CNBC25: Rebels, Icons and Leaders

Education 2.0: 8 start-ups changing the way we learn

Education 2.0 is coming. ...

Gunnar Pippel | Getty Images

Education is ripe for disruption, and investors see a huge long-term opportunity. The Digital Revolution has changed the traditional learning model as we know it. Thanks to advances in mobile telecommunications, we are continuously learning and downloading information. And this momentum should persist as technology breaks physical boundaries.

Statistics tell the story. Venture investors poured $423 million into 53 different education companies in the first half of the year. That compares to $361 million invested just five years ago. If the pace of investment this year continues, 2014 will have the highest level of investment in education companies ever—dwarfing the $601 million invested last year, according to the National Venture Capital Association.

It's not surprising that funds are even being allocated to specialized educational technology niches—from Imagine K12, an accelerator focused on start-ups serving the K–12 market, to University Ventures Fund, which funds programs addressing higher-education needs.

Read on to get a glimpse of the 8 start-ups leading the revolution. They are rewriting the rule book on everything from teaching tools to online learning. Their goal: to democratize learning for the masses.

—By Julia Boorstin, CNBC media and entertainment reporter
Posted on 11 September 2014

Khan Academy

Source: Khan Academy

This educational nonprofit, founded in 2006, has set the gold standard for free, online education. Its motto: "You can learn anything." They produce educational lectures on a wide range of subjects—from physics and chemistry to history and economics. It allows students to learn at their own pace, and it "gamifies" learning by giving students badges when they reach certain goals.

The program remembers what students have learned and how they're spending their time, so it can keep track of what they're learning, providing data to both students and teachers. Khan Academy has special tools for teachers, including "coach reports" to figure out how to tailor their teaching.


Educational Support Specialists provide online university level tutoring in Mountain View, California.
Anee Hermes | The Christian Science Monitor | Getty Images

Udacity was founded in 2011 by Stanford professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig after they offered their "Introduction to Artificial Intelligence" course free online and more than 160,000 students in over 190 countries enrolled. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are designed to make college-level education available to anyone, without high costs or a physical campus. Udacity, a leader in the space, has raised $20 million in two rounds of financing, with backers including Andreessen Horowitz.

Udacity is particularly focused on teaching the tech and science skills needed to secure jobs at fast-growing companies. It's partnered with Google, Salesforce, AT&T and other tech giants to create relevant online courses for their workforce. In June AT&T partnered with Udacity to launch its first NanoDegree program. For just $200 a month, it is intended to teach anyone with a mastery of high school math the basic programming skills to quality for an entry-level position at AT&T as a data analyst, iOS applications designer or the like.


Matt Slocum | AP

Coursera, another MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course, allows students to take 744 courses from 110 universities online, all for free. The company's university partners include leading educational institutions from around the world—from the Ivies, CalTech and Berklee College of Music here in the U.S. to Ecole Normale Supérieure, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and University of Edinburgh overseas.

Here's how it works: After students pick a course, they can learn on their own schedule via video lectures, interactive quizzes, peer-graded assessments and an opportunity to connect with classmates and teachers. There's a big focus on making sure students understand a concept, encouraging students to restudy and reattempt the homework. A number of the companies' partner universities use the online platform to enhance their on-campus students' academic experience.

The company has raised $85 million in four rounds from eight investors, including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, New Enterprise Associates, The World Bank and International Finance Corp.

Top Hat

Source: Top Hat | Twitter

Top Hat transforms smartphones and laptops into tools to make lessons more engaging for students and more effective for teachers. The app allows students to do interactive quizzes, polls and demos on their phones, tablets and computers. The technology is used by over 200,000 students at more than 300 universities. Its selling point: It enables interaction between students and teachers, without any purchase of additional gadgets.

And it's not just polling; students can ask questions throughout the course of a class without interrupting a teacher's lecture and receive instant feedback. Answers are saved, so students can monitor their progress, study based on their track record, and keep tabs on their grades, which are updated in real time.

Last year the Toronto-based company announced partnerships with education publisher Pearson and with Panopto, a leading lecture-capture platform. It's raised $23 million from such investors as SoftTech, iNovia Capital and Golden Venture Partners since it was founded in 2009.


Source: Learnist | Facebook

Learnist has been called the Pinterest of teaching, because it allows teachers and students to collect and curate content from across the Internet on "learnboards." With those tools to gather and share information, the company said it aims to "crowdsource the world's knowledge." The company, which launched in 2012, offers tens of thousands of learnboards on every topic imaginable, from academic instruction and recipes to fashion advice.

The majority of the content is free, but the company also sells "Premium Learnboards" curated by experts for 99 cents. They range from "Arianna Huffington Teaches Us to THRIVE" and author Brad Meltzer curating a board on "How to Get Your Book Published" to Gus Van Sant curating content on "Creativity in Filmmaking and the Arts."

Learnist was created by social learning company Grockit, which has raised about $45 million, including a round in 2012, with strategic investment from Discovery Communications (in its first investment in a social learning company), as well as Benchmark Capital and Summit Group, which backed Uber, among others. The company claims millions of people learn from tens of thousands of learnboards.


A video-based site, targets lifelong learners with more than 10,000 courses and lessons provided by teachers and experts in a range of subjects. Anyone can create, publish and market a course with the site's "Curious Lesson Builder." And though some courses are free, many of the most popular are in the $9.99 to $29.99 range. Teachers can track how many times a lesson has been seen, while the site's visitors can create Curious Cards to track their studies.

Courses are grouped into eight categories: Brainy (academic training from astrophysics to zoology); Tech & Biz (from coding to marketing skills); Crafts; Music & Arts; DIY; Language; Healthy & Fit; and Food. Popular courses include "Excel: The Essentials," which costs $24,00 and has been viewed 110,000 times; and "How to Play Ukulele," which costs $14.99 and has been viewed 27,000 times.

Just this August the company announced "Curious Crafts," its first app focused on just one category, with lessons on everything—from woodworking to crocheting. Investors, seeing the potential in the tools for teachers to monetize their expertise, have poured $22.5 million into the company.


Source: SmarterCookie

SmarterCookie aims to help teachers improve their technique through its video sharing and coaching platform. Schools or teachers can record, upload, share, annotate and evaluate instructional videos with SmarterCookie's iOS app, then privately share with one or more colleagues. The video-focused app is designed to allow teachers to get specific, actionable feedback, and for schools to build video libraries of top teachers, to share their best practices.

The company, founded just two years ago by teachers, gives away free accounts to individual teachers while selling premium plans to schools.


Source: Treehouse | Facebook

Treehouse is focused on teaching people how to learn how to code, build apps and develop all the practical skills for the digital workforce. It charges $29 or $49 per month, depending on which tier of service you choose. The topics Treetop's courses tackle: HTML, CSS, Ruby, JavaScript, PHP, Design, WordPress, iOS, Android and the business skills to sell an app or manage a digital business. Students can pick from more than 1,000 videos from experts and earn badges as they travel through a series of courses.

Treehouse claims more than 86,000 students and companies, from beginners to professionals, use its courses. Companies on board include Twitter, Square, Airbnb, Zappos and AOL. The company has raised $25 million from 10 investors, including test-prep giant Kaplan's venture arm and LinkedIn founder and former CEO Reid Hoffman.