Deals and More Deals: The Top Edtech Business Stories of 2019

Dec 25, 2019

When it comes to the business of education, the teenage years of this century are going out with a bang. Or, rather, the sound of ka’ching!

Here’s a look at the biggest edtech business stories of 2019—the ones that captured the most attention, and the ones that should have your attention. Investors continue to pour money into the U.S. industry, eclipsing last year’s tally. Some deals have given birth to new unicorns, the industry parlance for private businesses valued at over $1 billion. But there have also been fire sales. And topping the charts is a story about educators marshalling forces against a telecoms giant.

Here are the top 10 most popular business stories (in reverse order) based on your clicks. This list is followed by an editor’s pick of the other important pieces you may have missed.

Over the following days, we’ll be sharing the top stories of the year in K-12 and higher education readers. Stay tuned!

10. For Today’s Kids, Playing Nintendo in the Classroom Isn’t Just a Dream by Emily Tate

Anyone get a Nintendo Switch for Christmas? Consoles from the world’s most recognizable gamemaker are no longer contraband in schools—at least not to the hundreds of U.S. teachers who welcomed the Switch and Labo this year. The gaming giant worked with the Institute of Play to create STEM-focused, hands-on learning experiences that promote collaboration, creativity and problem solving. So far, the play-based program has been a hit.

9. A $157M Fundraise for Guild Education Births Edtech’s Newest Unicorn by Tony Wan

Unicorns don’t exist, except when they’re of the billion-dollar valuation variety. Thanks to a $157 million fundraise, the edtech industry has given birth to its third U.S. unicorn this year: Guild Education, which connects corporate employees to higher-ed programs and further their careers. But the Denver-based company may find itself in a crowded herd, with competitors new and old jostling for a slice of the $20 billion market. (We also talked to Guild’s CEO on an episode of our weekly podcast.)

8. New Ownership for an LMS Giant: Private Equity Firm to Buy Instructure for $2 Billion by Jeffrey R. Young

Instructure, the publicly traded company best known for its Canvas learning management system, has agreed to be taken private by Thoma Bravo in a $2 billion deal—unless a better offer comes along. But some don’t see it as a Christmas gift; several shareholders are marshalling against the proposed deal.

7. Predictions of Print Textbooks’ Death Remain Greatly Exaggerated by Wade Tyler Millward

Print textbooks are the eternal punching bag for the things that people think should be rendered obsolete by digital technology. But even as many traditional textbook providers are transitioning to digital formats, paper and ink have proven stubbornly resilient, leaving many technology leaders eating their words.

6. US Edtech Investments Peak Again With $1.45 Billion Raised in 2018 by Tony Wan

And if you think that’s a big figure, just wait until you see what American edtech companies hauled in this year. (Yes, stay tuned for our 2019 analysis.)

5. TenMarks Shutdown Leaves Teachers Wanting, Competitors Circling by Emily Tate

On June 30, Amazon shut down TenMarks, a popular online math and writing tool. The company had notified school leaders in March 2018, and many have been scrambling to find a replacement. That opened the doors to competitors all trying to seize on the opportunity.

4. Finally: Pearson Sells Its US K-12 Courseware Business—for $250 Million* by Tony Wan

In February, Pearson finally announced the long-awaited sale of its U.S. K-12 courseware business—to a U.S. private equity firm, on a U.S. holiday. (Coincidence?) The headline value of the deal reads $250 million, but the complex terms has one former Pearson executive calling it a “fire sale.” Here’s why.

3. Turnitin to Be Acquired by Advance Publications for $1.75B by Sydney Johnson

A company best known (and sometimes rebuked) for its plagiarism checker has just received one of the biggest checks in the education technology industry. In March, Turnitin was acquired by Advance Publications, a private company that also owns Condé Nast, for $1.75 billion. While investors celebrated the deal, some faculty members have raised concerns.

2. Cengage, McGraw-Hill Agree to Merge to Become 2nd Biggest US Textbook Publisher by Tony Wan and Wade Tyler Millward

The deal, if approved, would create the second-biggest U.S. textbook publisher with a combined valuation estimated at $5 billion. But textbook affordability advocates say there are downsides to the deal, and have warned the U.S. Department of Justice that the merger could create a “platform monopoly.”

1. Verizon Promises to #ReverseTheFee on Remind After Educators’ Outcry by Emily Tate

The year started with a jolt to Remind, a provider of school communication services, after it learned about a possible 11-fold fee increase from telecommunications giant Verizon. The proposed increase sparked such an outcry from educators on social media that Verizon backed off from its plan.

Editor’s Picks

ISTE to Acquire EdSurge, in Move to Nonprofit by Jeffrey R. Young and Stephen Noonoo

In a year full of big deals, perhaps it’s fitting that we made one of our own. EdSurge is joining the ranks of nonprofit newsrooms, after being acquired by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

Debunking the ‘Gold Standard’ Myths in Edtech Efficacy by Jennifer Carolan and Molly B. Zielezinski

The randomized-controlled trial is often heralded as a gold standard for measuring efficacy. But what makes sense for medicine, where conditions can be carefully managed, doesn’t always work in classrooms where variables are difficult to control.

Wiley to Acquire Knewton’s Assets, Marking an End to an Expensive Startup Journey by Tony Wan

Knewton, the much-hyped developer of adaptive-learning tools and digital courseware, was acquired by Wiley. We later learned that the education publisher paid less than $17 million—much less than the $180 million that Knewton had previously raised.

Wall Street Wants in on Income-Share Agreements by Sydney Johnson

As more schools consider whether or not to try out income-share agreements (ISAs) with students, one persistent problem is finding the initial capital necessary to finance the model itself. Wall Street thinks it’s found a solution with an online marketplace, one founded by the people who helped create a financial instrument that was involved in the 2008 mortgage crisis.

Can You Say Unicorn? Duolingo Raises $30 Million at $1.5 Billion Valuation by Tony Wan

Learning a new tongue has helped Duolingo grow a horn. The latest funding round gives the language-learning app developer a valuation of $1.5 billion, and a claim to fame as Pittsburgh’s first tech startup unicorn.

Coursera Pushes into Unicorn Status After Raising $103 Million by Jeffrey R. Young and Emily Tate

Coursera was founded on the promise of opening up education to under-served learners. These days, it’s focused on serving as a bridge between high-profile colleges and adult learners, especially those in the workforce trying to add to their skills without going back to a campus.

Pearson CEO John Fallon to Retire in 2020 by Tony Wan

There’s currently a job opening for a CEO at a global education company with a $6.6 billion market value. Here’s what the next chief will be stepping into.

Other news