Learning Apps Have Boomed During the Pandemic. Now Comes the Real Test
Start-ups hope there’s no turning back for online learning, even as more students return to the classroom.
After a tough year of toggling between remote and in-person schooling, many students, teachers and their families feel burned out from pandemic learning. But companies that market digital learning tools to schools are enjoying a coronavirus windfall.
Venture and equity financing for education technology start-ups has more than doubled, surging to $12.58 billion worldwide last year from $4.81 billion in 2019, according to a report from CB Insights, a firm that tracks start-ups and venture capital.
During the same period, the number of laptops and tablets shipped to primary and secondary schools in the United States nearly doubled to 26.7 million, from 14 million, according to data from Futuresource Consulting, a market research company in Britain.
“We’ve seen a real explosion in demand,” said Michael Boreham, a senior market analyst at Futuresource. “It’s been a massive, massive sea change out of necessity.”
But as more districts reopen for in-person instruction, the billions of dollars that schools and venture capitalists have sunk into education technology are about to get tested. Some remote learning services, like videoconferencing, may see their student audiences plummet.
“There’s definitely going to be a shakeout over the next year,” said Matthew Gross, the chief executive of Newsela, a popular reading lesson app for schools. “I’ve been calling it ‘The Great Ed Tech Crunch.’”
Yet even if the ed-tech market contracts, industry executives say there is no turning back. The pandemic has accelerated the spread of laptops and learning apps in schools, they say, normalizing digital education tools for millions of teachers, students and their families.
Tech evangelists have long predicted that computers would transform education. The future of learning, many promised, involved apps powered by artificial intelligence that would adjust lessons to children’s abilities faster and more precisely than their human teachers ever could.
Instead, during the pandemic, many schools simply turned to digital tools like videoconferencing to transfer traditional practices and schedules online. Critics say that push to replicate the school day for remote students has only exacerbated disparities for many children facing pandemic challenges at home.
Apps that enable online interactions between teachers and students are reporting extraordinary growth, and investors have followed.
In the United States, some of the largest recent ed-tech deals involved start-ups that help educators give and grade assignments, lead lessons or hold class discussions online. Among them are Newsela and Nearpod, an app that many teachers use to create live interactive video lessons or take students on virtual field trips.
“Especially in K-12, so much of learning is sparked through dialogue between teachers and students,” said Jennifer Carolan, a partner at Reach Capital, a venture capital firm focused on education that has invested in Nearpod and Newsela. “We are excited about these products that are really extending the capabilities of the classroom teachers.”
A number of ed-tech start-ups reporting record growth had sizable school audiences before the pandemic. Then last spring, as school districts switched to remote learning, many education apps hit on a common pandemic growth strategy: They temporarily made their premium services free to teachers for the rest of the school year.
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Some consumer tech giants that provided free services to schools also reaped benefits, gaining audience share and getting millions of students accustomed to using their product.
But whether tools that teachers have come to rely on for remote learning can maintain their popularity will hinge on how useful the apps are in the classroom.
Newsela, for one, has gained a devoted following among educators for its flexibility. The app lets them choose topical news articles or short stories for class discussion, with different versions of the text depending on a student’s reading level. Mr. Gross, Newsela’s chief executive, said the app also provided quick feedback to teachers on each child’s progress, alerting them to students who might need attention whether they are online or in the classroom.
“Teachers are starting to realize which tools are really built for both a physical and a remote classroom,” Mr. Gross said, “that work equally well in both settings.”
“It allows me to broadcast the lesson to all of my learners, no matter where they are,” said Ms. Harold, who simultaneously teaches in-person and remote students.
The future in education is less clear for enterprise services, like Zoom, that were designed for business use and adopted by schools out of pandemic necessity.
In an email, Kelly Steckelberg, Zoom’s chief financial officer, said she expected educational institutions would invest in “new ways to virtually communicate” beyond remote teaching — such as using Zoom for Parent Teacher Association meetings, school board meetings and parent-teacher conferences.
“I’m not coming up with some new advanced A.I. methodology,” Mr. Chasen said of his new app for video classrooms. “You know what teachers needed? They needed the ability to hand out work in class, give a quiz and grade it.”
Source: New York Times