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Social U: How Brand-Name Schools Are Entering The Digital Realm

Whether it’s via the administration, the professors, or the students, serious investments in edtech are coming to major universities. Which startups are going to be called upon to help make the transition?

The social network life is coming to a big campus near you, in full broadband force this year. This time, it’s not about scoring a date or scouting for other Chuck Testa taxidermy fans: It’s about revving the education experience.

Helping sustain this trend are three different ways that top-notch universities are building out their digital presence: a top-down strategy driven by the administration, a bottom-up strategy that uses students to evangelize (and support) the new tools to professors, and through professors themselves looking to expand their digital platform. And to support these trends, venture capitalists are starting to put real money to work.

One of the biggest venture investments in an edtech "startup" in 2010 went to a "top down" play: $32.5 million to 2tor, a New York-based company that helps big-name universities establish digital programs, starting with master’s degrees. 2tor was started in 2008 by one of the creative sparkplugs of the edtech world, John Katzman, with a long-time colleague, Chip Paucek and Jeremy Johnson.

Their proposition: to partner with universities by investing between $10 million and $15 million of 2tor money to build a digital extension program that has deep roots in the university’s existing program. The programs feature not just an online connection to students and faculty but "live" experiences as well. "The key is you’re not dumbing down the brand or the student profile. We have to drive a quality operation," asserts Paucek, who this week was formally named CEO of 2tor. (Katzman remains an involved executive chairman.)

2tor’s first program (in 2009) was a master’s in education with the Rossier School of Education at University of Southern California: That program graduated its first class of 500 students last spring and now has 2,000 students. USC also built out a master’s degree in social work with 2tor, now with 1,000 students enrolled. Last year, 2tor added two more university partners: Georgetown’s nursing school and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Underlying the programs, nonetheless, is the social network that 2tor is building, both student-to-student, student-to-faculty, and current university members to alumni. "We start with grade-A content," Paucek says—and use online tools to bolster the community.

By contrast, startup Coursekit, which announced its $5 million A round this week, wants to build that edu-social community from the ground up. The five-person startup is offering its learning management system for free—and hiring students to evangelize the program to their professors—and to serve as on-the-spot troubleshooters if their teachers run into digital jams. Joe Cohen, Coursekit’s CEO, marvels at how adding a social networking dimension to the academic aspects of the university is already changing what he experienced as a student—just a year or so ago when he was still part of UPenn’s undergraduate business school.

New Coursekit board member Ted Maidenberg, a partner with the fledgling venture firm, The Social+Capital Partnership, sees the power of adding the social element from a business vantage. Maidenberg had a seat at the table when AOL invested in Blackboard in the late 1990s. (Blackboard currently dominates the university LMS space.) He sees much in Coursekit that reminds him of early versions of Blackboard. Maidenberg recalls how Blackboard originally planned to integrate AOL’s instant messaging technology into its service. But missteps by AOL and the collapse of the dot-com bubble wound up making enterprise sales a more financially compelling path, Maidenberg says.

This time, Maidenberg is determined to see his investment stay focused on delivering a free product to its ultimate customers—students and their professors. Maidenberg says that his firm is willing to be patient to see the payoff, which Cohen believes will come when companies that want to recruit or sell to students will be able to use Coursekit as a platform for reaching their desired customers.

Finally, both MIT and Stanford are exploring just how they want to weave academics and social interactions. Stanford’s Sebastan Thrun and Peter Norvig have noted that the "social" component of their popular "Introduction to AI" class made a significant difference. In 2012, MIT will launch MITx , which it calls an open-teaching initiative that lets non-enrolled students earn a certificate for a (modest) fee. The test-graders will be automatic—but it’s a safe bet that the interactions between the students will be viral.