any of our products fall well below accepted thresholds. Although we are proud of this fact, this doesn’t make us complacent and we continually strive to do things better and provide our customers with world-class products that don’t compromise on safety.

Thousands of schools around the world recognise the fantastic benefits the pitop [3], pitop CEED, and pitop [1] brings as a Raspberry Pi-powered device. Our new flagship products, the pitop [4] and our learning platform, pitop Further, take coding education to the next level, as a programmable computing module for makers, creators and innovators everywhere. We are proud of our products and the enormous benefits they bring to schools, students and makers around the world.

Internal restructuring

We also recently broke the news that pi-top had laid off a number of staff after losing out on a large education contract. Our sources told us the company is restructuring to implement a new strategy. pi-top confirmed 12 job cuts at that stage. Our sources suggest more cuts are pending.

Some notable names departing pi-top’s payroll in recent weeks are its director of learning and research, William Rankin — formerly a director of learning at Apple — who writes on LinkedIn that he joined pi-top in March 2018 to “develop a constructionist learning framework to support pi-top’s maker computing platform”. Rankin left the business this month, per his LinkedIn profile.

pi-top’s chief education and product officer, Graham Brown-Martin — who joined the business in September 2017, with a remit to lead “learning, product design, brand development and communication strategy” to support growth of its “global education business, community and ecosystem” — also exited recently, leaving last month per his LinkedIn.

In another change this summer pi-top appointed a new executive chairman of its board: Stanley Buchesky, the founder of a US edtech seed fund who previously served in the Trump administration as an interim CFO for the US department for education under secretary of state, Betsy DeVos.

Buchesky’s fund, which is called The EdTech Fund, said it had made an investment in pi-top last month. The size of the investment has not been publicly disclosed.

Buchesky took over the chairman role from pi-top board member and investor Eric Wilkinson: A partner at its Series A investor, Hambro Perks. Wilkinson remains on the pi-top board but no longer as exec chairman.

The job cuts and restructuring could be intended to prepare pi-top for a trade sale to another STEM device maker, according to one of our sources.

Meanwhile pi-top’s latest device, the pi-top 4, represents something of a physical restructuring of its core edtech computing proposition which looks intended to expand the suggestive utility it offers teachers via multiple modular use-cases — from building drones and wheeled robots to enabling sensor-based IoT projects which could check science learning criteria, all powered by pi-top’s encased Raspberry Pi 4.

Out of the box, the pi-top 4 is a computer in a box, not a standalone laptop. (Though pi-top does plan to sell a range of accessories enabling it be plugged in to power a touchscreen tablet or a laptop, and more.)

pi top 4 4

pi-top is in the process of bringing the pi-top 4 to market after raising almost $200,000 on Kickstarter from more than 500 backers. Early backers have been told to expect it to ship in November.

While pi-top’s predecessor product is stuck with the compute power of the last-gen Raspberry Pi 3 (the pi-top 3 cannot be upgraded to the Raspberry Pi 4), the pi-top 4 will have the more powerful Pi 4 as its engine.

However the latter has encountered some heat management issues of its own.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation recently put out a firmware update that’s intended to reduce the microprocessor’s operating temperature after users had complained it ran hot.

Asked whether the Foundation has any advice on encasing the Raspberry Pi 4, in light of the heat issue, founder Eben Upton told us: “Putting the Pi in a case will tend to cause it to idle at a higher temperature than if it is left in the open. This means there’s less temperature ‘in reserve’, so the Pi will throttle more quickly during a period of sustained high-intensity operation.”

“In general, the advice is to choose a case which is appropriate to your use case, and to update firmware frequently to benefit from improvements to idle power consumption as they come through,” he added.

TechCrunch’s Steve O’Hear contributed to this report

‘Breaking Into Startups’: Torch CEO and Well Clinic founder Cameron Yarbrough on mental health & coaching

There has long been a stigma associated with therapy and mental health coaching, a stigma that is even more pronounced in the business world, despite considerable evidence of the efficacy of these services. One of the organizations that has set out to change this negative association is Torch, a startup that combines the therapeutic benefits of executive coaching with data-driven analytics to track outcomes.

Yet, as Torch co-founder and CEO Cameron Yarbrough explains in this Breaking Into Startups episode, the startup wasn’t initially a tech-oriented enterprise. At first, Yarbrough drew on his years of experience as a marriage and family counselor as he made the transition into executive coaching, even referring to the early iterations of Torch as little more than “a matchmaking service between coaches and professionals.”

In time, Yarbrough identified a virtually untapped market for executive coaching — one that, by his estimate, could amount to a $15 billion industry. To demonstrate to investors the great potential of this growing market, he first built up a clientele that provided Torch with sufficient recurring revenue and low churn rate.

Only then was Yarbrough able to raise a $2.4 million seed round from Initialized Capital, Y Combinator, and other investors, convincing them that data analytics software could enhance the coaching process — as well as coach recruitment — enough to effectively “productize feedback,” as he puts it.

For Yarbrough and Torch, “productizing feedback” involves certain well-known business strategies that complement traditional coaching methods. For instance, Torch’s coaching procedure includes a “360 review,” a performance review system that incorporates feedback from all angles, including an employee’s manager, peers, and other people within an organization who have knowledge of the employee’s work.

The 360 review is coupled with an OKR platform, which provides HR departments and other interested parties with the metrics and analytics to track employee progress through the program. This combination is designed to promote the development of soft skills, which in turn drive leadership.

Torch has achieved considerable success, landing several influential clients in the tech sector through its B2B approach. But Yarbrough is clear that his goal with the company is to “democratize” access to professional coaching, in hopes of providing the same kind of mental health counseling and support to employees in all levels of an organization.

In this episode, Yarbrough discusses the history and trajectory of Torch, his experience scaling a company many considered unscalable, and the methods he uses to manage his own emotional and mental health as the CEO of an expanding startup. Yarbrough offers insights into the feelings of anxiety and dread common among entrepreneurs and provides a close look at how he has found business and personal success with Torch.


Breaking Into Startups: There’s a difference between a mentor and a coach. Today, I want to talk about that difference and in addition to the intersection between business and psychology, What Cameron Yarbrough, CEO of Torch and Founder of Well Clinic.

If you’re someone that is looking for a mentor or a coach as you break into tech, or if you just want to be surrounded by peers, make sure you download the Career Karma app by going to www.breakingintostartups.com/download.

On today’s episode, you’re going to understand the importance of therapy, mental health and coaches, as well as how historically, it has been inaccessible to people and how Cameron is using his background to democratize this for the world.

If this is your first time listening to the Breaking Startups Podcast, make sure you leave a review on iTunes and tell your friends. Listen to it on Soundcloud and talk about it on Spotify. If you have any feedback for us, positive or negative, please let us know. Without further ado, let’s break-in.

Cameron Yarbrough is the CEO of Torch. He’s one of the best executive coaches in the world. Not only are we going to be talking about coaching and mentoring for executives, but we’ll also be talking about coaching in general for everyone. We’re going to go into how he created his company.

Google’s new ‘Assignments’ software for teachers helps catch plagiarism

Just in time for the new school year, Google’s educational arm, Google for Education, today announced the launch of new tools aimed at helping teachers fight plagiarism. The company this morning is unveiling Assignments, an updated version of the software previously known as CourseKit, which will ship with new features that help instructors check students’ work to ensure it’s properly cited — not stolen from another source.

Students also can take advantage of the new tools, notes Google, as the feature will allow them to run these “originality reports” up to three times before submitting their final work to their teacher.

This gives students the chance to catch and fix any errors, while also saving the teacher time in grading, the company says.

The updated Google Assignments program does more than help catch cheaters, however.

AssignmentsGif

The software combines aspects of Google Docs, Google Drive and Google Search into a new tool that’s focused on the creation and management of schoolwork, including the collection, grading and feedback process — and now, the ability to check for plagiarism, as well.

Other features include a comment bank to save teachers from typing the same feedback over and over; the ability to assign files to students without having to use the copier; the ability to grade assignments for a class with a student switcher and rubric included, and more.

With the plagiarism checker — the feature called “Originality Reports” — teachers can check for missed citations and other issues. When the work is turned in and locked, the feature will check the student’s text against “hundreds of billions of web pages” and “tens of millions of books,” says Google.

Assignments2Gif

Once the feature is enabled on a given assignment, students can only run the check three times. This allows them the chance to fix oversights, but doesn’t let them abuse the feature to rewrite multiple pieces within a longer report to avoid detection.

Teachers will receive an Originality Report attached to the assignments that details any missed citations and notes the source — like a book or a web page.

OriginalityReportsGif

“Today’s students face a tricky challenge: In an age when they can explore every idea imaginable on the internet, how do they balance outside inspiration with authenticity in their own work? Students have to learn to navigate the line between other people’s ideas and their own, and how and when to properly cite sources,” explains Brian Hendricks, a product manager for G Suite for Education, in an announcement.

The plagiarism-checking feature is launching into beta testing today, with invites rolling out to schools and teachers over the next few weeks. Assignments is a free addition to G Suite for Education.

The software can be used either as a companion to a school’s Learning Management System (LMS) or a school admin can opt to integrate it with the existing LMS, notes Google.