The Age of Learning and the Growing Need for Edtech Research


The pandemic has spurred the adoption of educational technology, contributing to a hot edtech market and reshaping the way children learn.

Last year alone, investors invested $ 2.2 billion in electronics technology companies, according to EdSurge. And PitchBook data shows the first half of this year has already surpassed that, reaching $ 3.6 billion.

ABCmouse, one of the most popular children’s learning apps, saw its Glendale-based parent company in June achieve the biggest ever fundraising round for an electronics tech company: $ 300 million.

At the same time, a series of educational apps for children – from Khan Academy Kids to Newsela – promise to improve children’s academic skills. Duolingo, a popular language learning app, went public in July. On its first day of trading, shares closed 36% higher, valuing the company at nearly $ 5 billion. But questions remain as to whether all of the screen time is effective and educational.

Tony Wan, head of investor content at Reach Capital, a San Francisco-based venture capital firm, said many investors who have been worried about edtech investments in the past have witnessed the boom in adoption of edtech tools at home and in classrooms, attracting larger private equity firms and larger venture capital firms.

“I think the experience [during the pandemic] has really opened their eyes, followed by their portfolios, in terms of the potential of education technology and the breadth of some of these services across geographies and age groups, ”Wan said.

Educational experience or sanctioned screen time?

Age of Learning, the 14-year-old company represented by an iconic little gray mouse, was valued at $ 3 billion after winning a financing round backed by TPG, with Qatar Investment Authority and Madrone Capital Partners. It is one of the largest American edtech companies of its kind.

The company was founded in 2007 by Doug Dohring, who created and sold NeoPets in 2005, a company that allowed users to own virtual pets and purchase virtual items for them using virtual money.

Dohring, who refused to speak, said he wanted to create educational software to reach the millions of students who are below grade standards in reading and math, not one who is trying to sell products to children. (NeoPets has been criticized for the prevalence of announcements on its website).

ABCmouse promises to introduce anxious kindergarten parents to reading and their older children simply by “playing” educational games.

And while Age of Learning has funded several studies to assess whether their products work, many academics say third-party research is needed to determine the effectiveness of these edtech applications, although the effectiveness is difficult to measure.

“It’s hard to say if it really, really helps improve student learning, but I think if it helps students engage and practice their skills and motivate them to want to learn, then for me, it’s a success, ”said Tim Green, professor of educational technology at California State University Fullerton.

But there isn’t a lot of specific research on these tools, especially studies that have been replicated, Green said. A class with a specific teacher and a specific group of children does not represent all classes.

“If I have students who spend an hour to two hours using ABCmouse, I want to be able to see gains in particular,” Green said. “I think it’s hard to do with a lot of software because those kinds of studies aren’t the easiest to set up, so I’m not sure it’s always possible.”

In the absence of research, educators need to assess whether children actively participate in the content or see it as just a game.

“We have to watch what they’re doing on the device,” said Sophia Mendoza, director of the LA Unified School District’s Instructional Technology Initiative. She added that the implementation of these programs in classrooms must be “strategic and targeted”.

Teachers who relied on technology during the pandemic have gotten used to it. And with the continued boom in the edtech market, academics have said it’s also important for investors to consider whether the companies they support are educational.

“If you say you’re going to improve a student’s ability to master math. It’s important to see that there’s evidence with this – and it can be hard to measure,” Green said. “Should investors be worried about this? Of course.”

But Doug Lynch, a faculty member at USC’s Rossier School of Education, isn’t convinced it’s possible for investors to do true due diligence when it comes to edtech.

“Now everyone is, for better or worse, interested in edtech, so there’s a lot of money coming in,” he said. “They are very smart investors, but they don’t know a lot about the market and what the science tells us about learning.”

The problem is compounded by the lack of a regulatory body overseeing edtech, which gives it less control than other industries.

“We don’t follow the same rigor that we do in education as we do in healthcare, for example,” he said.

A good indicator might be whether school districts buy the software, but some start-ups don’t, Lynch said.

COVID was the catalyst

Age of Learning has “succeeded” in many ways.

Its programs have been viewed by 50 million children worldwide and have been used in hundreds of thousands of classrooms, according to the company.

“He never loses sight of your child’s progress. All you have to do is play,” the company says in a promotional video touting the $ 12.99 monthly subscription service.

Kids can navigate the app’s yellow classroom in over 850 lessons that can take the form of a zoo or a farm and include 10,000 activities ranging from reading and math to puzzles, games and paint.

Digital lessons seem like a total victory for over-stretched parents, many of whom struggle to keep their child away from idle screen time in a world where everything is done online.

“Our job is to create quality, engaging and effective digital learning programs that help children develop a taste for learning and, in so doing, develop basic skills that help them in school and in life. beyond, “said Zachary Katz, executive at Age of Learning. who directs legal, corporate and commercial affairs.

With products aimed at children ages 2-8, Katz said kids typically spend 45 minutes per week on the app.

“You’re not talking about very heavy screen time,” he said.

The company’s latest injection of capital will help it expand internationally and invest in a patented system to determine a child’s skill level.

This is because the company must also reimburse customers $ 10 million on illegal marketing and billing practices, after regulators discovered last year that the Age of Learning automatically renews tens of thousands of customer subscriptions, billing them without their consent. The Federal Trade Commission also found that the company edtech made it difficult to cancel customer memberships, resulting in even more fines.

Even as the kids return to class, Katz said Age of Learning expects to keep growing. Its subscriber base remains at pre-COVID-19 levels.

“The gains we have seen in the children using our products have been sustained even after the children have returned to school,” Katz said.

After so many years of investors often ignoring the industry, the attention is welcome to companies like Age of Learning.

“We know enough about what might work,” Lynch said. “We don’t have all the necessary components of an ecosystem yet, maybe COVID will be the catalyst we need.”

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