That the media has recently run a spate of grumpy articles about the role of technology in education does not surprise veteran entrepreneur Jessie Woolley-Wilson, chief executive of Dreambox Learning. "Frankly, there’s been a very long history of investment in edtech that has fallen short of expectations," she says.
So true--and yet, so true of so many other technologies, too. Remember Apple’s original Newton? The trio of failed e-books from around 2000?
This past week saw venture and private investors grabbing a pen to write checks to support three significant edtech trends: the move toward supporting Common Core standards, the use of "adaptive" learning technologies, and an increase in social media in education.
The underlying theme, says Gloria Lee, chief operating officer of NewSchools Venture Fund, is about making education truly personalized for learners. "Tech tools that make it easier, faster, more effective--more personalized for kids--these are exactly the kinds of things that we’re most excited about."
Expect to see these trends become even bigger in 2012:
MasteryConnect, a Salt Lake City startup, is on the front of the wave of educators adopting the Common Core curriculum. To date, 46 U.S. states have okayed this math and English language arts curriculum. The Common Core has a lot of fans: When every state writes its own curriculum, the only organizations that can afford to create, say, textbooks or products for schools, are very large companies that have sales forces big enough to visit the more than 14,000 districts in the country. Many states are making adaptations of the Common Core--but having at least a common base should mean that students--from Maine to California--can expect to learn the same fundamentals.
That said, switching curriculum is never easy. "We get really worried about the speed with which Common Core standards are being adopted," said Anne LaTarte, executive director, assessment portfolio, New York City Department of Education, at a recent conference--largely because getting the proper alignment of curriculum and assessments is hard.
MasteryConnect has built a tool that should help educators find and share assessments linked to the Common Core standards. "This serves a huge need for teachers," says Lee, who is joining the MasteryConnect board.
Investment: $1.1 million
Investors: NewSchools Venture Fund, Learn Capital, Imagine K12.
Dreambox Learning, located about halfway between Microsoft and Amazon in Bellevue, Washington, is at the forefront of creating "adaptive" learning programs for teaching math. Dreambox currently offers a program aimed at early math learners, grades K through 3.
Adaptive has become one of the great industry buzzwords in education: Broadly speaking, an "adaptive" program changes a bit in response to what a user does. Some programs claim to be "adaptive" when they offer easier problems to a student who has flunked a quiz.
By contrast, the Dreambox program captures every mouse click a student makes and can adjust for 60 different parameters of student behavior: how quickly he or she answers questions, how many "hints" they use to get an answer, and so on. The program amasses data based on thousands of students’ answers and then identifies hot-spot problem areas. As a result, Dreambox shifts the pacing and material presented within a lesson as the student is working on it, as well as adapts the sequence of subsequent lessons.
"Intelligent adaptive learning means that there are a million individualized pathways" along which a student might progress, says Woolley-Wilson. "We have a class of technology that’s going beyond just measuring what a student knows to assessing the strategies they are using to solve problems," she says. Much like getting "recommendations" from Netflix or Amazon, Dreambox effective "recommends" a learning strategy that should help the student more easily master the material.
In August 2011, SRI International published an independent study that showed students’ test scores improved by 5.5% after using DreamBox for 16 weeks.
Investment: $11 million
Investors: Netflix CEO Reed Hastings (through the Charter School Growth Fund), a private investment from venture capitalist John Doerr, GSV Capital Corp., and current investor, Deborah Quazzo.
Although Edmodo--based in San Mateo, California--had its roots in the Illinois heartland, it is fast becoming a sort of "LinkedIn" for teachers and students. Edmodo is a fast-growing social networking tool that enables teachers to communicate with each other and with their students in a safe environment. Some 4.5 million teachers and students now have Edmodo accounts, up from 500,000 in September 2010. Edmodo gives teachers a way to share materials, too. Not so surprising, then, that the new investors should include people with ample experience in building social networks: Reid Hoffman, founder and chairman of LinkedIn and a managing partner at Greylock Partners, and Matt Cohler, formerly vice president of product management at Facebook and now a general partner with Benchmark Capital. Both Hoffman and Cohler are also joining the Edmodo board.
"Just as LinkedIn is the professional graph for workand Facebook is the social graph for your friends, Edmodo is the educational graph for learning," Hoffman said.
Investment: $15 million series B.
Investors: Greylock Partners and Benchmark Capital.