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Are We In A Golden Age Of EdTech?

Posted on Wednesday, Feb 5th 2014

John Doerr would like the world to believe yes.

Speaking with Betsy Corcoran of edSurge, Doerr expresses his enthusiasm:

What makes this moment “transitional” for learning, Doerr says, is the fact that so much of the technology now getting applied to learning and schools already pervades the rest of our lives.

“It’s very easy to take the base for granted but the conditions didn’t exist [even five years ago] for Remind101 or for Coursera,” he says, pointing to the creation of the app stores and emergence of high-quality videos on the web as pivotal.

And cell phones. Two decades ago, many teachers felt isolated in their classrooms because they lacked any way to communicate with the outside world–even a simple phone. Just about every teacher now has a cell phone handy.

Why? He has just invested in Remind101:

Remind101, which provides teachers with safe way to send text messages to their students and parents, just landed a $15 million investment led by the Big Kahuna of Silicon Valley, Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. Partner John Doerr is joining the board. Other investors include The Social + Capital Partnership and First Round Capital. Social+Capital partner, Chamath Palihapitiya, will continue as a board member. That brings Remind101’stotal raise to $19.5 million.

This marks Kleiner Perkins’ first investment in a company that caters to the K-12 market. The firm’s other education investments include Chegg,Coursera and Codecademy. (Word on the street: Another investment may also be in the works.)

Please read Betsy’s article and share your thoughts.

I will kick the discussion off with some of my own, and some pointers to other posts:

First, Coursera, EdX, MOOCs and all.

MOOCs have both generated great excitement in the world of online learning, and garnered criticism. One of the key issues is that learners tend to abandon online courses often.

My personal view is that the culture of online learning is not yet deeply integrated into society and human behavior. However, over this decade, it will become thoroughly embedded, and the impact of projects like EdX, Coursera, and our own 1M/1M will become far-reaching both in depth and breadth.

Also, EdX, a non-profit, competes with Coursera and Udemy, that are heavily venture-funded startup companies. My guess is that whether the MOOCs would be successful as venture funded companies is still a rather large question mark. EdX is a non-profit from the start, and doesn’t have to become a billion dollar company to be sustainable. There are enough people who would be willing to fund its growth (eg. Bill Gates), as long as it can continue to meet its operational costs over the long term, and deliver value.

Coursera, to survive, will need to grow fast and become a billion dollar public company. Or it would need to exit somehow via M&A.

Time will tell, which model wins. For now, both sets of experiments are welcome for the future of education.

Doerr says:

“I’m looking for liquidity events as independent companies. Coursera should someday have an IPO. I don’t know why Remind101 would not.”

Of course. That’s what an investor would like. But I am not all that convinced about the business models of the MOOCs or Remind101 for that matter.

I love the fact that education is seeing renewed interest and investment. However, I would like to see that the investment turns into profitable, scalable business models, otherwise the VCs will flee.

Doerr included.

Case in point, HotChalk. When Betsy and I worked together at Forbes, a little-known company called HotChalk built a huge social network for K-12 students, teachers, and parents. We both were excited about what that promised.

Today, HotChalk does little business in K-12, and have pivoted to running online businesses for for-profit education companies like Concordia.

I am just concerned that John Doerr’s enthusiasm may not be grounded in the financial realities of the market to support fast-growth venture scale companies in k-12.

Bootstrapped businesses? Yes.

Non-profits? Absolutely!

Venture-scale startups? Not sure.

It’s not a problem with me, since I love bootstrapped companies. But John Doerr doesn’t :-)

Btw, Doerr’s investment in Codeacademy should do very well. If you recall, we’ve covered two companies in the online technical education space: Pluralsight and TrainSignal, which have since merged to bring together a good $25 million+ in revenue. Both were bootstrapped up to significant revenue levels before Pluralsight raised money and acquired TrainSignal.

Another company doing $10M+ in revenue is Destiny Solutions in the professional education management space.

And ProctorU is bringing online proctoring to remove the testing bottleneck in distance education, delivering strong revenues along the way.

Anyway, would love to hear diverging points of view, especially case studies of companies that have crossed $5M, $10M in revenue, and understanding what they’re experiencing in the market. Unfortunately, much of the education market is struggling with the fact that it is full of free loaders.

Frankly, I sincerely hope that EdTech becomes a venture scale market. I’d love to see, for instance, a highly addictive math game that gets as much traction as Angry Birds, which, I believe, can be monetized at venture scale.

Convince me, though, that we’re there!

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