Disrupting The Class Room

When a friend suggested in 2006 to Salman Khan that he record the tutorials he prepared for his younger cousins on YouTube so Khan wouldn’t have to repeat the same lessons over and over, his response was: “No! YouTube’s for dogs on skateboards, it’s not for serious learning.”Fortunately for the six million students who visit Khan Academy.orgeach month, he decided to give it a try and see whether 10-minute algebra tutorials might fit alongside videos of pet tricks. The former hedge fund analyst and Harvard MBA now works full time adding to his 3,000-plus tutorials, available in 24 languages, building his not-for-profit online school that aims to provide “a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.”

Khan is at the forefront of a generation of edtech innovators — he made the cover of Forbes Magazine under the headline, “The $1 trillion opportunity,” a reference to the $1.3 trillion the US spends annually on education — and the potential market for disruptive e-learning solutions.

Education start-ups in the United States are currently experiencing their biggest boom since the internet bubble burst in 2000. Venture capital firms made 127 investments worth $930 million in the edtech sector last year, beating the 106 placements made in the sector in 1999 at the peak of the dotcom boom, according to GSV Capital, a publicly-traded California-based venture fund. The first nine months of this year saw 117 investments worth $870 million.

A number of factors suggest this edtech boom stands more chances of success than the last one, GSV said in a recent report. The business models are “vastly more capital efficient” and the talent pouring into the sector includes both successful technology entrepreneurs and former executives from the likes of Google and Yahoo! and young people from leading not-for-profits like Teach For America which have classroom experience. Also, students, parents and teachers are more tech savvy than in the late 1990s.

University of the People uses open-source technology and open education resources based on the Creative Commons license to provide peer-to-peer learning, helping pioneer the intersection of education and technology. Approximately 2,900 college professors — including some from prestigious universities such as Harvard, Oxford and Yale — are already signed up as volunteers to teach the 1,500 qualified high school graduates who have enrolled to date from 132 countries, says Shai Reshef, the Israeli entrepreneur behind University of the People.

This year a series of top-ranked universities including MIT, Harvard, Princeton and Berkeley lined up to offer free access to lectures and courses by leading professors through MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). The University of Edinburgh has been the most prominent British university to join the movement by contributing classes to Mountain View-based start-up Coursera.

“The Internet has democratized and disrupted a lot of other industries and it’s time for it to disrupt education in a more meaningful way by providing access, whether it’s access to great content or access to learn from the world’s best teachers that are on YouTube or on other platforms,” says Angela Lin, head of YouTube’s education projects and a scheduled speaker at Silicon Valley Comes to the UK. YouTube is the main platform used by Khan Academy and MOOC startups like edX and Udacity.

Worldwide the potential market for education technology is huge. Global spending on education topped $3.9 trillion in 2010, according to a report from the U.S. President’s Council of Economic Advisers. Of that, $62.5 trillion, or 1.6 percent, was spent on e-learning solutions.

“People are absolutely waking up to it, they have been open to it and looking for opportunities. It’s really just a matter of seeing what works and the exciting thing is nobody really knows yet,” says Lin, who was named one of the ten most influential people in education technology by the American trade publication Tech & Learning.

The surge in edtech innovation is being powered by the seemingly infinite stream of free content, hyperconnectivity, and increasingly powerful and affordable computing technology.

“Classrooms were created back when it was the industrial revolution and we are still submitting students to this factory model of everyone has to learn these specific subjects and everyone has to learn in this particular way, but that‘s not how humans are that’s not how particularly young students are,” Lin says.

Technology is enabling more personalized approaches to learning, allowing students to work with materials at their own pace For example, New York-based Knewton, which focuses on higher education, has developed adaptive software that can analyze data from a student’s performance on exercises over a period of years to tightly tailor their learning experiences.

Time to Know, an Israeli start-up, is building a common operating system and digital core curriculum for elementary schools, radically changing the way teachers and students interact. The company has raised $60 million in funding thanks to one of its backers, Shmuel Meitar, a co-founder of Amdocs, a global customer care and billing software company. Some 100 schools are currently working with Time To Know in Israel and 50 more are under construction and will start to operate next year. Its technology has also been adopted in schools in New York City and Texas in the U.S. and in France and South Korea. Most recently it has forged a joint venture with a major books publisher based around a unique technology and methodology it has developed to quickly and effectively convert print books to an interactive learning environment.


Sharing Ideas and Solutions

In many cases, students are the early adopters and particularly with videos share solutions they like with their peers, Lin says. Peer-to-peer learning is also a trend that she expects to see grow.

But teachers too are quick to share materials and collaborate through online social networks, she adds. Edmodo, a San Mateo-based fast growing social learning platform founded in late 2008, has 14 million users globally with a user in every country of the world. Teachers sharing Edmodo with other teachers has driven the site’s growth, says Lucia Giacomantonio, the site’s senior marketing manager. It has now been adopted by 85 of the top 100 U.S. school districts.

Teachers use the platform to help each other and share ideas. One trend discussed on the site is the rise in personal devices such as tablets and smart phones in classrooms, Giacomantonio says. “We’re seeing an increasing number of ‘Bring Your Own Device’ programs in the classroom. This trend started in colleges with students bringing laptops to class, but we’re now seeing it pick up in K-12 (primary and secondary school) classrooms as well.”

Quipper, a London-based e-learning start-up created by Japanese entrepreneur Masa Wannabe with financial backing from Atomico, the London-based international technology venture capital firm, offers an app platform for teachers to create their own quiz programs. Quipper’s quizzes cover more than 2,000 topics, such as math and physics, and languages ranging from Dutch to Turkish, and can be accessed via Apple and Android smartphones.

The Internet is bypassing traditional gatekeepers, from elite universities’ admissions departments to text book publishers, giving students access to classes and allowing energetic teachers to create new learning materials, Lin says.

In Chicago, for example, the public school system lacked native Arab language teachers but they found Maha, a language teacher who creates Arabic lessons on YouTube, Lin recounts. The school systems managed to build a curriculum around her lessons and even set up video conferences between the students and Maha.

Likewise, Lin says, professors in Nigeria are using online lectures to bring into West African classrooms the latest thinking from leaders in their field.

Although she could not share specific viewing figures on YouTube’s education channel, which has more than 700,000 videos, Lin says the overall number of views have doubled in the past year. YouTube’s goal is to be home to the largest educational video library in the world.

The interest from content generators in also growing. Last month, YouTube ran a Pop Idol-style contest to search for the next Salman Khan, the next generation of online educators. The Khan Academy helped run the contest, in which YouTube offered training, promotion and funding for production equipment as a prize. It garnered ten times the submissions that YouTube normally does for programs like this, says Lin

There are profits to be made in the edtech sector, but one key thing that sets the edtech start-ups apart is that their success is not judged by profits alone.

“There’s a definite sense of a double bottom line,” says Lin. “There are for-profits in this space obviously, but I think you’re seeing for-profits trying to show that they’re having a social impact as well as the financial success.”