Schoology Aims to Make the Honor Roll in Education Technology

4/18/12Follow @jpruth

Much like a promising class of new graduates, the fast-growing startups in education technology are landing big offers to get ahead. Money is flowing into these companies as they develop technology that puts new twists on the traditional classroom. Up and comer Schoology in New York raised $6 million on Monday in a funding round led by FirstMark Capital with participation from Meakem Becker Venture Capital. It is one of several deals to close this month in education technology. Investors seem eager to see what new chapters in education Schoology and its peers will open.

Schoology offers an online and app-based platform used primarily in K-12 classrooms. The software runs on computers, tablets, and smartphones, letting teachers give quizzes and grades virtually. It also enables students and instructors to interact in a social networking environment. Make no mistake though; Schoology’s network is not another place for meaningless status updates. Third party educational content is available on the platform in digital formats from publishers. Users can highlight information they find interesting for others to discover. For example, teachers can use the platform to virtually swap ideas with their colleagues from California to New York, and then manage homework assignments and track their students’ progress.

Schoology uses a freemium business model, which lets individual users access an initial set of features for free. The company charges an annual subscription to users who want more advanced capabilities, such as the ability to customize networks in schools. Friedman says an app and content store is in development and due out this summer. It will feature material from third party developers that will be available for purchase.

Founded in 2009, Schoology has raised a total of $9.3 million in funding. Jeremy Friedman, CEO, says the latest round will help Schoology grow its staff from 21 to 30 by year’s end and introduce the platform in more communities. He says more than 18,000 schools across country already use the technology even though his company has not promoted itself too heavily. “We’ve maintained a pretty low profile,” he says. “That’s all about to change.” Some of the planned new hires will include marketing personnel to get the word out about the platform.

Amish Jani, managing partner with FirstMark, says he was impressed by Schoology’s trajectory as it rapidly spread in the market. He also praised the company’s technology, which works with Google Docs and other third party applications that teachers and students already use. “It puts the software leaps and bounds ahead of most other platforms that are in this space,” he says.

Schoology and others in the education tech market are introducing new ways to make academia more efficient, a common topic of discussion given the rising cost of education, Jani says. Schoology is FirstMark’s fourth investment in education technology, he says.

Last Friday FirstMark led a $10 million funding round with online college education company StraighterLine in Baltimore. That follows an unrelated April 2 funding round that put another $26 million in the hands of 2tor, an education technology company in Landover, MD. With its latest deal, 2tor has raised some $96 million in venture funding from backers that include Hillman Company, SVB Capital, WestRiver Capital, and Bessemer Venture Partners. 2tor relocated its headquarters from New York to Landover in January with the appointment of CEO Chip Paucek.

Friedman seems to welcome the rise of more players in education technology. “We’re seeing a lot of people focusing on flipping the classroom through adaptive learning,” he says. He cited New York’s Knewton, also backed by FirstMark, as a local example of education technology companies brining innovation to academics.

As competition is bound to intensify in this market, Friedman proudly talked about his company beating Blackboard, a Washington, DC-based rival, to nab schools in Jefferson County, CO, as customers for its learning management platform. “They’ve got 85,000 students,” he says. Nationally, Schoology is being used by more than one million students.

Friedman confesses when the company launched it was not easy to convince school administrators to introduce a network that seemed reminiscent of Facebook, at least superficially, in their classrooms. “Everyone would say ‘we can’t have that in schools,’” he says. After Schoology demonstrated how instructors could use the platform to be more active in the development of students, he won over the naysayers. “Seeing that paradigm shift is encouraging,” he says.

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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