Article Image

I’ve already written one post this week about Ed Startup 101 — that one addressing the notion of an “ed-tech space.” But that post doesn’t really answer this week’s assignment for the class. Nor does what I’ve written below really, (oh well!) but it gets a little bit closer.

The Assignment

Here’s this week’s Ed Startup 101 assignment:

In writing, in video, or in an image (or in a combination of media!) tell us what you thought about these companies [ClassDojo, Clever, Codecademy, Coursera, Degreed, Dreambox, Goalbook, Instructure, Knewton] and emerging trends [from the Horizon Report]. Which ones were the most exciting to you? How do they relate to your idea for a startup? What did you see or hear that you hadn’t expected? What had you expected to see or hear that you didn’t?

Those 9 startups are described as “some startups we love,” but there’s no real explanation about why they were chosen or what makes them so lovable. Great idea? Great execution? Great founders? Game-changers? Big bucks? Wide adoption? Politically influential? It’s not clear.

So rather than go through these 9 and say what I love (or not), I'm cheating. I'm sidestepping this list altogether and returning to one that I made late last year: my picks for the Top 10 Ed-Tech Startups of 2011.

That list only included startups founded in 2011 (after all, how do you define “startup”? how do you decide what counts as an "education" startup?), and in it, I tried to explain why I chose those as my favorites. I’ve reprinted that post below but with updates about what’s happened to these 10 since December 2011 (after all, things move pretty fast in startup world, even if educational institutions are notoriously slow-moving).

My Top 10 Ed-Tech Startups of 2011: Updated

1. Launchpad Toys

I've had a lot of meetings with educators and entrepreneurs this year. But just one person has ever cited Seymour Papert in a casual conversation over coffee, and that's Launchpad Toys' co-founder Andy Russell. It wasn't just a passing mention either. I think Papert's work and ideas about constructionism permeate a lot of what the startup does, and Launchpad Toys is committed to creating a learning experience with and through digital storytelling that I've not see elsewhere. The company is also committed to building high quality yet affordable educational apps (See The Children's App Manifesto, which Russell co-authored).

Launchpad Toys' first app Toontastic is a cartoon creation tool. Toontastic helps children think through story elements: the characters, the conflict, setting, scenes and so on. Then, when they are ready to animate their story, they press record. The microphone captures kids' narration, as they use their fingers to animate the characters on the storyboard.

Launchpad Toys launched in August, a graduate of the summer Y Combinator batch. The startup has won numerous awards and accolades this year, most recently selected by Apple as one of its top education iOS apps of the year.

Updates:  So far in 2012, LaunchPad Toys has raised a funding round (led by General Catalyst, Obvious Corp. (Evan Williams, Biz Stone), and Reece Duca), released its second app MonkeyGram (which I covered here), released some 30 new playsets for Toontastic, grew to 600,000 storytellers using the ap (with over 2 million cartoons created in 150 countries), and like many of the startups I reached out to this week said that "more stuff is coming soon" -- as in, like, Monday.

2. Desmos

Desmos is building software that will address one of the major problems that classrooms are going to face: hardware fragmentation. Some schools have invested in interactive whiteboards. Some have bought netbooks or tablets. Some provide iPod Touches, and some let students bring their own devices. With all these various hardware options, it's becoming increasingly important to have software that's platform agnostic -- something that students and teachers can use at home and at school, something that works and is still full-featured on any device.

Desmos launched onstage at Techcrunch Disrupt in May. But when I chatted with founder Eli Luberoff a few weeks later, he showed me something that made me even more excited about this company's potential (and I say this as a person who is deeply committed to technologies that work across platforms).

See, Desmos has built a web-based graphing calculator. Ah, the graphing calculator, that one piece of computing hardware that -- despite all the handwringing about BYOD -- kids are required to buy and bring to class. A low-end graphing calculator will cost you about $70. Desmos' calculator is free, and it contains features that you won't find elsewhere (such as dotted lines for inequalities).

Sometimes it seems as though education companies think they just deserve customers (Texas Instruments, I'm looking at you) without doing much to improve or innovate, without really thinking about their users as learners. Desmos' graphing calculator wasn't built to prop up revenue for an outmoded company; it's a cool product (a side project, true, but part of a much larger Web-based effort), built by math geeks who want awesome, affordable, and accessible math tools.

I covered Desmos here.

Updates: I try not to pick favorites. It feels weird and awkward. But truth be told,I sure do like Desmos a ton. As far as I know, there's just one picture of me and a founder in an exhibit hall booth, and oh man, is it a great one -- the expression on my face reflects my thoughts on math (and photos in exhibit hall booths more accurately) -- not on Desmos, of course. Desmos kicked the new year off in January with a move from Flash (boo!) to HTML5 (win!).  (Here's my coverage.) But "future of the Web" aside, I think the thing that excites me most about this company is that while it does still fulfill all the functionality of a free online graphing calculator, what it's enabling is project-based assignments in math class. Desmos users continue to draw amazing, beautiful things with the graphing calculator, and teachers are assigning these sorts of math/art problems to students. "We've gone beyond replicating Texas Instruments," says founder Eli Luberoff.

3. LittleBits

While I love the way in which the Maker Movement has blossomed this year, I sometimes worry that interest in science, engineering and tech will continue to leave girls out of the loop, particularly when it does to hardware tinkering. It doesn't help when organizations say things like "Arduino: so easy your mom could do it."

So yes, it matters to me that the founder of littleBits is a woman.Ayah Bdeir is also an engineer and an artist, and I think that sensibility -- STEM + the Arts -- shines through in her company.

LittleBits offers a library of pre-assembled circuit boards that snap together with tiny magnets. There's no soldering, no wiring and no programming required. The circuit boards in a littleBits kit have unique functions -- a power component, a pressure sensor, a button, for example -- that can simply be snapped together. Soldering is fun, I won't lie, but it's intimidating, and as such littleBits lowers the barrier to entry for those interested in working with electronics.

And okay, I'm fudging a bit on my "founded in 2011" rule here, as this idea has been a work-in-progress for several years. But you can now buy littleBits kits, and the startup did raise its first round of funding this year. I covered the littleBits here.

Updates:  littleBits has raised $3.65 million in funding this year and has signed a manufacturing deal with PCH International to help boost production and distribution. A 2012 TED Fellow, founder Ayah Bdeir spoke at TED in February.

4. General Assembly

New York City's General Assembly sits at the nexus of several important education/technology trends (See: "STEM Education's Sputnik Moment" and "The Higher Education Bubble".) New York City is building a vibrant tech community -- [insert obligatory comparison to Silicon Valley here. Roll eyes and mutter that New York's different, bigger, better, faster, stronger]. As such, there's a high demand in New York for talent, and in turn, a high demand for learning opportunities (formal and informal), instruction, and mentorship about what exactly it entails to build a technology startup. Coding, design, marketing, CEOing, and stuff.

General Assembly uses the word "campus" to describe its facilities. And that's the sense you get too: a library, a communal work- and learning space. General Assembly, which opened its doors at the beginning of the year, offers classes on engineering and entrepreneurship. The site also offers workspace to rent, and several startups who do so help teach some of the classes that are offered.

With all the hullaballoo of online education and online work, having a physical location to go to to learn and work still matters. It matters for building skills; it matters for building community.

I covered General Assembly here.

Updates:  General Assembly has continued to expand, outgrowing its New York City offices and moving to a larger space there. It's also opened campuses overseas in London and Berlin.

5. Highlighter

I remember the very first time a teacher gave me permission to write in a book. Highlight important passages, she said. Make notes in the margins. No way, I thought. You can write in books?!

Since then, I've read every book with a pencil in hand -- underlining and annotating. That's something that makes the move to digital books both terrifying and wonderful. It's terrifying if indeed it means the end of marginalia. And it's wonderful if someone can build a tool that integrates marginalia with the Web, and makes our notes and highlights sharable and social.

The Seattle-based startup Highlighter has done just this, with some easy-to-implement Javascript that enables commenting "in the margins" of websites. While there were a number of new social reading startups this year, Highlighter is targeting academic communities in particular, working closely with college professors to build a reading tool that's useful for both teachers and learners (with features like groups for classes and discussions.)

One of the problems about reading and annotating digital content is that much is locked down, in proprietary formats. Highlighter is building an HTML 5 e-reader and supports OER and open platforms for reading and note-taking.

Highlighter was part of the Seattle-based Techstars incubator and launched this summer. I covered Highlighter herehere, and here.

Updates:  Highlighter has rolled out its e-reading tools to a number of campuses, including Penn State, RIT, CSUN, Santarosa City College, Highline Community College, and Olympic College. Recently the startup also partnered with the 20 Million Minds Foundation to produce a free and openly licensed Intro to Sociology textbook (my coverage is here).

6. Celly

Here's the thing: the technology matters. I mean, it matters in general. Yes of course. But when it comes to ed-tech, damn, I think we should set our standards pretty high. And frankly, we need to be better about looking under the hood, if you will, of the tools we adopt.

Looking under the hood makes me like Celly a lot. Its co-founders Russell Okamoto and Greg Passmore, both former software architects at VMWare, have both the technical chops and the smarts to think about building networks in a new way.

I say this, of course, in a year in which "group messaging startups" were hot -- good grief, you say, another mobile messaging network?! But Celly was part of a different kind of messaging trend, one that I called out as one of the most important ed-tech trends of the year: text-messaging. SMS.

SMS is important in education, I would argue, because it's the best tool we have right now to bridge the digital divide. Most people have access to SMS via their cellphones. Most people. Most parents. Most students. SMS can be a powerful communication device between school and home, between teacher and student, between students and class, between classes and the community.

We saw an explosion in the number of ed-tech startups this year that moved to address opportunities with text-messaging apps (hence the trends post). But I feel as though Celly might just have the technological edge here. Celly offers a communication tool, sure. It builds community, yes. But it's not just teachers broadcasting messages to home. There are multiple ways in which the "cells" can be configured -- curating messages (from RSS as well as from people's text messages) to spread out to others in the community or to filter up the chain of command.

I wrote about text-messaging a lot this year, but I specifically covered Celly here.

Updates:  Celly has received a number of accolades, and the messaging tool continues to be used in many community-building and community-action settings. Like many of the startups I asked about updates, Celly says that there's news "coming soon." So stay tuned.

7. GoalBook

Don't make me pick a favorite piece of technology journalism from 2011, folks. I'm getting sick of writing "Best of" stories. But one of my favorite pieces was Tim Carmody's response to the death of Steve Jobs: "This Stuff Doesn't Change the World." As Tim makes clear, this stuff does change our worlds -- his autistic son's usage of the touchscreen iOS devices case in point. Tim's tweet -- "I'm on my way to PHL to see my son, who uses a device Steve Jobs invented to help him talk. He will never know. He will never know." -- sits in my heart every day when I think about our obligations to build accessible, affordable, world-changing technology.

You hear a lot about the ways in which mobile, touchscreen devices open up new worlds for those with disabilities. But despite the great promise, software and hardware development for assistive technology and for special education doesn't get a lot of attention. It doesn't get sufficient attention in consumer tech or in classroom tech.

One of the things I love about Goalbook then, is that it is addressing something that's tough and complicated and bureaucratic and frustrating about special education in schools -- just the sort of thing that technology should help address, but quite frankly, often fails to. So Goalbook founders Daniel Yoo and Justin Su have taken on an important challenge.

Goalbook is building a system to help schools handle IEPs (individualized education programs). These can become incredibly complex when a student has special needs, so much so that it's easy to fumble with communication and lose track of student's goals. Goalbook allows the team that works with a student (and that team can include parents, primary teachers, behavioral specialists, administrators, speech therapists, and so on) to better communicate and collaborate in helping support the student's personal learning goals.

The Goalbook founders are both educators and engineers -- and they're building this startup to address a real need they've experienced in their teaching careers. Goalbook is still in beta with a few pilot schools.

Updates:  Goalbook is the one startup on my list that matches the Ed Startup 101 "startups we love" list. In fact, I bet Goalbook is on almost everyone's list. It's hard not to love the founders, love the vision. Since December, Goalbook has rolled out new features and has found itself being used by those outside special education and beyond those with IEPs. I think this points to a good trend insofar as more teachers, parents, students, administrators recognizing we all should have individualized learning plans. Founder Daniel Yoo tells me that there will also be news in the near future out of Goalbook. Again, stay tuned.

8. DuoLingo

Even before the startup launched, Techcrunch's MG Siegler headlined his story on it Meet Duolingo, Google's Next Acquisition Target. His confidence is hardly unfounded, based on the track record of Duolingo founderLuis von Ahn whose research has already been acquired by Google twice: the ESP Game and reCAPTCHA.

Duolingo is very much in the same spirit as these projects insofar as it utilizes human micro-tasks "for good" -- in order to help identify and verify information that computers cannot yet process.

We creatures of the Web fill out a lot of CAPTCHAs, and some 750 million users have helped Google's book digitization efforts by using reCAPTCHA to help correct OCR misreads. Now, with Duolingo, von Ahn hopes to be able to use a similar sort labor in the wonderful and mammoth goal of translating the Web into all major languages.

Duolingo is couched in terms of language learning, and I'm not quite sure that's the right description for the project -- in other words, using Duolingo alone is unlikely to be your path to German fluency. (Although maybe more will come of the language-learning component -- Duolingo is still in beta). Nevertheless I love the idea of this type of crowdsourced effort, and I think the possibilities for learning through micro-tasks is fascinating.

I covered Duolingo here.

Updates:  Duolingo was still in private beta when I wrote about it late last year. In June, it opened to the public and now offers translation-as-you-explore-language-learning in Spanish, French, English, and German. Siegler was wrong, however, and this startup has yet to be acquired by Google.

9. Raspberry Pi

The dream of putting a low cost computer in the hands of every kid is hardly a new one. But what the British non-profit Raspberry Pi has in mind does one better than simply giving kids a $200 laptop.

Raspberry Pi has build a $35 single-board computer.

A what, you ask?

Yeah. Exactly. See, that's part of the problem.

Raspberry Pi isn't really a hardware manufacturing startup (although yes it's manufacturing hardware). It's an educational non-profit based in the UK, one that "exists to promote the study of computer science and related topics, especially at school level, and to put the fun back into learning computing."

What Raspberry Pi has built is an ultra-small, ultra-low cost device: a board the size of a credit card that contains a fully functional computer system. Some 700 MHz of processing power, 256 MB of RAM, OpenGL and Blu-ray-grade playback (1080p), HDMI and audio outputs, a USB port, a Flash memory car slot, 100MB Ethernet. That's all on a card that's powered by a 5V supply. And for a cost of just $25-35.

And what do you do with something like that, you ask? You hack.

The Raspberry Pi computer will run Linux... and from there, Scratch... and from there, well, the possibilities for computer education are endless. The first of the Raspberry Pi cards are hitting shelves this month.

Updates:  In retrospect, I must confess that I chose Raspberry Pi as one my favorite startups based solely on potential and not on substance. But in 2012, the devices finally started shipping, so unlike a lot of low cost educational computing promises, this isn't vaporware. The $35 Linux computer is very much a reality. There have been some manufacturing hiccups along the way (the company announced this week it was bringing the manufacturing to the UK). But that's in no small part because demand has been incredibly high (crashing its website on launch day). What's great about that demand is that, in turn, the open source community has been actively tributing code and guides and lessons for the Raspberry Pi. After all, it isn't just the "tech" that makes this educational; it's learning (tech) with and from others.

10. LessonCast

If there was one question I asked education startups repeatedly this year, it was "Have you talked to any teachers?" (You'd be surprised -- perhaps -- by how often the answer was "No.") No doubt, it might be easier to do so and it might be easier to recognize both problems and solutions, when the founding team is comprised of educators.

I met the LessonCast founding team at a Startup Weekend EDU in San Francisco this summer. Nicole Smith and Katrina Stevens are both Baltimore-area educators, and Khalid Smith, Nicole's husband, an engineer (he has since become the education director for Startup Weekend's new EDU vertical).

When Nicole pitched the idea of Lessoncast at Startup Weekend EDU, I loved it: it's a tool to help teachers quickly create and easily share lesson ideas and classroom management tips in a video format. Indeed, with all the fuss about Khan Academy, making video lessons is still fairly complicated and time-intensive. But LessonCast isn't really hopping onto the "flipped classroom" bandwagon. This isn't (necessarily) about teaching students; it's about teachers teaching each other, sharing tips and tricks and advice and ideas. The tool is about building and sharing PD -- a process that is about teaching and learning for the creator of the lesson as much as the viewer.

I covered the startup here.

Updates:  LessonCast has continued to refine its focus, now offering schools provide differentiated PD to help the needs of their specific teachers and specific students. But beyond the LessonCast product itself, I'd recommend to any educator wanting to learn about entrepreneurship to read the blog written by co-founders Nicole Smith and Katrina Stevens. Both women have taken "the leap" this year: Smith leaving her position as an assistant principal and Stevens leaving her dsitrict office role to pursue LessonCast full-time.

Blog Logo

Audrey Watters



Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

Back to Blog