Examville, Coursekit, and Others Disrupt Learning to Get Ahead
New York is known as the home to some of the world’s biggest education publishers, such as Pearson and McGraw-Hill. Even Apple came to New York to make its big iPad textbook announcement two weeks ago. But what’s not as well known is that the city is also teeming with education technology startups—companies leveraging the Web, the cloud, social media, and other tools to help people keep learning even outside the classroom. The founders of two of those startups, Examville and Coursekit, gave me a peek into their notebooks for a look at the technologies they’re offering to help connect students with educational content and services.
Both companies are growing—Coursekit in particular expects to more than quadruple its staff this year—and they’ll be getting even more company if an education-focused Startup Weekend event this weekend comes off as planned. Sponsored by San Francisco-based test prep startup Grockit, the intense event at the Mandell School on the Upper West Side is designed to help teams build a credible Web or mobile app for education in just 54 hours.
The demand for new ways to access educational content is only growing, says Examville’s founder and CEO Nilanjan Sen. Education is approaching a moment of disruption and fragmentation comparable to the one Apple’s iPod and iTunes caused in the music industry, he says. “In the 1970s you had to buy a whole album when you really wanted one song,” he says. “Most people don’t need help with everything [in education].”
Examville is a Web-based marketplace that aggregates and sells digitized material from educators, textbook publishers such as Milliken Publishing, and other students. Examville’s website offers live online classes, tutor searching, video lectures, e-books, study guides, and practice versions of standardized tests such as the LSAT and GMAT. The content is geared for elementary school through higher education students. Examville takes a cut from the fees charged when users pay for certain content and services, though some material is also available free. Sen says his company is generating revenue, and he is also exploring a Series A funding round, which would help the company hire more engineering and marketing staff ideally in the next six months. Examville currently has a staff of seven regular employees augmented by additional personnel as needed.
Sen worked in the education industry as a course developer and test preparation instructor for companies such as Kaplan and The Princeton Review before founding his previous company, Test Prep International, in 1997. With the evolution of the Web, Sen saw an opportunity to shift his business to an online platform, and started 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.”