Learning Apps Have Boomed in the Pandemic. Now Comes the Real Test.

After a difficult year of switching between distance learning and private lessons, many students, teachers, and their families feel burned out from pandemic learning. However, companies that market digital learning tools in schools are enjoying coronavirus luck.

According to a report from CB Insights, a company that tracks startups and venture capital, venture and equity funding for startups in the education technology space has more than doubled, rising from $ 4.81 billion in 2019 to 12 , $ 58 billion worldwide last year.

Over the same period, the number of laptops and tablets shipped to elementary and secondary schools in the US nearly doubled from 14 million to 26.7 million, according to Futuresource Consulting, a market research firm in the UK.

“We saw a real explosion in demand,” said Michael Boreham, senior market analyst at Futuresource. “It was a massive, massive change out of necessity.”

But as more districts reopen for personal instruction, the billions of dollars that schools and venture capitalists have invested in education technology are being tested. With some remote learning services, such as B. Video conferencing, the audience of the students can drop sharply.

“There’s definitely going to be a shake next year,” said Matthew Gross, general manager of Newsela, a popular reading-teaching app for schools. “I called it ‘The Great Ed Tech Crunch’.”

But even if the ed-tech market shrinks, industry executives say there is no going back. The pandemic has accelerated the spread of laptops and learning apps in schools and normalized digital educational tools for millions of teachers, students and their families.

“This has accelerated the adoption of technology in education by five to ten years,” said Michael Chasen, a veteran ed-tech entrepreneur who co-founded Blackboard in 1997, now one of the largest learning management systems for schools and colleges. “You can’t train hundreds of thousands of teachers and millions of students in online education and not expect it to have a profound impact.”

Tech evangelists long predicted that computers would transform education. Many promised that the future of learning included artificial intelligence apps that would adapt lessons to children’s abilities faster and more precisely than their human teachers could ever do.

This revolution in robot teaching has been slow, partly because very few learning apps have shown that they can significantly improve student outcomes.

Instead, during the pandemic, many schools simply turned to digital tools like video conferencing to broadcast traditional practices and schedules online. Critics say the urge to repeat the school day for distant students has only compounded the differences for many children facing a pandemic at home.

“We will never see stronger demonstrations of educational conservatism in our lives,” said Justin Reich, an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies online learning and recently wrote the book Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone cannot change education. “

Apps that enable online teacher-student interactions are seeing exceptional growth, and investors have followed suit.

One of the biggest deals, according to CB Insights, was: Zuoyebang, a Chinese ed-tech giant that offers live online lessons and homework help for kindergarten through 12th grade students, raised a total of $ 2.35 billion last year Collected by investors such as Alibaba and Sequoia Capital China.

Yuanfudao, another Chinese tutoring start-up, raised a total of $ 3.5 billion from investors like Tencent. And Kahoot, a quiz app from Norway used by millions of teachers, recently raised around $ 215 million from SoftBank.

In the United States, some of the largest ed-tech deals recently have been in startups helping educators assign and grade assignments, lead classes, or host online classroom discussions. These include Newsela and Nearpod, an app that many teachers use to create live interactive video courses or take students on virtual excursions.

“In K-12 in particular, so much learning is triggered by teacher-student dialogue,” said Jennifer Carolan, partner at Reach Capital, an education-focused venture capital firm that has invested in Nearpod and Newsela. “We’re excited about these products that really enhance the classroom’s skills.”


March 16, 2021, 8:42 p.m. ET

A number of ed-tech startups that were seeing record growth had sizeable school audiences prior to the pandemic. When school districts switched to distance learning last spring, many education apps were pursuing a common pandemic growth strategy: They made their premium services temporarily free for teachers for the rest of the school year.

“What it grew was massive adoption,” said Tory Patterson, executive director at Owl Ventures, a venture capital firm that invests in educational startups like Newsela. At the end of the school year, ed-tech startups were trying to convert school districts into paying customers, and “we saw pretty widespread adoption of those offerings.”

By the end of December, schools on Newsela had paid 11 million student accounts, an increase of around 87 percent compared to 2019. Last month, the start-up announced that it had raised $ 100 million. Now Newsela is valued at $ 1 billion, a milestone that is common with consumer apps like Instacart and Deliveroo but is still relatively rare for educational apps for American public schools.

Nearpod has also seen exponential growth. After the video lesson app was free, the start-up’s user base grew to 1.2 million teachers at the end of last year – a five-fold increase compared to 2019. Last month, Nearpod announced that it had agreed to support Renaissance, a company that sells academic assessment software to schools for $ 650 million.

Class disturbed

Updated March 15, 2021

The latest on how the pandemic is changing education.

Some consumer tech giants who offered free services to schools also benefited, gaining audience share and accustoming millions of students to using their product.

For example, the global audience for Google Classroom, Google’s free app for assigning and grading classes, has grown to more than 150 million students and educators, up from 40 million early last year. According to Zoom Video Communications, more than 125,000 schools in 25 countries were served free of charge during the pandemic.

However, whether tools that teachers rely on for distance learning can maintain their popularity depends on how useful the apps are in the classroom.

For one, Newsela has gained a loyal following among educators because of its flexibility. With the app, they can select breaking news articles or short stories for discussion in class. There are different versions of the text depending on the reading level of a student. Mr. Gross, managing director of Newsela, said the app also provides teachers with quick feedback on each child’s progress, warning them of students who may need attention whether they are online or in the classroom.

“Teachers are beginning to see which tools are designed for both a physical and a remote classroom,” said Gross, “that work equally well in both environments.”

Nearpod, the video lesson app, also expects traction to remain in schools, said Pep Carrera, the start-up’s executive director. During the pandemic, educators like Nesi Harold, an eighth-grade science teacher in the Houston area, used features in the app to interview students, create quizzes, or ask students to use a drawing tool to sketch the solar system – digital Tools that work for both live teaching and distance learning.

“It allows me to send the lesson to all of my learners, no matter where they are,” said Ms. Harold, who teaches both personal and distant students at the same time.

Her only complaint: She can’t save more than a couple of hours at a time on Nearpod because her school didn’t buy a license. “It’s still expensive,” she said.

The future of education is less clear for business services like Zoom, which were designed for business use and adopted by schools for pandemic reasons.

In an email, Kelly Steckelberg, Zooms CFO, said she expected educational institutions to invest in “new ways of virtual communication” beyond distance learning – for example in Zoom for parent-teacher association meetings, school board meetings and parent-teacher meetings. Conferences.

Mr. Chasen, the Ed-Tech entrepreneur, is betting on it. He recently founded Class Technologies, a start-up that provides online course management tools – such as participation and assessment features – for educators and corporate trainers who deliver live courses on Zoom. The company has raised $ 46 million from investors including Bill Tai, one of Zoom’s earliest supporters.

“I don’t have a new advanced AI methodology,” Chasen said of his new video classroom app. “Do you know what teachers needed? They needed the ability to distribute work in class, take a quiz, and grade it. “

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