Ever since KhanAcademy.org burst virally into the high school scene as salvation for students stuck with lousy calculus teachers, education has been an increasingly attractive market for Web based software.
Now, that market is hotter than ever, fueled by the explosion of usage of smartphones and computer tablets, by the national Common Core standards for K-12 education, and by a relatively cheap and easy software development process– thanks to the Cloud.
Oakland is one of the places spawning education apps. And its school district is actively putting new technology apps into use. In fact, several Oakland Unified School District teachers are software education app entrepreneurs.
“We are very interested in education apps,” said John Krull, OUSD’s Information Technology Officer, hired last year to improve the use of technology in the district. He said OUSD has been investing in apps that are integrated with a Learning Management System platform for teachers to track student progress and create lesson plans as well as in apps that help students to learn.
OUSD recently purchased 8,000 Dell Chromebook computers for students, an investment driven by the new national Common Core standards that call for more use of technology in the classroom and standardized test taking by computers. It is paying stipends to 150 teachers to be “technology teacher leaders” in their schools, helping other teachers make good use of the new Dells and education software.
And there’s a lot of it.
Oakland grown education apps include Schoolzilla’s data management tools, Educents, an online e-commerce site for teachers, Goldieblox, which designs toys to inspire girls to be engineers, and Mighty Minnow, a website design and development company that offers a web school to help students design web sites. They are all commercially available.
Then in beta stage are Read with Me and Yooply, both developed by Sleek-Geek , Mindblown created by Mindblown Labs, and Feykena, a mobile texting app for students in developing countries to access online education.
The entrepreneurs behind Sleek-Geek are Oakland teachers who work at the Lazear Charter Academy elementary school. They have put Yooply to work in Oakland schools as a beta test to see how it works. Entrepreneur/educator Nina Portugal, who teaches English as a second language at Castlemont High School in Oakland, is trying out the “Rock Your Voice” app she created with some others at a Startup Weekend/Education. The entrepreneurs behind Schoolzilla work at the Aspire Public Schools charter organization in Oakland.
Meanwhile, one of the key funders of new education innovation is also based in Oakland: NewSchools Venture Fund, a non-profit venture philanthropy fund. It financed about a quarter of all seed stage education start-ups last year.
“The influx of new technical talent into education, crossing over from other industries, is promising to build the quality of tools needed in K12,” New Schools blog states. New Schools Venture said that the number of VC funded early stage education technology startups nearly doubled in 2013 to 59 startups from 34 startups the year before. Beyond apps, it said the amount of investment in data-driven technologies for K-12 instruction soared to $34 million in 2013 from $5 million a year earlier.
Jennifer Carolan, managing director of NewSchools Seed Fund said this is because “Education is an area in need of innovation and is ripe for new technology solutions.” For one, schools are educating a generation of kids who are digital learners, who have grown up playing computer and video games and using smartphones. She said half of all U.S. kids over the age of 13 have a smartphone.
Schools, meanwhile, have outdated digital infrastructures and often old computers.
Moreover, U.S. public education has been beset with problems in recent years with lackluster student performance compared to students in other nations and with recession-induced slashing of education budgets.
As TechCrunch blogger Rip Empson wrote recently, “When it comes to our beleaguered education system — from its skyrocketing costs to its middling outcomes and dwindling resources — many have begun to look at technology as a savior. Certainly few would argue that the litany of new tools and services technology is bringing to classrooms and learners has the potential to transform the learning process in a number of exciting (and positive) ways.”
The venerable venture capitalist John Doerr, the Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers investor regarded as kind of a prophet about what will be big in technology because of his early investments in Google, Amazon and other tech behemoths, told TechCrunch a few months ago that education is one of three areas ripe for innovation.
New Schools President and Chief Operating Officer Gloria Lee noted that Oakland is in the middle of this.
“Oakland is becoming attractive for tech entrepreneurs and we think that is just going to increase. We recently hosted a Startup Weekend EDU and it was an incredibly successful convergence of educators, technical talent, and business people,” Lee said in an email. “Many schools in Oakland – district, charter, and private – are actively using and integrating technology.”
Aside from business start-ups, Oakland has a slew of non-profits aimed at spreading the benefit of innovation. Curiosity Hacked Oakland Lab and Cooperative Education Ventures are non-profits aiming to push this innovation and make it available to all. Cooperative Education Ventures focuses on higher education and widening its availability through online systems. Level Playing Field Institute works to bring more students of color into science, technology, engineering and mathematics training. And OpenOakland, a local brigade of Code for America, welcomes any resident to get involved in coding and design projects to improve local government.
If proof is needed that the smart money believes now is an opportune moment for investing in education technology, Doerr as well as Andreessen Horowitz, the VC firm started by the creator of Mosaic, the first consumer friendly browser , Marc Andreessen, and Omidyar Network, started by the creator of E-Bay, and others this month invested $33 million in AltSchool, a San Francisco based school that is a laboratory of how to use technology to transform education. Stay tuned.
Photo, Hack the Hood, 2013 by Sophia Hussain.