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 brands and organizations to create apps that have an educational component. It has landed partnerships with Toys “R” Us, which pre-loads Playrific apps on its child-focused tablet, and more recently, SeaWorld Kids, which has tapped the startup to develop nature-themed apps.

“We intersperse education into everything we do,” said Beth Marcus, Playrific’s co-founder and CEO, in an interview. “But it’s all about fun for kids. We’re not doing Common Core expertise [materials]. That’s what they do in school.”

Playrific got started in 2010, and its app-publishing platform brings together elements from videos, games, books, and photos. The company’s experience suggests that reaching kids with apps is a lot easier if you have kid-focused brands on board to help you with distribution. “Now we have a viable business model, and it does not rely on sales of $1.99 things to be profitable,” Marcus said. “If you think you’re going to make money through app stores, you’re kidding yourself.”

Beth Marcus, CEO of PlayrificBut Marcus (pictured) acknowledges there’s room for other approaches. “The marketplace as a whole for technology delivered through devices to kids is a very nascent area,” she says. “Everyone is figuring out their business model.”

The lessons from all the companies above could also apply to other local startups, such as Socrative (which makes classroom activity apps), CueThink (collaborative math instruction), Testive (test prep for students), TeachPoint (teacher evaluations), and Balefire Labs (educational app reviews). And don’t forget the more traditional education publishers, like Pearson, Cengage Learning, and Curriculum Associates, which are looking for ways to make their content more mobile and interactive.

Playrific and other app companies fit with broader themes that LearnLaunch co-founder Eileen Rudden calls the rise of “informal schooling” and the “digital wave washing over education.” In short, kids are learning a lot of things outside the classroom, as they always have.

Dave Balter, a tech investor who also serves as CEO of Boston-based Smarterer, points out that therein lies a big opportunity to rethink education. “A lot of things school teaches us become irrelevant” once people hit the workforce, he said on a conference panel. The more important skills include “relating to people, and can you learn Python?”

As an investor looking at edtech, he’s intrigued by platforms that help people get more connected—think peer-to-peer assessment, linking talent with employers, that sort of thing. It’s an old-school theme in a new-school world.

“If you turn away from the tools, there are other ways to think about it, from a people perspective first,” he said.

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