Learnist Bags $20M from Discovery and others

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Grockit is about to get big--and it will have nothing to do with prepping for tests.

Today San Francisco-based Grockit is announcing a whopping $20 million investment led by Discovery Communications, and supported by its existing investors and adding Summit Group. The funding is aimed at bolstering Grockit's work on Learnist, the Pinterest-like learning site that the company debuted in May.

In addition to the funding, Discovery and Grockit have agreed to support each other's content -- and distribution.

The shift marks a key evolutionary point for Grockit, which got its start in 2007 as a test-prep organization, founded by Farbood Nivi, a former Teacher of the Year for The Princeton Review and academic director at Kaplan.

Grockit has long supported the idea that learning is adaptive and "social": in addition to using algorithms to help identify areas where students are weaker, Grockit developed technology to help students study with their friends. Like most test-prep companies, it charges students to subscribe to its test-prep services. SAT prep services, for instance are available at $29/month; it also advertises that for every paying student, Grockit will provide its service for free to one "under resourced" student.

Even so the "bigger" vision that Nivi and his team--including Roy Gilbert, who took over the CEO job in September 2010--was to support learning more broadly: to help people share education resources with anyone on virtually any family-friendly subject.  

To that end, the company created its Pinterest-like site, Learnist. The site, which can be reached via a link on the Grockit homepage, is still in beta but freely available to everyone who registers. "Learnist is a fuller expression of what we want to do," Gilbert told EdSurge. 

 Educators have turned out to be an enthusiastic group of Pinterest users. (There is, of course, even an aggregator, Pinterest for Teachers, with close to 5,000 followers). Learnist encourages users to collect "boards" on a wide range of topics. The boards are collections of digital materials--slides, videos, links, comments and so on and can be sequenced into "learning paths." Grockit execs say that the the time on the site has doubled from 10-minutes per session to more than 20 minutes and that the number of users is in the "hundreds-of-thousands of users." That said, a quick glance at Learnist suggests that many of the most popular boards are those created by Grockit members or educators who work closely with Grockit.

By teaming up with Discovery, Grockit will have access to a wide collection of digital media, much of which isn't found on YouTube or Vimeo. Discovery has a division exclusively devoted to education, that includes professional development materials and other resources, along with rich content created by brands such as Animal Planet, Discovery World, History and so on. (All told, Discovery Communications boasts that it's the world's largest nonfiction media company, with 1.7 billion cumulative subscribers.)

Plans to monetize Learnist are in the offing, too: Over time, Gilbert says, the site will offer premium access to some content. Much like other user-driven sites such as Udemy, Grockit will also let experts sell their premium services via its site.

For now, however, Gilbert says that the new investment, which included support from Grockit's existing investors, Atlas Venture, Benchmark Capital, Integral Capital Partners and GSV Capital Corp., will let the company focus on content creation over the course of the next year. A fresh user interface and other technology support is the works too, although Grockit declined to say when Learnist would no longer be a "beta" site. He hinted, however, that Grockit is also in the process of forging partnerships with other significant content vendors.

And our prediction for 2013? We're betting that the company will eventually change its name to reflect its passion for learning.

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