Teachers Get Techy: Education-Focused Startups Are Making In-Roads into Classrooms

Technology, once a distraction for students, is finding its way into classrooms in a way that is more seamless than ever.

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Elise Amendola / AP

A student looks at her new iPad at Burlington High School in Burlington, Mass, Aug. 23, 2011. Burlington gave iPads to every one of its 1,000-plus high school students.

Sit in on one of Jeannine Eddleton’s chemistry lectures at Virginia Tech and you’ll see a couple hundred students hunched over their cell phones, iPads and laptops. Rather than texting and checking Facebook, though, they’re using their devices to answer problems posed by Eddleton using Top Hat Monocle.

Whereas traditional response systems, or clickers, require specialized devices, this web-based software is universal. “Students can use the devices they never forget to bring to class and never forget to charge,” says Eddleton, who introduced Top Hat Monocle two years ago.  She uses the software to ask three to six questions per class, poll students and share results instantly. “Students are completely engaged.”

This is just one example of how technology, once a distraction for students, is finding its way into classrooms in a way that is more seamless than ever. Cramped classrooms, high education costs and a digitally fluent student body have helped open doors for education-focused technology startups. Investors have taken note. Funding for education-technology companies was $429 million in 2011, up from $146 million in 2002, according to the National Venture Capital Association.

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Traditionally, education has been a tough category to break into. “It can take two to three years to land a contract with a school,” says Mike Silagadze, CEO and founder of 35-employee Toronto-based Top Hat Monocle. After unsuccessfully trying to sell to universities, the company took its technology to teachers, who recommend the $20 annual subscription – which is good for all classes – as part of their curriculum. In September 2010, the company had 3,000 student subscribers at five universities. This year, it expects to have 220,000 subscribers at about 250 universities. “It transforms the whole classroom experience from a passive one to an active one,” says Silagadze, adding that instructors report an increase in attendance, comprehension and grades after incorporating the software.

Another company, Echo360, licenses directly with universities, but has managed to break in, in a big way. Founded in 2006, the company lets instructors automatically record lectures, broadcast them live and catalog them with no extra work on their part. At the same time it’s used for distance learning, it lets traditional students go back and review material they missed or didn’t understand the first time around. It’s also a popular tool for “flipped classrooms,” in which teachers record lectures, assign them as homework and use class time for hands-on instruction. The technology is now in 6,000 classrooms at 500 institutions.

“These universities are putting out more video in a day than NBC,” says Fred Singer, CEO of the Dulles, Va. company. Echo360 expects its revenue to increase 50% this year to $18 million. While the business is profitable for Echo360, its product is relatively inexpensive, costing institutions about $20 per student per year.

Meanwhile, there is no shortage of educational websites, videos and other content for educators to share with their students. The trouble is keeping track of it all. Enter another education startup, MentorMob. The nine-employee Chicago startup makes it easy to create “learning playlists” of online material, share them and update them. “Before, teachers were curating content and putting lists of links on their blogs, but there was no easy way to update it or track it,” says cofounder Vince Leung.

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That was Crystal Kirch’s issue. The Santa Ana, Calif. math teacher wanted to share online resources with students, “but it was all over the place,” she says. “I would send them links, and they would lose them.” Last January, she began organizing them by playlists that are available on the MentorMob site and embedded in her blog. Now, she says, they’re more likely to actually go to those links.

While there’s no cost to join MentorMob’s free online community, the company is banking that teachers and institutions will pay for new premium service that starts at $7 a month. Among other features, it provides analytics on whether students actually visited the sites and how much time they spent on them.

Kirch, for one, thinks it’s worth it. Not only can she keep closer tabs on whether students are using the links she’s so carefully curated, she’ll be inviting students to create and share their own.