Cracking K-12 Edtech: Lessons From TenMarks, Panorama, & Playrific

The state of the union in education technology is noisy and bewildering.

Consider the many factions. There are online distance-learning efforts to reach students, such as MOOCs (massive open online courses); Web-based tools for teachers and administrators; content-publishing plays ranging from games and apps to e-textbooks; collaborative interfaces for students and teachers; skills-assessment software for students, teachers, and employers; and much more. The market also tends to be fragmented between K-12 and higher education.

But, suffice to say, the field—as sprawling and splintered as it may be—is progressing in Boston and beyond.

That much was on display early this month at a conference called “Across Boundaries,” held at Harvard University and organized by Boston edtech nonprofit LearnLaunch. The event brought together entrepreneurs, teachers, techies, publishers, and investors to talk about challenges in the industry and how to move forward.

Keynoter Heather Staker, a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, framed online learning as potentially disruptive to the education sector. That’s “disruptive” in the Christensen sense of the word—whereby a lower-priced, more accessible product can gain a foothold, move up-market, and eventually displace traditional industry leaders.

To that end, a mixture of online and offline instruction—what people are calling “blended learning”—could be well on its way to transforming education, Staker said. “The high school of tomorrow will look very different,” she said.

Indeed, what struck me as most interesting is the progress being made in the K-12 edtech market. (I’m going to leave the business issues of MOOCs and the higher-education bubble for another day.) For years, we’ve heard that it’s difficult to sell software products to K-12 schools and districts. We’ve also heard that app stores and the Web make it easier to sell directly to students, parents, and teachers.

The current crop of edtech startups is challenging both of those notions.

At the conference, a panel featuring Panorama Education founder and CEO Aaron Feuer and TenMarks co-founder Andrew Joseph tackled the first issue. TenMarks, which was acquired by Amazon last fall, makes Web-based worksheets, video lessons, and other interactive materials to supplement math education. The company was founded in the Boston area in 2008 and gained traction after it shifted from trying to sell to parents to working with schools—and instituting a “freemium” model that let teachers try out the software for free and upgrade if they wanted to.

Panorama Education, meanwhile, came out of the Y Combinator accelerator program and scored a $4 million investment from Mark Zuckerberg and other high-profile angel investors last fall. The Boston-area company sells survey and analytics software to school districts and state governments, with the goal of providing feedback to assess teachers, administrators, and schools.

Aaron Feuer, CEO of Panorama EducationSo far, Panorama’s experience points to the need for some edtech companies to be “more activists than entrepreneurs,” said Feuer (pictured), a recent Yale University grad. In fact, the startup almost never existed in the first place. “We started off not wanting to start a company,” he said. “We said, if in the next six months we don’t have two school systems signed up, let’s drop it.”

Now the company’s hustle seems to be paying off in what is still a chaotic K-12 market. “There is very little true wisdom in this space,” said Feuer. He called education a “scary” sector for top entrepreneurs because of the bureaucracy and regulations involved. He also said it’s “the most relationship-driven field.”

Meanwhile, TenMarks co-founder Joseph wouldn’t say what his parent company Amazon is doing in edtech—what a surprise—but he did talk about some lessons learned. It took longer than expected, but TenMarks figured out how to make math-education software more compelling by personalizing it for individual kids’ questions and folding in some mechanics from video games (such as rewards for finishing levels).

Andrew Joseph, co-founder of TenMarks (acquired by Amazon)Those kinds of touches might help a product break through in schools, but getting it right isn’t easy. “Most principals we talk to hate the technologies they see,” said Joseph (pictured). Still, he’s optimistic about the market and the future of the field. “The beautiful products we think of in our lives are coming to education,” he said.

Plenty of other companies are trying to develop such products directly for consumers. Many are finding, however, that app stores and the Web don’t necessarily make it easier to reach students and their parents—so they are getting some help.

Case in point: Boston-area startup Playrific, which started out by aggregating digital content for kids, is now primarily working with … Next Page »

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