The education technology industry has seen a 212 percent increase in venture capital over the last five years, and is on track to hit record-breaking heights in 2014. The growth comes at a time when learners are taking courses from some of the world’s most prestigious universities without ever leaving their couch; when students are swiping tablets and smartphones to learn a new language rather than turning to the three-pound textbook assigned by their teacher.
Roughly 300 ed-tech and learning-oriented startups are based in the Boston area alone. With momentum growing nationwide, ed-tech has been able to gain even quicker traction in the Boston area, where legacy leaders like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education and Blackboard have opened up offices, and storied higher learning institutions like Harvard and MIT have partnered to launch a massive open online course platform now delivering more than 300 free classes from nearly 40 colleges worldwide.
“I know that I’m working in a very agile and result-driven environment at McGraw-Hill,” said the company’s Chief Digital Officer Stephen Laster. “We brought Insight [an analytics tool for educators] to market in 100 days. I challenge anybody to do that.”
McGraw-Hill opened a Boston R&D “hub” — “a startup in the midst of a 100-year-old company” — in June 2013, settling into space at 281 Summer Street in the Innovation District. In just over a year, the company announced it would be expanding its office by 7,000 square feet, hiring an additional 45 employees focused on digital research and development in the process. By the end of 2014, McGraw-Hill’s Boston office is expected to house 105 employees
It’s a future Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has been envisioning, as well. “We knew our customers wanted adaptive, but they wanted adaptive at a very granular level,” said HMH Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Brook Colangelo
Colangelo referenced a partnership inked with Knewton, a six-year-old adaptive ed-tech platform, in June 2013, designed to combine the company’s K-12 content with Knewton’s technology. Between the two, an adaptive learning environment emerged — one that can determine students’ strengths, weaknesses, preferences and pace and then create a personalized trajectory for each. With that, educators receive real-time insights into their students’ individual needs. “We partnered with someone who already has an amazing algorithm,” Colangelo said, later lauding the power of partnerships that will help push HMH into the new year.
The company addressed that question in October, when it announced the establishment of HMH Labs, a new Boston-based incubation effort dedicated to creating an environment that allows technologists to prototype different modes of delivering education, thereby increasing the accessibility of HMH content.
Blackboard has developed an online platform called Collaborate, which helps students create virtual classrooms, offices and meeting spaces that can be accessed from a desktop or mobile device. With built-in phone conferencing, an interactive whiteboard, breakout rooms, application sharing, instant messaging and more
To ensure the company continues creating products its customers want, the team launched Blackboard Labs, a place where users can see new ideas from both inside and outside the company, test those ideas and leave feedback
Pearson has demonstrated a similar strategy over the last few years. Catalyst -Launched in February 2013, is an accelerator that matches ed-tech startups with a problem Pearson is facing. Accepted startups work alongside a Pearson employee over three months to see if they can create a solution, learning how a bigger brand like Pearson operates in the process.
Roughly four months following Catalyst’s launch, Pearson also announced it would be partnering with the MIT Media Lab to find new approaches to education.
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