The Stories That Shaped Edtech in 2016

Market Trends

The Stories That Shaped Edtech in 2016

By Tony Wan     Dec 28, 2016

The Stories That Shaped Edtech in 2016

Every year has its fair share of surprises, but this seems especially true for 2016. Yet even the startles and shockwaves that have greeted us so far offer us a moment to reminisce, to reflect and most of all, to learn.

What’s in store for education in 2017? Let history be the guide. Here’s a chronological roundup of stories that made the biggest bang on the edtech industry (and to a similar extent, our web traffic) in 2016.

Teachscape’s Tangled Tale

Get acquired, go public or close shop. Most venture-backed startups eventually face pressure to choose one of these exits. In the case of Teachscape, one of the rare edtech startups that’s stuck around for over a decade, its acquisition by Frontline Technologies marked the end of the road. Teachscape’s story—compounded by twists and turns—foreshadowed what many edtech startups and investors have learned in 2016: making money in education can be much more difficult than expected.

V Is for VC: Sesame Street Creator Launches $10 Million Venture Fund for Child Development

Beginning in 1969, Big Bird, Elmo and their furry Muppet pals took to television to regale children with lessons on love, fear and why it’s important to share your cookies. But to reach kids on today’s mobile and digital devices, the creators behind Sesame Street are looking for help—from startups. Sesame Workshop has launched a venture arm—Sesame Ventures—that will invest in companies focused on providing educational, health and social welfare services for children.

Imagine K12 Merges With Y Combinator

Imagine K12, the company that sparked both edtech startups and other similar programs, merging with that granddaddy of tech accelerators, Y Combinator. Started in 2011, Imagine K12 has inspired many other accelerators and incubators to prop up across the globe; the U.S. alone boasts more than a dozen dedicated to helping education entrepreneurs.

The White House and Michelle Obama Release $250M ‘Open eBooks’ App for Title I and Special Education Teachers

What good is technology if it fails to make educational opportunities more accessible? By far our most popular piece of the year, this exclusive from Senior Editor Mary Jo Madda takes a peek at an app launched by a partnership between the White House and major publishers to put digital books in the hands of Title I and special education teachers and librarians.

Looking to Design Your Own School? AltSchool Launches Partner Program ‘AltSchool Open’

AltSchool has raised more than $100 million on the back of “microschools,” its name for small, private schools where software is infused in the learning experience. But the San Francisco startup no longer wants to build schools—rather, it wants to license that technology to existing ones for a fee. (It’s not alone in pursuing this strategy: Summit Public Schools has been expandings its Basecamp network. A big difference? Basecamp is free.)

How Khan Academy is Shaking Up the SAT

The mission of the Khan Academy has been breathtakingly ambitious: To provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere. Last year, Khan also took aim at a narrower but equally provocative goal: Get anyone ready to pass the SAT, also for free. Yet the most challenging question of all may be this: What might Khan’s support of SAT prep truly disrupt: the test-prep business—or the role of standardized tests altogether?

How PISA Is Changing to Reflect 21st Century Workforce Needs and Skills

No longer does the PISA test, given every three years to 15-year-olds to get benchmarks of education quality across developed countries, ask about math, reading and science. In the latest iteration in 2015, questions covered collaborative problem solving, social skills and even psychological well-being.

Zuckerberg, Chan Pick Jim Shelton to Run Education Program

Last December, the billionaire couple committed to giving away 99 percent of their wealth to tackle thorny problems in science and education through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI). To lead its education efforts, the couple tapped Jim Shelton, a former executive at 2U and member of U.S. Department of Education. Efforts funded by foundation to transform education are by no means unique—just look at the Gates Foundation for instance. But with word on the street that Gates is pausing its grant-making efforts, will CZI try to fill the gap?

Amazon Launches 'Inspire,' a Free Education Resource Search Platform for Educators

Not wanting to miss out on wave of popularity for teacher marketplaces, Amazon launched a free platform that allows teachers to upload, search and rate teaching materials. But the tool soon raised problems over copyright infringement—specifically in cases where users uploaded materials that they did not own the copyright for. Amazon Inspire is currently still accessible by invitation only.

The EQUIP Eight: Dept. of Ed Selects Partners for Higher-Education Experiment

At the same time that the Department of Education is cracking down on unscrupulous for-profit colleges, it’s also proven open to experimenting with new models of higher-ed innovations. Enter EQUIP, a pilot program that will give federal aid to eight programs where universities are outsourcing the majority of the content to for-profit companies.

Remind’s Path to Revenue: Processing Payments for School Events

Wait, edtech startups need to make money? Every now and then, investors will pump many millions of capital into pre-revenue startups. (The logic behind the “freemium” model, as it’s sometimes called, focuses on “virality,” or getting as many users as possible, before profits.) Remind, a San Francisco startup behind a mobile communication tool for schools, students and parents, has been one of them. It claimed more than 35 million users before releasing its first paid feature allowing schools to collect funds for field trips, fundraisers and events.

A Timeline of Google Classroom’s March to Replace Learning Management Systems

Over the last two years, Google has taken its popular applications and outfitted them for the classroom. The company’s Classroom platform is increasingly catching teachers’ eyes. Many schools already use Google’s suite of productivity tools—Docs, Sheets and Slides. Yet what Google aims to provide is a way to package these apps together and add features unique to what teachers and students need. In short, Classroom wants to be a lightweight learning management system.

Why Udacity and EdX Want to Trademark the Degrees of the Future—and What’s at Stake for Students

No one owns the term “master’s degree.” But upstart education providers dream of getting a lock on the words for the next generation of online graduate certifications.

What We Know About Betsy DeVos, Trump's Pick for Education Secretary

Thumbs down on Common Core, yes to vouchers and school choice: these are the two positions that’s been most publicized—and to some, worrisome—about Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education. (For further details about the policies and billions of funding that will be at stake, check out David DeSchryver’s column: “Bigly Education Decisions for 2017”)

Uh Oh’s and Post-Mortems

The definition of venture, according to the Oxford dictionary, is “a risky or daring journey or undertaking.”

As an industry, we often celebrate those who are able to achieve milestones such as raising venture capital. Yet many bets don’t pay off. In 2016, many edtech companies—and their investors—had to make difficult decisions to stay afloat. What follows below are a few headlines that offer a valuable reminder that even the most talented and well-intentioned of companies will struggle along the journey.


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