Minority founders of education companies get over looked by investors. Frances Messano of New School Venture Fund has ideas on how to change that.
Investors are putting a premium on companies that have the products and expertise to span distance learning and a return to in-person lessons.
As the pandemic rages on, an ed-tech accelerator designed to support women- and minority-owned businesses is seeing a wave of new companies focused on transitioning beyond high school and college and bringing artificial intelligence or machine learning to education.
The University of Southern California’s Center for Engagement-Driven Global Education program, and the companies in its third class have been forced to pivot because of the barriers imposed by COVID.
The program has always had a strong virtual component, said Doug E. Lynch, a senior fellow at USC’s Rossier School of Education and the accelerator’s director.
The program has always been run virtually to incentivize women and minority founders who would find it difficult to pick up and move to California to participate, said Lynch.
Even so, the process for companies making a case to enter the program had to be adjusted to accommodate social distancing.
“We’ve had to create several virtual pitching events, but we do that anyway,” Lynch said. “We run pitch events for women founders and pitch events for founders of color that are virtual, that attract investors, but [the structure this year] was something different. In years past, people descended on USC, and there are some benefits to being able to bump into people in the hallway.”
Still, the accelerator’s participants appreciate the opportunity to participate, even without getting to go pitch at USC.
The program’s support for companies run by women and minorities, whose path to securing funding might normally run into obstacles, said Anna Ivey, the co-founder of CommonCoach, one of the companies in this year’s class.
“I’m a female founder of a certain age,” said Ivey, who is a former University of Chicago Law School dean of admissions. “I’m not a young techie guy in a hoodie, I never have been, but that is typically who gets funded and who typically gets ed-tech media coverage, even when they have no subject matter expertise in higher ed or admissions.”
Lynch explained that one of the commonalities among this year’s cohort – an emphasis on transitions – might be related to the uncertainty COVID-19 has caused.
“This might be a reflection of the agita and the uncertainty around the economy,” he said. “I’m going to go to college, will I get a good job? Should I go to college? Should I go directly to work? How do I get skills for jobs?”
The companies that Lynch categorized as focusing on life transitions include OpenLab, Cirkled in, Fluid Education, CommonCoach, Hughes Who Technologies Studio, Key Learning, Scholarships360 and 1Up Career Coaching.
- OpenLab is a laboratory simulation that uses Virtual Reality to teach students the skills and practices they will need to work in a research laboratory.
- Cirkled In is a portfolio platform that helps students to show colleges a profile of themselves that is more complete than just their test scores.
- Fluid Education matches students with educational and vocational opportunities and institutions with workforce development opportunities.
- CommonCoach is a browser plugin that guides students through the Common Application.
- Hughes Who Technologies Studio provides STEAM workshops for children and apprenticeships in the game industry for at-risk young adults.
Key Learning is an app that helps refugees learn vocational skills.
- Scholarship360 connects students with scholarships.
- 1Up Career Coaching provides underserved professionals with coaching and networking opportunities to advance their careers.
Ivey explained that her company is focusing on the transition between high school and college because of how inequality affects the higher education admissions process.
“Not everyone has parents who went to Princeton or have school-based counselors who have the bandwidth to help them with every single question and essay in the application,” she said. “There are all these wonderful digital tools out there that sit adjacent to the application. There are college match tools and scholarship search tools and there are tools for processing transcripts and recommendations.”
But there hasn’t been a digital tool that helps students with the application itself.
“We are basically solving that last–mile problem,” she said.
The other common thread among this year’s cohort is the use of artificial intelligence. He said that companies are experimenting with “using AI to personalize curriculum, using AI to better do formative assessments and using AI to better manage” programs.
Among the companies in this year’s class focused on AI or machine learning:
- Jakapa provides periodic benchmark assessments to help students improve their soft skills.
- Prenostik uses machine learning to help STEM students succeed in online learning.
Other companies in the cohort are AutoCognita, Breakthru and Royal Way.
- Autocognita is an app-based literacy program aiming to help both adults and children learn to read.
- Breakthru is a digital add-on that helps people build healthier relationships and improve their emotional and mental wellness.
- Royal Way adapts Virtual Reality for learning.
Ivey said the program is opening doors for ed-tech companies that tend to get overlooked, despite the knowledge and specific skills they bring.
“It’s wonderful to be part of an accelerator that focuses on non-traditional founders, and understands that we have a wealth of expertise and experience for solving problems that need solving,” Ivey said. “In this particular accelerator, we are not the outliers.”
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Education companies that either weren’t involved in education at all, or had narrower interest in it, are finding ways to serve the market during COVID-19.
Amit Patel, a managing director at Owl Ventures, talks about how his venture capital firm makes investment decisions, and the forces he sees in play in the market during COVID-19.
One of the most significant shifts caused by schools moving to a virtual schooling model in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been the necessity for parents and caregivers, such as grandparents and older siblings, to fill the shoes of a classroom teacher.
As a result, education companies now need to include parents and caregivers in their technical support, professional development, and implementation processes. Many have developed parent outreach for the first time, on the fly.
Here are a few tips out of the many new parent caregiver support structures my colleagues at Cognitive ToyBox and I have developed as we’ve been onboarding our fall customers.
- Provide information in multiple places. For example, don’t send just one email and expect that all caregivers will read it. Send multiple emails, post on your website or social media, and utilize a pop-up in your app to communicate the same message. Even if it seems redundant to you, caregivers will many times miss all but one point of contact.
- Information should be available in different formats. Some people like to read daily digests while others prefer to listen to podcasts or watch videos. Use various media and platforms to meet parents and caregivers “where they are.”
- Keep communication short and to the point. Multiple emails or messages, each with one action item, are easier to read and more effective than one long encyclopedic volume of information.
- Sequence your communication so users are receiving the information in the order in which it is the most helpful. We have effectively used timeline graphics that show users where users are in a process. That way, they see what they have accomplished as well as what to expect next. This also helps build morale.
- Provide teachers and schools with information such as a letter and/or video that they can send to their students, parents and caregivers to introduce your company and product. Users will react more positively and see value in learning something new when they understand the “why” behind what they are being asked to do. This isn’t a history of your company! Rather it is a short, concise description that illustrates “what’s in it for them.”
- Translate your information into multiple languages. Don’t rely on Google Translate for this work!
- Make sure teachers feel adequately prepared to support the parents and caregivers of their students. We have oftentimes delayed caregiver access to Cognitive ToyBox until after teachers have earned their training certifications and are comfortable navigating our products.
Tips for Connecting
The ed-tech team at the World Bank Group has compiled a helpful guide to distance learning during the coronavirus. Here are a few excerpts:
- Provide guidance on scheduling for home schooling
- Provide simple tips on how to structure student learning
- Provide means for caregivers to ask questions/seek guidance
- Caregivers need to know they are not alone
- Provide regular messages of support and encouragement
- It is important for caregivers to hear directly from leadership
- Encourage peer support
I would appreciate hearing your tips for supporting parents and caregivers.
Image courtesy of Cognitive ToyBox