Assessing the potential for a gig economy in education

Over the past few years, personalized learning has established itself as a focal point of innovation in education. Despite the focus, the rate of progress in establishing personalized learning practices in both K-12 school systems and online learning has been slower than expected.  

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative have together invested millions of dollars in support of it, and educators such as Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, have spoken extensively about its importance in education.

Personalized learning comprises many aspects of learning: letting students master topics before they move on to higher level ones, giving them agency over their learning based on their interests and goals and using teacher-aided instruction and interactivity, to name a few.

Much of the focus on implementing personalized learning practices has revolved around K-12 school systems, where new initiatives have been met with mixed results, and these efforts will continue. 

Beyond the K-12 school systems however, online education platforms present a large opportunity for delivering personalized learning experiences to students worldwide, and the level of innovation here has lagged expectations.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) such as Udacity, Coursera and edX emerged in the early 2010s and helped bring quality content online and make it accessible around the globe. However, they haven’t innovated much when it comes to personalized learning, and studies have shown that they have in fact seen declines in completion rate of courses.

In recent years, startups have built platforms that are powering a gig economy for teachers, enabling them to give live lectures in small-group, highly interactive settings. Apps focused on providing personalized learning experiences for users learning domain-specific skills such as math or languages have shown promise, but there’s room for a lot more innovation on this front.

These newer approaches have the potential to democratize personalized learning by innovating on the software teaching platform, enabling better teacher-aided instruction online, and helping students better understand their mastery of topics. 

Four views: Is edtech changing how we learn?

In the future, students might dismiss stories about weather-related school closures as folklore.

The COVID-19 pandemic compelled us to experiment with edtech, but it’s still unclear whether attending school virtually with a laptop at the kitchen table offers the same benefits as being in a classroom. One recent study found that only 27% of schools asked teachers to monitor student attendance and 37% were required to do 1:1 check-ins on an ongoing basis.

Can education in a post-pandemic world become more accessible, asynchronous and persistent? Or will our digital divide deepen existing inequities in our educational system?

To consider the issue, four TechCrunch staffers looked at the future of edtech and remote learning:

  • Devin Coldewey
  • Natasha Mascarenhas
  • Alex Wilhelm
  • Danny Crichton

Devin Coldewey: Gaming will transform remote learning, but stigma must be addressed

When I was a kid, we played SimCity in computer class once we’d finished our typing lessons, five-paragraph essays and so on. I always thought I was pulling a fast one by zipping through the assignments and getting straight to building my city, but the truth is I was learning just as much with one as the other. The game fooled me into learning about city infrastructure, taxes and other civic concepts that I probably would have fallen asleep learning had I been reading about them.

As a preschool teacher I found myself on the other side of this phenomenon, finding ways to impart learning on my little charges without boring them — and they were easily bored. It was always better to learn by doing, but kids don’t do anything unless it’s fun.

The pandemic isn’t just affecting higher education; Fourth graders and middle school kids are being thrown for a loop as well — not to mention their teachers. Gaming has to be part of the solution.

Our education system has a sort of built-in fun-to-learning ratio that gets smaller as the years go on, because many of the tools we use to teach core concepts are dated and static. There are a few “edutainment” products if kids are lucky enough to have the iPads or laptops to use them on, but not enough, and they’re plainly of a lower order than the real games kids play all the time. When a kid’s hobby is playing something like Fortnite or Breath of the Wild, does an algebra worksheet dressed up like a 2002 Flash game really seem like anything more than work?

Educational games are stuck on the idea of adding fun to old methods of teaching instead of rethinking how learning can be accomplished outside of those methods. Yet the possibilities of teaching using remote presence and virtual worlds are staggering.

A simple and laudable example is Ubisoft’s educational mode, present in its last two Assassin’s Creed games set in ancient Egypt and classical Athens. For all that they came up short as AAA games, these astonishingly detailed sandboxes offer an entire college course’s worth of anthropology and history; in fact, a special nonviolent mode exists just for exploring those aspects of the game.

Imagine telling a classroom full of 14-year-olds that their assignment was to play Assassin’s Creed for an hour a day, find something interesting, look it up and write a paragraph about it. Or build a functioning rocket in Kerbal Space Program. Or finish a set of puzzles in The Witness and list the hidden rules that govern them. Or work with three other kids to build a model of the school in Minecraft or Roblox .

Right now, that’s practically unthinkable (outside a few forward-thinking classrooms), partly because the culture around gaming is weird, toxic and few people take the medium seriously for educational purposes. But if remote learning is going to be part of K-12 education from now on — and we’d better plan for that — we need to meet kids where they are, not try to contort them into a mold cast a century ago.

It’s difficult to visualize because “real” games aren’t built for education except as a secondary consideration. But virtual worlds are becoming venues for more than competition, and embracing that from first principles, by involving educators and students to see what is needed and how those needs can be met, will be a fruitful path for the industry to pursue.

Edtech’s newest unicorn, ApplyBoard, lands $1.4B valuation with fresh funding

Brothers Martin, Meti and Massi Basiri all left Iran to study abroad in Canada. After struggling with every aspect from the visa process to grade conversions, the brothers saw an opportunity to make the transition to study internationally more seamless. So, they started Applyboard in 2015 at University of Waterloo’s Velocity Garage.

ApplyBoard has two main parts of its business. First, the company helps international students search and apply from a single platform to universities and colleges across the world. Similar to how American students use the Common App to apply to schools, ApplyBoard seeks to be the college undergrad application for international students, and serve as a marketplace. It is free for students.

The other part of ApplyBoard’s business is on the university side. The startup makes money from revenue-sharing agreements with colleges and universities. If a student attends a college from using their services, ApplyBoard gets a cut of the tuition.

While the SaaS-enabled startup did not disclose revenue, it said it took in $300 million in sales last year.

Five years after founding, ApplyBoard has helped assist over 100,000 students across 110 countries to study internationally. Today, the Ontario-based startup announced it raised $75 million (USD) at a $1.5 billion valuation, making it the latest edtech unicorn.

Unlike most of the reported rounds we’ve been covering these days, this round was closed at the end of March in the thick of the pandemic for Canada, co-founder Martin Basiri told TechCrunch . It means that ApplyBoard’s new valuation is yet another example of how edtech as a sector is feeling dollar sign momentum from COVID-19.

The pandemic has forced millions of students to learn from home, putting tech companies at the forefront of making remote education possible. ApplyBoard, said Basiri, had a 200% month-over-month surge of new schools signing up for its service.

“A lot of investors noticed the importance of our digital platform that can do such an important job,” said Basiri.

While most unicorns in the edtech space hail from the B2C space, like Duolingo and Udemy, the story with ApplyBoard shows that there is promise in selling to large businesses. Across the world, colleges have been turning to alternative marketing channels as campus tours and limited travel hurts their exposure to international students.

The new round was led by Drive Capital. Other participating investors include Fidelity Investments Canada ULC, Business Development Bank of Canada, Anthos Capital, Artiman Ventures, and Plug and Play Tech Center. ApplyBoard plans to hire 100 more employees, atop its existing 400 staff.

As lockdowns stretch on, is edtech passing or failing?

Back in January, Georgia Tech professor David Joyner got a cryptic email from a student based in Wuhan, China.

“I’m under quarantine, but my internet access is okay so I have more time to spend on classwork, I wanted to let you know,” the message read. Unsure why Wuhan would be under quarantine, Joyner did a quick Google search and saw the beginnings of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I thought, there’s something going on in Wuhan so maybe we’ll have some students affected by it,” Joyner said. Fast-forward two months and the coronavirus is a household term. All of Joyner’s students, regardless of geography, have been impacted by the pandemic.

It has been a little over a month since colleges and schools across the country started shutting down due to COVID-19. Edtech startups had a surge in usage and a demand for more resources than ever. Now that the adoption scramble has slowed, the same startups are reckoning with unprecedented use cases.

Everyone knows how they’re expected to behave in a physical classroom, but can you stop a student from cheating when taking a test in their bedroom at home? How should teachers offer 1:1 time and take questions during a lesson?

Piazza founder Pooja Sankar says teachers face more open questions: “What does it mean to record myself? What does it mean to have a camera on my face? How do I know I can hold a class with reliable internet connection?”

Will China’s coronavirus-related trends shape the future for American VCs?

For the past month, VC investment pace seems to have slacked off in the U.S., but deal activities in China are picking up following a slowdown prompted by the COVID-19 outbreak.

According to PitchBook, “Chinese firms recorded 66 venture capital deals for the week ended March 28, the most of any week in 2020 and just below figures from the same time last year,” (although 2019 was a slow year). There is a natural lag between when deals are made and when they are announced, but still, there are some interesting trends that I couldn’t help noticing.

While many U.S.-based VCs haven’t had a chance to focus on new deals, recent investment trends coming out of China may indicate which shifts might persist after the crisis and what it could mean for the U.S. investor community.

Image Credits: PitchBook

UNESCO updates distance-learning guide for the 776.7 million children worldwide affected by school closures

As schools around the world close or move classes online to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, many parents and educators are scrambling for ideas. The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has assembled an online guide with links to distance learning apps and other resources.

According to UNESCO, “an unprecedented number of children, youth and adults are not attending schools or universities because of COVID-19,” with governments in 100 countries having announced or implemented closures. In 85 countries, schools nationwide have been closed, affecting more than 776.7 million children.

In addition to a list of national learning portals, UNESCO is also updating a list of digital education tools, including digital learning management systems like ClassDojo and Google Classroom; apps designed for smart featurephones like KaiOS; and software with a strong offline component, including Can’t Wait to Learn, Kolibri, Rumie and Ustad Mobile.

The list also covers MOOCs, self-directed learning platforms, mobile reading apps, educational software development tools and live-video platforms like Dingtalk, Hangouts Meet and Zoom.

Online learning marketplace Udemy raises $50M at a $2B valuation from Japanese publisher Benesse

The internet has, for better or worse, become the default platform for people seeking information, and today one of the companies leveraging that to deliver educational content has raised some funding to fuel its next stage of growth. Udemy, which provides a marketplace offering some 150,000 different online learning courses from business analytics through to ukulele lessons, has picked up $50 million from a single investor, Benesse Holdings, the Japan-based educational publisher that has been Udemy’s partner in the country. The investment values Udemy at $2 billion post-money, it said.

This is a big jump since the startup last raised money, a $60 million round in 2016 that valued it at around $710 million (according to PitchBook data). With this round, Udemay has raised around $130 million in funding.

The plan will be to use the funding to expand all of Udemy’s business, which includes a vast array of courses for consumers that can be purchased a la carte — to date used by some 50 million students; as well as enterprise services, where Udemy works with companies like Adidas, General Mills, Toyota, Wipro, Pinterest and Lyft and others — 5,000 in all — to develop and administer subscription-based professional development courses. Udemy’s president Darren Shimkus describes this as a “Netflix-style” model, where users are presented with a dashboard listing a range of courses that they can take on demand.

Udemy will also be looking at improving how courses are delivered, as well as consider new areas it might move into more deeply to fit what Shimkus described as the biggest challenge for the company, and for the global workforce overall:

“The biggest challenge is for learners is to figure out what skills are emerging, what they can do to compete best in the global market,” he said. “We’re in a world that’s changing so quickly that skills that were valued just three or four years ago are no longer relevant. People are confused and don’t know what they should be learning.” That’s a challenge that also stands for businesses, he added, which are trying to work out what he described as their “three to five year human capital roadmap.”

The investment will also include a specific boost for Udemy’s international operations, starting with Japan but extending also to other markets where Udemy has seen strong growth, such as Brazil and India.

“We’ve worked closely with Benesse for several years, and this investment is a testament to the strength of our relationship and the opportunity ahead of us,” said Gregg Coccari, CEO of Udemy, in a statement. “Udemy is on a mission to improve lives through learning, and so is Benesse. 2020 will be a milestone year where we serve millions more students and enable thousands of businesses and governments to upskill their employees. This growth wouldn’t be possible without our expert instructors who partner with us every step of the way as we build this business.”

Benesse’s business spans instructional materials for children through to courses for adults both online and in in-person training centers — one of the better-known brands that it owns is Berlitz, which operates both virtual courses as well as a network of physical schools — and Udemy has been developing content alongside Benesse both in Japanese as well as English, Shimkus said, targeting both consumer and business markets.

“Access to the latest workplace skills is crucial for success everywhere, including Japan; and Udemy is the world’s largest marketplace enabling professional transformation. With this partnership, we envision a world where more people can continue to learn continuously throughout their lives,” said Tamotsu Adachi, Representative Director, President and CEO of Benesse Holdings Inc., in a statement. “Udemy and Benesse are incredibly synergistic businesses. This investment is the next progression in our business relationship and demonstrates our confidence in what we can accomplish together.”

Udemy’s expansion comes at a time when online education overall has generally continued to grow, although not without bumps.

Among those that compete at least in part with it, Coursera last year announced a $103 million round of funding at a $1 billion+ valuation and made its first acquisition to expand how it teaches programming and other computer science subjects. And in Asia, Byju’s in India is now valued at $8 billion after a quick succession of large growth rounds. We’ve also heard that Age of Learning, which quietly raised at a $1 billion valuation in 2016, is also gearing up for another round.

On the other hand, not all is rosy. Another big name in online learning, Udacity (not to be confused with Udemy), laid off 20% of its workforce amid a larger restructuring; and further afield, Kano — which merges online learning with DIY hardware kits — has also laid off and restructured in recent months. Meanwhile, we don’t seem to hear much these days from LinkedIn Learning, another would-be competitor that was rebranded Lynda.com after it was acquired by the social networking site (itself owned by Microsoft).

Unlike Coursera and others that aim for full degrees that are potentially aiming to disrupt higher education, Udemy focuses on short courses, either simply for the student’s own interest, or potentially for certifications from organizations that either help administer the courses or “own” the subject in question (for example, Cisco for networking certifications, or Microsoft regarding one of its software packages, or the PMI for a course related to project management).

Those courses are delivered by individuals who form the other half of Udemy’s two-sided marketplace. In the 10 years that it’s been in business, Udemy has worked with some 57,000 instructors to develop courses, and in the marketplace model, Shimkus told TechCrunch that those instructors have been netted $350 million in payments to date. (He would not disclose Udemy’s cut on those courses, nor whether the company is currently profitable.)

The company has a lot of areas that it has yet to tackle that present opportunities for how it might evolve. Working with enterprises but with a large base of consumer usage, there is, for example, a lot of scope to develop more data analytics about what is used, what is popular, and how to tailor courses in a better way to fit those models to improve outcomes and engagement. Another area potentially could see Udemy moving deeper into specific subject areas like language learning, where it offers some courses today but has a lot of scope for growing, particularly leaning on what Benesse has with Berlitz. To date, Udemy has made no acquisitions, but that is also an area that Shimkus said could be an option.

Udacity will offer 100,000 free programming classes as part of the ‘Pledge to America’s Workers’

Udacity, the online education company founded by Sebastian Thrun, is launching a new scholarship initiative as part of the Pledge to America’s Workers job training initiative undertaken by the administration of President Donald Trump. 

Under the leadership of newly minted chief executive Gabe Dalporto, Udacity is committing to giving away free introductory technology training classes to 20,000 applicants every year.

The program is focused on teaching front-end web development, mobile app development and data analytics. There are no prerequisites for applicants, but the scholarships are reserved for low-income individuals looking to learn programming skills.

This initiative is reserved for low-income individuals looking to learn the in-demand skills needed to land higher-paying jobs and advance their careers.

New initiatives to train American workers in tech-related fields couldn’t come at a better time. According to McKinsey, 38.6 million people in the United States will potentially be displaced and need to change their jobs by 2030. Meanwhile companies are telling consulting organizations like Gartner that a shortage of available talent is their top concern.  

Udacity will roll out the program in two phases. The first is the 100,000 “challenge scholarships,” which provide access to the company’s introductory classes open to any skill level that require a few hours of work per week over a two to three-month period.

These students will get access to Udacity mentors and Community Managers and have a chance to qualify for one of Udacity’s full Nanodegree programs. The top 10,000 students (based on their progress through the first phase of the program and overall contributions to the Udacity community) will have their Nanodegrees paid for.

Each Udacity Nanodegree costs $399 per month, and students typically graduate within five months. According to data from the company, roughly half of students who have gotten jobs through the Udacity program have increased their salaries by an average of 38%.

Man coding on computer at night.

Image courtesy of Getty Images/DeanDrobot

“I hope every one of these students gets a better, higher-paying job,” Dalporto says. “The challenge is that — as you know — education equals opportunity in this country, and so many people have been left out of the traditional education system in this country.” 

For Dalporto, the decision to launch this scholarship initiative was inspired by his experiences seeing how technology and economic transformation had hollowed the economy in his home state of West Virginia. The evolution of an automated economy changed the nature of the state — impacting everyone, not just the blue-collar workers that most people think of when they worry about the risks of automation.

“We are trying to get as broad a range of people into these programs as possible,” says Dalporto. To that end, Dalporto says Udacity will partner with local leaders to customize the programs to specific geographies “to have the maximal impact.” 

The biggest shift for the company is to offer its introductory classes as a separate program. Typically, Udacity has used those intro courses as an onramp into its more robust Nanodegree program.

Dalporto says the company would also consider offering certification to people who complete the initial training as a way to indicate achievement and flag skills that could be meaningful to potential employers.

“These courses  are quite full of content and they’re quite challenging. [Completing one] shows that someone has a lot of determination and critical thinking skills and logical thinking skills,” says Dalporto. “If you graduate from one of our courses or Nanodegrees it’s a high indicator that you would be successful in other types of courses.”

In all, the program will cost Udacity tens of millions of dollars, Dalporto says.

Dalporto sees the new initiative as an extension of the company’s enterprise business. The newer business model launched only a few years ago and already represents a third of Udacity’s revenue (growing at 100% year-over-year).

“Returning to my hometown in West Virginia, I see first-hand the hardship caused when entire industries disappear and automation displaces workers,” Dalporto wrote on the Udacity blog. “But with the right skills-based learning programs, career advancement can become accessible to absolutely everyone. I’m confident that Udacity’s tech and analytics scholarships will provide every recipient with the chance to learn new skills, launch or advance their career, and unlock their potential in careers that will remain in demand as technology continues to evolve.”

Where top VCs are investing in edtech

Education is a $4 trillion market globally in urgent need of overall — so where within education are top venture capitalists optimistic about startups building large businesses by providing new solutions?

According to EdSurge, $1.45 billion of venture capital (a mere 1.1% of the $130 billion in US venture funding) was invested in education startups in the US in 2018; there were only 112 education-focused deals. In line with the trend in venture capital overall, this represented an increase in overall capital but a concentration in fewer deals (mainly large late-stage rounds).

Education is regarded as a tough market for achieving VC scale returns. Selling into school districts and universities is difficult and slow, and freemium models that go direct-to-teachers have struggled to monetize.

New software, content, and financing solutions for learning outside the traditional school system are more compelling business opportunities. This is particularly the case in vocational training where the return on investment of an educational program or tool can be quantitatively measured in job offers and salary increases

I asked four leading edtech VCs and six of the top generalist VCs (who have a track record of education investments) to share where they see opportunity in this sector:

  • Jennifer Carolan, Reach Capital
  • Amit Mukherjee, NEA
  • Michael Staton, Learn Capital
  • Annie Kadavy, Redpoint Ventures
  • Aydin Senkut, Felicis Ventures
  • Matt Greenfield, Rethink Education
  • Hemant Taneja, General Catalyst Partners
  • Marlon Nichols, MaC Venture Capital
  • Jan Lynn-Matern, Emerge Education
  • Charles Birnbaum, Bessemer Venture Partner

Here are their answers…

GettyImages 925988314

Image via Getty Images / doyata

Jennifer Carolan, General Partner at Reach Capital (an education-focused VC firm in Palo Alto with investments including Abl, BetterLesson, Epic!, Handshake, Holberton School, Newsela, Outschool, and Tinkergarten):

“Human-centered learning has been traditionally limited to one’s physical geography but technology is unlocking learning opportunities that never before existed.  We’re particularly interested in the marketplaces that are better matching supply and demand across experiential learning, educator coaching, tutoring, and online small groups.

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.