Pandemic closes school. Students go home. Remote classes falter. Child is disengaged. Parent builds edtech.
So goes the origin story of many education startups born this year, like ClassEDU, which raised $16 million to put some oomph in Zoom classrooms. It was started by one of the co-founders of Blackboard, now a household name in education technology.
Now, a couple with similar industry cred has a similar vision—along with plenty of funding.
“We want to build from the ground up an inclusive learning system for students and faculty, one that can recreate engaging, live learning experiences online,” says Dan Avida.
Avida is the husband of Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller, and one of the first board members of the company that helped put the spotlight on massive online open courses, or MOOCs. The couple is no longer with Coursera, which is now valued at $2.5 billion. But they are not done with higher education yet.
Through their new startup, Engageli, they want to replicate the social feeling of being in a classroom, layered with live data about student engagement, on a browser-based tool that they hope to sell to colleges and universities.
That vision has investors feeling stoked. BRM, Emerge Education and individuals Alex Balkanski (a general partner at Benchmark Capital), Lip-Bu Tan (CEO of Cadence Design Systems) and Rob Cohen (former president of 2U) are among the contributors to a $14.5 million seed round for Engageli.
After ClassEDU, this is the second education startup in as many months to raise more than $10 million before launching a product. Their motivations are similar too. “In March, when we went into lockdown, our two daughters started using Zoom for their schooling. They were not really paying attention, and their lack of engagement made it apparent that Zoom was not the right way to teach people,” recalls Avida.
But while ClassEDU is building its education tools on Zoom, Engageli is designed to work on any web browser. That, Avida says, gives his tool a leg up in terms of being more accessible to a wider audience.
As its name suggests, Engageli aims to foster social interactions among students and instructors. One feature that Avida was keen to show off is the setup of an online class. Students are “seated” in virtual tables, in groups of up to 10. They can see, hear and chat with one another, along with the teacher. But they cannot do so with students at other tables. Only when students raise their hand and are given permission to speak can they be heard by everyone else.
The purpose of this, says Avida, is to “recreate the feeling of sitting at a table with other students” and mimic, as much as possible, the sense of camaraderie and chatter that may naturally occur in a classroom setting. (But if there’s too much noise, a student can also mute others at the table.)
Engageli’s approach to making online college classes more engaging may sound similar to other efforts. Congregate, built by a Harvard student, is also trying to recreate the group-study feeling through virtual tables and classrooms. The Minerva Project, which developed its own online “active learning” platform, Forum, to facilitate courses for its students spread across the world, has been selling it to others. More than 20 institutions have signed up, according to Minerva CEO Ben Nelson.
The platform lets instructors choose how they assign students to specific tables. Among the criteria that can be used to inform this distribution are major, grade level, grade point average, foreign language proficiency, gender, race—or any other parameter set by an instructor. The goal is to “maximize diversity by any attribute that a professor decides is important for the class,” Avida adds.
Other features aim to make creating and sharing content a smoother experience. There are built-in tools to add questions to any presentation slide. Instructors can also upload videos directly on the platform and stream them in high quality to students (as opposed to doing a screenshare, which can make videos appear choppy).
From the instructor’s point of view, a color-coded circle overlaid on each student indicates how engaged he or she is, based on more than 70 points of data that the system is collecting in real time. Interactions tracked including whether someone is taking notes, participating in the chat, responding to questions, raising their hand to speak and taking screenshots, among others. Should professors choose, they can also see other granular details about the students’ overall academic performance and device and connectivity information.
According to the company, all data is stored in encrypted databases, and instructors can choose what information they need—or don’t—to collect in order to run their classes.
Daphne Koller, who is a board member of Engageli, says she was “thinking about some of these features as early on as Coursera, but many of them didn’t make much sense on that platform.” The kinds of interactions among peers and instructors that Engageli is striving to build wouldn’t make much sense in an asynchronous learning environment where students are largely learning at their own pace and watching recorded videos.
Koller, who left Coursera in 2016, is currently CEO of Insitro, a drug-development startup that raised $143 million in May. But she’s still carving out some time to reconnect with her education roots.
“At Stanford, while I was doing a lot of research, I had a soft spot for teaching. It was never secondary for me, as it is for some faculty,” she says. “This is a tremendous opportunity for me to bring some of my data analytics research and experience to capture student engagement, interactions, the kinds of notes they’re taking … to bring it all together to understand when teaching is working, for whom, and how to make it better.”
It will be some time before the public can decide for themselves whether Engageli meets that vision. The platform is currently only available through invitation, and it will only be publicly launched sometime in early 2021, according to Avida. He declined to disclose how many instructors have given it a test drive to date, but claims the platform has attracted interest from community colleges and large state university systems. Details around licensing pricing have not been determined.
Engageli currently has 20 full-time staff and is expanding its headcount.