Edmodo's K-12 Social Network Helps Teachers Connect with Students---and One Another
Back in 2008, when Edmodo co-founders Nic Borg and Jeff O’Hara were still working in IT for Chicago-area school districts, they noticed a big problem. Teachers were increasingly trying to bring Web tools into the classroom, but they didn’t have a safe and secure way to collaborate with students online. (Clearly, Facebook wasn’t an option—and still isn’t.) Drawing on the free space in their garages and the money in their pockets, Borg and O’Hara created Edmodo, a social network that allows K-12 teachers to interact and share resources with their students over the Internet.
Now, three years later, the San Francisco-based company has connected approximately 5 million students and teachers globally. And in December, marquee investors Greylock Partners and Benchmark Capital showed how much they liked Edmodo’s product by shelling out $15 million in Series B financing. (The company’s other backers include LearnCapital and Union Square Ventures.)
It was a big validation for the company, which has created a social network that teachers can use to assign homework, create quizzes, share materials and lesson plans with each other, and communicate with students in the same way that they communicate with their friends. The education-specific network doesn’t come with the same distractions that others have (FarmVille, friend updates, gossip) and it keeps its members in a closed community. “Edmodo is really built around the teacher-student relationship and what a classroom is,” Borg says. “There are a lot of roles in a social network when you look at the education side of things, and Edmodo really captures that.”
The company is part of a larger crop of Web startups working to create new management tools and facilitate communication in K-12 schools, among them San Francisco’s LearnBoost and education incubator Imagine K12′s Class Connect and Goalbook.
In early versions of Edmodo’s network, the emphasis was on sharing with students, but Borg says it wasn’t enough. Both he and O’Hara were working with teachers daily—the two met because O’Hara’s wife was Borg’s high school biology teacher—and Edmodo quickly received requests from teachers wanting to be able to connect with each other, not just their students.
“This group of teachers came on board really early and helped shape the product,” Borg says. “They’ve driven it from day one up to this point.”
Because of their feedback, the Edmodo service has evolved so that teachers can connect with each other, notify students of overdue homework, award badges for merits like good attendance, and even contact parents through the network.
Educators have also frequently asked for more ways to motivate their students. “The digital rewards have had an amazing impact,” Borg says. “Teachers clamored to create more and more badges.”
For Edmodo, it’s been particularly important to take the product directly to teachers, as opposed to school districts and administrations that can be slow to take action, Borg says. “We’re working on a space that’s been traditionally difficult to change, and really using this bottom up pressure from the user base to accelerate that change.”
Getting the product into teachers’ hands has been and continues to be the company’s biggest challenge. That’s a big part of the reason that the service has been free for both teachers and students from the beginning. “Right now to grow quickly in the space, it’s all about going directly to the teachers with something free they can adopt tomorrow, and then bring into their classroom,” Borg says.
Edmodo’s investors are on board with the free-to-play philosophy. “All the investors believe in network effects and really building a free platform that gets into every classroom,” Borg says. “Given how fractured the education space is, especially around the types of platforms being used for distributing content, it’s really difficult for rapid innovation to take place and for teachers to quickly discover and use new services.” It’s already a challenge to get widespread adoption of a new technology in K-12 classrooms, so it’s important not to add the extra hurdle of subscription fees-and the bureaucracy that comes with them, he says. “The focus for us is about absolutely always being a free platform.”
So far, Borg says he hasn’t seen any direct competition. Though there have been a fair number of first- and second-generation education content distribution systems, he can’t point to any that are K-12-focused social networks. The company plans to stay focused on K-12 schools, but Borg says the company does have a few higher education users on the network.
Three years after launch, Edmodo continues to get daily feedback about what features teachers would like to see added or changed, but also stories about how the social network has helped students in the classroom. About once a week, Borg says, the startup gets a thank you note from a teacher who says that a certain student who isn’t comfortable speaking up in the classroom is opening up online.
That kind of validation is important to the company’s 35 employees and its co-founders—first-time entrepreneurs who are really looking to make a difference.
“I’m just really excited to be working in a space that has such a profound impact,” Borg says. “If we begin to help create the tools that enable teachers to fix what’s going on in the classroom, we fix other parts of society as well.”