Much like my annual look at the “Top Ed-Tech Trends,” in previous years I’ve selected what I thought were the “Top Ed-Tech Startups.” (See 2011, 2012, 2013.) It’s something I started doing in 2010 when, as a tech blogger at ReadWriteWeb, I was assigned to write the year-end Top Startups article.

At the time, I made up some rules to limit my selection (mostly so my list didn’t end up being dominated by the likes of Facebook and Twitter). I chose to only look at startups founded that year, for example. And I decided I wasn’t going to deem “the top” simply based on which had the most investment dollars or user numbers or Techcrunch headlines. “Mary, Mary, quite contrary…” I know. But I wanted to identify the startups that represented important or interesting tech trends and that represented them well.

When I started picking the Top Ed-Tech Startups here on Hack Education, I kept those rules. I wanted to select startups that were good. And in education technology that’s easier said than done.

Indeed each year, it’s become harder and harder to pick ten startups. In 2012, four of the entities on my list weren’t startups at all. I chose one non-profit, one university initiative, one MOOC, and one Kickstarter project. Last year, I only came up with three names, two of which I’d featured in previous years.

My rules have crumbled, as has my interest – or hell, even belief – in ed-tech startups.

Despite the mythology of “disruptive innovation,” the most innovative initiatives in education technology aren’t coming from startups. They aren’t incubated in Silicon Valley. They don’t emerge from the tech industry. In fact, many of the ed-tech startup ideas that are developed there are at best laughable, at worst horrifying.

What I like instead: the Digital Public Library of America, Reclaim Hosting, A Domain of One’s Own, P2PU, and Lumen Learning, for example.

I started to write “the top ed-tech startups of 2014 are NULL,” but that’s unfair. My work has changed; I look at a lot fewer startups these days. There are other publications that do – often, unfortunately, with little discernment. Discerning educators offer a lot more insight, I’d argue.

Echoing Dan Meyer, I’ll give Pear Deck a shout-out as one of the top ed-tech startups of the year. (It fits my rules: it was founded in 2014.) Pear Deck allows educators to make interactive presentations and assessments – what Meyer has described as “the opposite of individualized instruction. It's socialized instruction.”

And I’ll also give another “top ed-tech startup” nod to Known. As part of the fledgling Indie Web Movement, Known launched this year and offers the ability to control your content and your data – to publish on your own site and syndicate everywhere. As I’ve argued repeatedly, I hope that we’ll see more of these efforts to “reclaim” education technology for learners, by learners so that ed-tech is not simply about industry and institutional data mining and surveillance.

So there. I picked two top ed-tech startups for 2014: Known and Pear Deck.

Looking for other ways to rank the year's top startups?

Top 10 Education Startup Investments in 2014

  • $135 million: Pluralsight
  • $100 million: Tutorgroup and Dude Solutions
  • $85 million: Desire2Learn
  • $72 million: Yik Yak
  • $64.12 million: Teacher Synergy
  • $50 million: Craftsy
  • $47 million: Kaltura
  • $45 million: Minerva Project
  • $40 million: Renaissance Learning and Remind
  • $35 million: Udacity and General Assembly

(Source: CB Insights, Mattermark)

Top 10 Education Startups with Most Mentions in The New York Times in 2014

  • Khan Academy
  • Coursera
  • edX
  • Udacity
  • Edmodo
  • Yik Yak
  • ClassDojo
  • inBloom
  • Codecademy

(Source: NYTimes)

Top 10 Education Startups with the Most Mentions in Hack Education in 2014

  • Coursera
  • edX
  • Khan Academy
  • Udacity
  • Knewton
  • Yik Yak
  • Minerva Project
  • ClassDojo
  • Remind

(Source: Hack Education)

(Top 10 Education BigCos with the Most Mentions in Hack Education in 2014)

  • Pearson
  • Blackboard
  • Chegg
  • 2U
  • K12 Inc
  • News Corp’s Amplify
  • Cengage
  • Corinthian Colleges
  • ConnectEDU
  • McGraw-Hill

(Source: Hack Education)

Top 10 Education Startups with the Most Users *

  • Khan Academy - 10 million (per month)
  • Edmodo - 44 million
  • Class Dojo - 30 million
  • Codecademy - 24 million
  • Coursera - 10 million
  • Remind - 10 million
  • Knewton - 10 million
  • Duolingo - 10 million
  • edX - 3 million
  • Udacity - 1.6 million

(Source: Wikipedia)

* Actually this is really tough to gauge, and this list is pretty flawed. Are these unique users? Are they monthly active users? It seems like “10 million users” is the threshhold for when you issue a press release about your numbers -- unless you insist you’re on a path to 1 billion users, which I guess investors believe enough to put you on the list of top funded startups for the year. And that makes you “the top” for sure.

Of course, none of these numbers - users, dollars, pageviews, mentions - means jack shit when it comes to how technology companies might reshape or enhance learning, but hey. "Learning" - that's one of my rules about what makes a “top ed-tech startup,” not necessarily the industry’s.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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