In 2010, as a blogger at ReadWriteWeb, I was assigned to write the year-end post on the “Top 10 Startups.” In those days before the recent return of the tech IPO, I wanted to devise a list that wasn’t dominated by the likes of Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. So I made a couple of rules: I’d choose the “Top 10” from those startups founded that year. And I wouldn’t select “The Top” based solely on revenue or user-numbers or Techmeme headlines, but I’d consider which startups represented important trends or interesting signals about the tech startup ecosystem.
So when I started choosing my “Top 10 Ed-Tech Startups” here on Hack Education, I adopted similar rules. I’d only look at those who were founded or launched in the last twelve months. I wouldn’t select the startups with the largest funding rounds or biggest tech blog brouhaha. I’d choose ones that were interesting; I’d choose ones that were important; I’d choose ones that were good.
Ha. Despite the proliferation of ed-tech startups, finding good ones is easier said than done. Indeed, last year, I found myself compiling a list of “Top 10 Ed-Tech Startups” that contained 4 entities that weren’t really “startups”: one non-profit, one university initiative, one MOOC, and one Kickstarter project.
This year, I’ve struggled to compile a list at all.
In part, I confess, it’s because my attention has been elsewhere (I’m working on a book). I haven’t taken the time this year to rub elbows with the ed-tech startup “scene.” But nor have I felt particularly compelled to do so. I do keep one eye on “the business of ed-tech”; yet despite the steady stream of funding announcements and product launches, I’ve been pretty underwhelmed this year. I mean, sure. David Wiley launched a startup and has even decided to ditch his gig as a tenured prof to pursue this work supporting OER adoption. That kicks ass. But mostly, in ed-tech startup-land this year, what's launched has been less-than-kick-ass. What I’ve seen instead is a lot of “me too!” startups – that is, those who are moving along a path that others have already forged for them. And let's be honest: MOOCs and the Common Core State Standards have sucked all the innovation-oxygen out of the room.
So when it comes to choosing the “Top 10 Ed-Tech Startups of 2013,” I am at a bit of a loss. And as such, dear readers, I’m giving you some options here with regards to who’s “the top” in ed-tech entrepreneurship-istan this year:
Top 10 Education Startup Investments
1. Laureate Education ($150,000,000)
2. Lynda.com ($103,000,000)
3. OpenEnglish ($65,000,000)
4. Coursera ($63,000,000)
5. Knewton ($51,000,000)
6. Sympoz ($35,000,000)
7. Instructure ($30,000,000)
8. Pluralsight ($27,500,000)
9. Jumpstart ($26,800,000)
10. creativeLIVE ($21,500,000)
10. WyzAnt ($21,500,000)
(Source: CB Insights)
Top 10 Education Startups with Most Mentions in The New York Times
4. Khan Academy
(Source: The New York Times)
Top 10 Education Startups with Most Mentions in Hack Education
5. Khan Academy
(Source: Hack Education)
Top 10 Clicked-on Tools via the Edsurge Newsletter
4. Eyewitness to History
5. Google Treks
Top 10 Interesting Education Startups That Were Acquired By Bigger Companies
1. Learnboost (acquired by Automattic)
2. Learning Catalytics (acquired by Pearson)
3. Knowillage Systems (acquired by Desire2Learn)
4. Degree Compass (acquired by Desire2Learn)
5. Root1 (acquired by Edmodo)
6. Livemocha (acquired by Rosetta Stone)
7. Late Nite Labs (acquired by Macmillan)
8. ALEKS (acquired by McGraw-Hill)
9. Altius Education (acquired by Datamark)
10. Grockit (acquired by Kaplan)
(Source: Hack Education)
Top 10 Education-Related Guests on The Colbert Report*
1. Bryan Cranston
2. Junot Diaz
3. Andrew Solomon
4. Richard Brodhead
5. George Packer
6. Anant Agarwal
7. Zach Simms
8. Arne Duncan
9. Bill Clinton
10. Bill Gates
(Source: The Colbert Report)
Top 10 Most Ridiculous Education Headlines in Techcrunch
1. How California’s New Online Education Pilot Will End College As We Know It
2. Online Education is Replacing Physical Colleges at a Crazy Fast Pace
3. Why Obama’s Radical Education Plan Could Finally Disrupt Higher Education
4. Does Higher Education Have a Future?
5. Free Massive Online Education Provider, Coursera, Begins To Find A Path To Profits
6. Amazon’s Kindle FreeTime Becomes An Even Better Babysitter, With New Educational Feature That Tells Kids To “Learn First,” Play Later
7. News Corp’s Education Tablet May Be the Bureaucractic Fit Schools Need to Adopt Tech
8. Gibbon Launches A Different Kind Of Education Startup, With User-Generated Learning Playlists For All
9. OMG! Cursive Education on the Chopping Block
10. Codecademy - Best Education Startup
OK. OK. My Top 3 Ed-Tech Startups of 2013
1. Lumen Learning
2. A Domain of One’s Own
I’m sticking with these three exemplars, even though I’ve chosen two of them as “Top Ed-Tech Startups” in previous years. Deal with it.
Lumen Learning is the one startup that launched this year that gets my nod. I'm completely and totally biased here (well, I'm completely and totally biased all the time. As you probably know by now) as its founder David Wiley is one of the people I admire most in education technology circles. Lumen Learning is the startup version of Wiley's work: helping schools adopt open educational resources - helping them find OER content and incorporate it into their curriculum. I've chosen to recognize Lumen Learning here not because Wiley is a great guy or because I believe strongly in open education. I think his decision to leave his job as a professor at BYU to pursue this path is an important signal: 1) that academia might not always be the best way forward when it comes to bringing research into practice, and 2) that education startups need to find a way to bridge what is often a divide between theory, research, and practice. Nifty engineering chops, a bunch of money from VCs, and a Techcrunch headline doesn't mean squat if you have little understanding of how education actually works (for better or for worse).
On a similar note, I continue to argue that the University of Mary Washington’s “Domain of One’s Own” program, under the direction of Jim Groom and the university's Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, is one of the most important initiatives in ed-tech right now: helping teachers and students learn to manage their digital identities by giving them the skills and space (the server space, the domain, etc) to do so. I want all of us to be able to carve out our own spaces on the Web. I want us to be able to control them. I want us to be able to combat the forces that expect us to hand over our data, our content in exchange for technology services. Web literacy is going to be increasingly important in order to be a citizen, not just to be a worker; and schools are remiss if they neglect to help students attain this.
And finally, Desmos, which has built a free online graphing calculator. Yes, yay, it’s free. And yay, it’s online. But holy shit. Look what happens when you pair a startup that cares so deeply about math education (and not because of some silly sideshow like how we score on PISA tests, but because math is incredibly interesting and powerful) with amazing math educators. Desmos plus Dan Meyer – a partnership that we saw some of the fruits of this year – equals this and this and other things that CEO Eli Luberoff demoed to me to which I nodded politely and said “Yeah, that looks really cool” and thought “Damn, I should have paid better attention in math class.” See, when you bring together great technology and thoughtful pedagogy and meaningful, interesting, challenging tasks, you can actually build ed-tech that doesn’t suck. Go figure.
* So many bros. Let's do better next year, folks. Let's do better in so many ways.