LearnLaunchX Startups Showcase Two Big Themes in Edtech

On a cold, miserable day in late May, seven edtech startups gave 10-minute pitches to a room full of mentors, investors, and press. It was demo day for the second class of startups in Boston’s LearnLaunchX accelerator. These companies serve as a kind of barometer for education-tech businesses in New England and beyond.

In addition to the Boston area, the startups hailed from places like Boulder, Brooklyn, and Belgium. They had gone through three months of rigorous mentorship as they tested their ideas and landed early customers. LearnLaunchX, which is led by Jean Hammond and her team, has now invested in 14 young companies since its start in 2013.

I walked in feeling a bit cool about the prospects of building a successful startup in such a frothy, noisy sector (maybe it was the weather). Yet I walked out with two major themes that seem to indicate where the field—and its eventual winners—are heading.

1. Understanding users

This theme dovetails with the “rise of the learner” and the “consumerization of education.” In the era of digital and devices, it’s now possible—and necessary—for schools and organizations to understand exactly how students are interacting with products. This applies to educational content, as big publishers are well aware, and to schools themselves, which need to get a better handle on the interests of their past, present, and future students.

Campuscene, led by CEO Dave Meyer, makes software that gives college-admissions offices a more unified view of their applicants’ interest in their school. The idea is to get a better sense of who really wants to enroll, by tracking applicants’ interactions with e-mail campaigns, the school’s website, and social media. “Schools can’t just push information out anymore. They have to pull information in,” said Meyer.

Meanwhile, QuadWrangle is applying the same principle to try to improve alumni engagement and fundraising. As CEO Nick Zeckets put it, current alumni “databases work in one direction; they’re not really learning about you, they just get in touch with you.” To “make communication go in two directions,” he said, the startup’s software pulls in information from LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and other sources to figure out what each alumnus cares about—and what part of the school they’re more likely to donate to.

As for current students, a big opportunity lies in career services and in connecting students to the job market. But that requires better Web interactions between schools and their students. David Kozhuk’s startup, uConnect, makes custom software that helps colleges get more directly involved in their students’ job searches. The idea is to make each school’s website a go-to destination for job-search content, job applications, and recruiting videos from employers.

Indeed, a subtheme of understanding users is finding better ways to connect groups that want to work together. Book&Table, led by Maurice Wright, has developed a marketplace website to help K-12 students (and parents) find professional tutors and then track their lessons and progress.

Which takes us to another broad theme…

2. Bringing lessons alive

Lots of companies are figuring out new ways to use apps, tablets, and websites to add digital flourishes to the learning process. Content publishers and education companies are all in the business of updating their materials for the digital, interactive era. It’s still too early to say what the impact will be on student learning, but it’s clear that more of the process will be done on devices.

CueThink, led by Sheela Sethuraman, is targeting math education on tablets. The idea is to walk students through the steps of problem solving—understand the problem, plan a solution, solve it, and review what you’ve done—using an interface with simple graphics and a way to make video recordings of their work. Being digital, each step can be shared with their peers or teacher—so one goal is to make math more social. “Math has always been a subject,” Sethuraman said. “We want to change it and make it a conversation.”

If that’s math, you might imagine what can be done for other subjects. Thomas Ketchell’s company, Hstry, is bringing history lessons alive in the digital age through first-person timelines shared via social media. The company’s software lets teachers and students recreate historical events through interactive streams that look like Facebook or Twitter—think Paul Revere’s midnight ride, or the spread of an epidemic, or the start of a World War.

And then there’s the more prosaic side of things. With the advent of digital learning tools, teachers need better ways to manage their workflow, particularly on tablets. Skaffl, led by Rita Chesterton, has developed software to help unify things like planning lessons, distributing homework, grading, and providing feedback to students, parents, and administrators. While the company puts teachers at the core of its product, its eye is also on the kinds of data that administrators need to have to demonstrate student outcomes.

Which brings us back to the first theme of understanding users. One thing is clear in edtech: companies that can do #1 or #2 best will have big things in their future.

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