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When education giant Kaplan and startup accelerator TechStars announced a joint ed tech accelerator back in February, the plan was for the program to be a one-time thing. Now, though, the companies say they’re doubling down and extending the program. And no wonder: at the program’s demo day on Wednesday, its 10 startups pitched to a packed house at New York’s IAC building, and nearly all of them touted impressive progress toward reaching their fundraising goals.
Industry analysts report that venture capital deal activity in ed tech remains strong, but some say that investor interest in the sector has cooled over the past six to twelve months. It’s worth noting, however, that while some venture capitalists may be wary of investing in education startups that sell to institutions (and have to deal with long sales cycles), many of the companies in Kaplan’s program sell straight to consumers or corporations. And those kinds of business models can be more attractive to investors.
Each of the founders made a strong case for his or her company, but here are a few that made the biggest impression:
Online learning sites may be expanding what it means to get an education, but when it comes to awarding credit, we’re still usually just left with the degree. Degreed’s ambition, though, is to provide a FICO-like score for education and give students and employers a more modular way of quantifying and credentialing learning.
Launched last year, the startup provides an online service that tracks, scores and validates a person’s educational experiences, from accredited degree programs at traditional universities to online options like iTunesU and Udacity. The startup, which has already closed a $900,000 funding round, plans to be free for consumers and to charge enterprise clients for knowledge management- and recruiting-related services.
To find a job, college students need relevant experience — but to gain that experience, they need a job. To get around that catch-22, Flinja (which is short for “freelance ninja”) offers a marketplace of short-term projects exclusively for college students. Through the site, companies like Xerox, Yelp and Burger King can post jobs that give students a chance to learn real-life skills while making connections with potential employers.
As I’ve written before, there’s a growing concern about the gap between the skills employers need and the educations students are getting. Other startups, like CollegeFeed and MindSumo, are also courting students and companies with online services to bridge the divide, and LinkedIn (s LNKD) recently announced a new effort to attract students. But Flinja’s freelance marketplace model is unique in efficiently making short-term corporate jobs available to students. The startup said it has more than 100,000 registered students and that it’s placed about 2,200 jobs.
Even if I weren’t a reporter, I’d have a soft spot for this online daily news site for students. When it comes to education, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects tend to get most of the media’s attention these days, but students’ language and literacy skills also need significant help. Last month, for example, New York state found that just a third of its third- through eighth-grade students met or exceeded the new Common Core standard in language arts.
Each day, Newsela offers up a set of stories from top publishers that are rewritten with varying text complexity. The site assesses a student’s reading level and then delivers the most appropriate version of a story, and lets readers opt for more challenging content. Since launching 12 weeks ago, it says it’s found its way into more than 3,700 schools across the country. And it plans to partner with community colleges, education publishers and others targeting adult English language learners.
Don’t count it against Ranku that one of its cofounders was on Bravo’s widely panned reality show Start-Ups: Silicon Valley. Like a Kayak or OpenTable for online education, the company wants to make it easier for students to discover the growing number of virtual degree programs from nonprofit schools that can offer quality educations at more affordable prices.
Instead of leaving students to search engines (where big for-profit programs like University of Phoenix drop large sums of money), Ranku provides users an easy-to-navigate marketplace that offers personalized search results, detailed information about each school’s online program and other data points that help in the school selection process. The company says it already has a $400,000 revenue run rate and has signed on Mark Cuban as a lead investor in its current seed round.
From one-off massive open online courses (MOOCS) to full-on virtual degrees, online learning is gaining serious steam. But for it to reach its full potential, online education providers need to prove that they can keep students honest. Several services use remote live proctoring, browser lockdowns and keystroke recognition software to keep students’ behavior in check. But Verificient claims it can reach a greater scale because its facial recognition technology can continuously monitor online students in real-time without a human proctor.
Relying on technology developed for the Transportation Security Administration, the startup says it uses a computer’s camera to conduct an initial scan of a student’s face, identification card and knuckles. Then, while a student takes a test, it can tell when she has left the computer, whether she’s talking to another person, if another person has taken her place and other potential red-flag scenarios. So far, its clients include Rutgers, Seton Hall and Columbia University’s Teachers College.