Examville, Coursekit, and Others Disrupt Learning to Get Ahead

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Examville in 2007. Before that time, he says, there were few ways to share digitized educational content, but today users can cherry pick materials to suit their individual needs. “People learn in different ways,” he says. “Some people are visual learners, some learn by example.”

Examville has raised about $1 million in funding, mostly from news and investment portal Rediff.com, and it was a finalist in last June’s IBM Global Entrepreneur SmartCamp competition in New York.

“You’re starting to see a lot more money going into” education startups now, Sen says. Sen cautions, however, that some startups may offer cool ideas for education, but that what users really want is technology that serves real world-needs. “Any technology that allows users to curate [education information] and self-assess is going to be a hit,” he says.

Meanwhile at Coursekit, a much younger startup, the emphasis is on building a social platform where students can continue the learning process that began in the classroom, says co-founder and CEO Joseph Cohen. Instructors and students can use Coursekit to manage courses, share files, and discuss lessons. Cohen says platforms such as Facebook serve users’ personal lives, and LinkedIn serves the business world. “We don’t have those things for education,” he says. “We want to be the software platform for education.”

Coursekit collected $1 million in seed funding last May, around the same time Cohen and fellow co-founders Jim Grandpre and Dan Gentleman left the University of Pennsylvania to focus on their startup. After going through the summer 2011 NYC TechStars program, the company closed a $5 million Series A round this January led by The Social+Capital Partnership with IA Ventures and several angel investors participating. Coursekit has a staff of six and plans to grow to 25 by year’s end.

Cohen says while learning is a universal human experience, the online format has thus far left much to be desired. “We consume content but we don’t experience learning the way that we do in college, for example.” Coursekit’s solution is to supplement the traditional classroom with more interaction among students and instructors. “You’ll be able to share with and get to know the other people in the class,” Cohen says. “The idea is bringing the Internet to learning and education. We think that’s totally game changing.”

Heather Gilchrist, the local organizer of the upcoming Startup Weekend event, agrees that the sector has reached a tipping point. “Whenever a new technology, [a] new industry starts fomenting, there is a period of mediocre ideas while the waters are being tested,” she says. “We’ve gone through that maturation process with education and the ideas are getting really good.”

Gilchrist, who was founding director of academics at Grockit, is now the managing director of RAK Tech Fund, an angel fund in New York’s SoHo neighborhood. She says local educational institutions are showing growing support for the local startup scene. “There are so many education tech startups in New York—it’s such a great market,” she says. “We have a big Teach for America presence. We also have [NYC] Teaching Fellows, which is unique to New York. We have major [education] publishers here.”

Some of the demand for innovation, she says, is driven by what she describes as an education bubble. “The cost of education is outpacing returns on investment,” Gilchrist says. She believes technology can help restore balance by giving students more ways to fine-tune their training in preparation for jobs. The spread of mobile communication devices offers new ways for students to learn remotely, she says, and the growing use of tablets will lead to more digital versions of textbooks to cut down long-term expenses. “It no longer takes real effort to convince a school district that iPads are a good idea [for the classroom],” she says. “With squeezes on budgets, people are looking to technology to find lower-cost solutions.”

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João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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