Democratizing Education Technology

Today, we’re announcing an investment in Schoology, a next generation collaborative learning platform that combines the elements of a learning management system, a social networking platform, and enterprise resource system all in one hyper-intuitive interface.

I’ve known the Schoology team for some time, having spent the last year getting to know them.  It’s a testament to the power of building enduring relationships.  We’ve had a clear set of mutual expectations of what we were driving towards and it all finally came together.  It is a fantastic team and I am amazed at the power and complexity of the system they have built in the short while they have been around.  The uptake has been tremendous for good reason.

Teachers can sign up for the platform in under a minute and have the best in modern technologies available to them, for free!  Teachers can easily invite students into the system using a unique access code.  From there, the sky is the limit.  Teachers can build a curriculum, create lesson plans, build tests and quizzes, have students submit homework into a dropbox, grade assignments, see classroom analytics, encourage students groups formation for peer learning, and much more.  In addition, teachers can collaborate with one another and share content.  Pushes us one step further towards the notion of Open Educational Resources.  Teachers can also add apps, such as plagiarism checks, directly into their workflow.  All this with a Facebook like interface that requires no training.

The best part of the system is that technology selection has been completely democratized to the actual users.  Schoology does not spend months and years convincing heads of a system as to whether the technology suits their needs.  Users simply adopt it.  Upon seeing users within a system grow naturally, Schoology has the privilege of notifying districts or universities about additional capabilities available to them with a few clicks of a button.  Schoology can also enable powerful integrations with existing legacy systems.  No more promises of what can be, no vaporware, no millions of dollars spent on configuration and changes.

The platform also has transformational capabilities.  Because it is social at its core, it benefits from powerful network effects.  With nearly 1 million users already on the platform across 18,000 K-20 and higher education schools, you can bring the power of a developer community to build on the platform.  Content can be built, shared and purchased directly from within.  Teachers can be given micro-credits to personalize the system for their needs.  Parents can be invited to participate in the educational process.  It is truly a radical shift.

And it’s not just schools that can leverage the technology.  Any institution that views training and learning critical is a potential customer.  In addition to schools, corporations have signed up to use it internally.  One of the largest corporate users is Groupon, which uses the platform for field sales training.  They have their proprietary materials that need to be mastered and tested and revisted regularly to ensure a well trained team.

The next generation of education will bring stark changes: transition to digital textbooks and content, movement towards adaptive learning, advancement of the flipped classroom.  But most powerful of all is potentially the technology platform that connects it and us all together.  Schoology represents just that.  We’re thrilled to be involved with the team.

Education: A Call to Arms

Busy days at FirstMark, on the heels of announcing a seed investment earlier in the week, I am very excited today to announce our investment into StraighterLine.

StraighterLine is an online, low cost, subscription based provider of general education courses that many take in their  first two years of college (Algebra, Biology, Calculus, US History, etc). The courses are ACE Credit recommended and can be transferred for credit to various degree granting institutions (25+ automatically transfer today, over 200+ universities around the country that have accepted post review, and growing). What does that mean in lay terms? Well, you can flexibly and cheaply take a variety of high quality courses at a much lower cost than anywhere else, transfer into institutions that accept StraighterLine’s courses for credit, and bring your blended cost of a degree down dramatically.

The two charts below summarize well the drivers for an investment like StraighterLine:

  

Costs have skyrocketed faster than healthcare over the last few decades. Student debt has ballooned to over $1 trillion, surpassing credit card debt according to the Federal Reserve Board of New York. StraighterLine’s students pay $99/month and $39/course for their pay as you go service or $999 undiscounted for a Freshman Year equivalent. Against even public two year institutions, StraighterLine offers very significant savings for the student.

In addition to pricing, there are other issues lurking beneath the surface. Funding for public education is getting slashed. California’s 112 community colleges are having their budgets slashed by hundreds of millions of dollars. The system is having to turn away students because it is no longer able to find enough space to service them. The unfortunate incidents at Santa Monica College — where the school tried to create a higher priced system for the most in-demand courses in an attempt to balance with supply instead led to riots and maced students/children — underscore this point.

Taxpayer funding aside, the federal government is looking much more closely at graduation rates and successful job placements at institutions that accept students with federal aid.  As institutions begin to trim enrollments and focus on academic quality, their acceptance criteria will continue to grow more selective.  An institution like StraighterLine can be an effective partner in preparatory coursework to ease the transition and improve a student’s chances of success prior to formal enrollment.

Finally, as we think about structural unemployment challenges, the ability to easily access new learning, complete coursework in a flexible manner, and base competency on outcomes of learning and not on time spent in a course (ie, “credit hours”) will be a key part of solving the country’s labor issues.  The influx of non-traditional students (older, single mothers, workers retraining) is expected to grow at a much faster rate than traditional college students, and we will need institutions that can cater to this class.

StraighterLine offers a scalable solution to these challenges, where all parties benefit – easing the burden on taxpayers who fund institutions, saving money for students seeking to improve skills, improving student selection for institutions seeking to raise academic performance, and democratizing access to education for a newly mobile work force.  The ambitions of StraighterLine do not end there. Burck Smith, founder & CEO of StraighterLine, has been a passionate advocate and visionary in the education space for many years. His last company, SmartThinking, pioneered post secondary online tutoring and student support services and was acquired by Pearson.

With the round, we will invest heavily in building out a unique platform and set of services that innovate on behalf of students, embracing all of the things an online, data driven platform can do. We are working with a number of providers to build assessments to help the industry shift towards a competency based view of learning.  And we are also engaging the employer community, to create better linkages between the education students receive and the more tangible successful outcome of employment.

Stay tuned for more, but suffice to say there is a fantastic opportunity to use technology and innovation to leapfrog America once again to the head of the global class! We are delighted to play a small part and partner with a great team in doing so.

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1 [Source: New York Times, Lewin, Tamar.“Higher Education May Soon Become Unaffordable for Most in U.S.”]

2 [Source: LiveScience]

What Changes the Second Time Around?

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged but I’m trying to get myself back on it again. I thought I’d kick off on the backs of our seed investment into appRenaissance announced today.

The CEO of appRenaissance is Bob Moul, whom I had backed in his last company Boomi in 2008. They were a pioneer in the cloud based integration market and Bob led the business to a great exit in 2010 to DELL. Bob left DELL a year later to jump back into the startup world. He eventually caught the mobile bug and joined appRenaissance as CEO earlier this year. When I got the call, it was a no-brainer and we were delighted to partner together again. It got me thinking, what changes the second time around?

  1. Price and terms get figured out quickly. Seasoned entrepreneurs know the game; they know the pros and cons of too high/too low; they know the danger of running out too quickly or overcapitalizing; they don’t get sucked in by the hype in the echochamber; you don’t have to unwind all the misconceptions that exist out there. There is a tremendous clarity that allows us to virtually waste no time in coming to a handshake. Whether it was Bob Moul at appRenaissance or Chet Kanojia at Aereo, the conversation took a total of 10 minutes and we were onto building something great.
  2. Don’t need proof because the trust is there. For first time entrepreneurs, generally people like to see some evidence of execution. We want to see what you’ve been able to accomplish, before and now. The relationship is so new that it’s hard to take people simply on their word. We want to see it in some numbers somewhere. The second time around, we already know what you can do and have done before. We’re glad to take early risks blindly because the trust is there.
  3. Neither side worries about protecting outside case scenarios. You know the ones I mean… Spending a few weeks defining “Cause” and how to get a ladder of severance lengths based on that. Taking great pains to ensure you approve budget because someone might set one at zero and pay themselves insanely. Having to define exit thresholds and multiples because both sides worry about blocking (or not accepting) an exit because someone didn’t think they made enough money. In general, we never get hung up on the above, but they are real and these are the outside cases that strangers might try to protect. The second time around everyone focuses on the core issues, dealing with things that set up good governance and good mutual accountability, and knock them down easily.
  4. It’s a lot more fun. If you’ve had a good outcome with someone, it’s likely the second time, an entrepreneur will be thinking bigger, focused more clearly and will want to build longer. Bob’s goal now is no less than to build a big public software company based in Philadelphia. We love BHAGs like that – it clarifies the mission and energizes all around.

Since starting FirstMark in 2008, I am getting my first wave of entrepreneurs coming back for our second time together, and it’s fantastic. We’ve made it a point to build early, deep and longstanding relationships that make us a place to go again and again. They serve as the best references for new entrepreneurs (first time or repeat) we endeavor to work with. And I look forward to doing so in the future with the many incredible first time entrepreneurs I’m so privileged to be involved with now.