Pandemic Pivots: Edtech Edition

Aug 04, 2020

Necessity begets ingenuity, and for many businesses no test of survival has been tougher than the current one wrought by a global pandemic.

Many have adapted to provide existing services while limiting human contact. Others are expanding into areas unexpected. General Motors is making face shields and ventilators. Denny’s is selling groceries. Kodak is getting into … pharmaceuticals.

In education, the shuttering of campuses and classrooms has been a windfall for purely digital companies—some of which are attracting plenty of private capital. Those with an in-person component, though, have reasons to worry—unless they can spin up virtual alternatives to their services.

Now, language learning app Duolingo is getting into college admissions. Substitute teacher services company Swing Education is creating private homeschools. And foreign student recruitment business Shorelight is delivering college classes to students online in their home countries.

Here are some edtech pandemic pivots to watch.

Swing, Swing

Swing Education, which matches substitute teachers with K-12 schools, was filling more than 1,500 requests per week. After the pandemic hit, the company held out hope that enough schools would reopen in the fall to sustain its business.

But on July 17, Gavin Newsom, governor of California, where Swing is based, announced strict guidelines that mean most schools will likely stay closed for the fall.

“I saw the writing on the wall for us that week,” says Mike Teng, CEO of Swing Education.

Even before then, the company had already taken a big hit. “We lost over 90 percent of our business almost overnight,” Teng adds. “This is the least fun usage of the term ‘disruptive’ ever.”

But having worked with over 8,000 teachers, Swing Education had a pool of resources that remain in demand—not from schools, but from parents. “We’ve had friends reach out, trying to figure out what to do with their children, asking: ‘Do you think we can get a teacher?’”

Questions like that have fueled a growing trend that goes by the name of “pandemic pods,” “micropods” or “microschools.” Parents, concerned about the risks of sending kids back to school but also seeking child care, are banding together to set up private, small-group classes. Sometimes parents take turns leading instruction; others hire teachers for help.

For those seeking the latter, Swing Education launched a new service, called “Bubbles.” The idea is to match family requests with teachers based on geography, age groups, teaching styles and subject expertise. Each pod is capped at eight students, who gather with their teacher at one of the family’s homes for about 25 hours each week.

Other matchmaking education companies have also swung toward pods. Selected, a job placement service for teachers, is doing something similar. Wonderschool, which pairs parents with in-home childcare providers, is also on the bandwagon. (It laid off 75 percent of its staff in March.)

This is the least fun usage of the term ‘disruptive’ ever.
Mike Teng, CEO of Swing Education

Pandemic pods have attracted scrutiny over concerns that they cater only to those with financial means and will widen student achievement gaps. Teng is no stranger to these worries. “Right now, it’s people with privilege who can access this,” he acknowledges.

Swing charges parents $1,500 to $2,500 per child per month, based on the size of the pod. Teachers, who are W-2 employees of Swing, earn about $40 to $60 per hour, or up to $1,500 per week.

Teng says he’s reached out to foundations about subsidizing the cost for low-income families and is waiting to hear back. In the meantime, the company is inviting people to sponsor pods for families in needs.

Duolingo Passes Its English Test

Don’t worry, the pandemic hasn’t shuttered Duolingo’s popular gamified language learning app. But it has helped the Pittsburgh-based company promote a second service it has quietly offered since 2016: the Duolingo English Test.

Colleges in English-speaking countries usually require international applicants to submit scores from exams that measure English language comprehension. Traditionally, that’s meant that students have to travel to testing centers that offer the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and pay upwards of $200 for a several-hour exam.

That’s what Duolingo founder Luis von Ahn had to do back when he was a high schooler in Guatemala hoping to apply to college in the U.S. Except, no testing dates were available in his entire country, so he had to travel to neighboring El Salvador to sit for an exam, says Sam Dalsimer, head of public relations for Duolingo.

“It seems ridiculous you need to show up at a physical place to take a test,” Dalsimer says.

That experience, plus the fact that 43 percent of Duolingo users around the world use the app to learn English, inspired the company to create its own English test for college admissions. It costs $49, lasts about an hour, and students can take it from almost anywhere with an internet connection. It was recently the subject of a study published by the journal “Transactions of the Association for Computational Linguistics.”

Over the last four years, Duolingo had convinced about 1,000 universities, mostly in the U.S., to accept its test scores. Since the pandemic, another 1,000 colleges have signed up, across the U.S., Canada and the U.K.

“Instead of us going to them one by one, schools are coming to us,” Dalsimer says.

With traditional physical testing centers closed in many countries, students are also flocking to the Duolingo English Test. The company has seen 1,500 percent year-over-year growth among test takers. It’s even higher in some markets, like India, which has seen 5,000 percent growth among test takers.

“We became the only option for them to complete their admission requirements to apply to university,” Dalsimer says.

The test is proctored by both humans and artificial intelligence. To keep up with the recent increased demand, Duolingo had to hire more human proctors, and also scale up its live customer support services. Now, the company is back to being able to return test scores to clients within 48 hours.

Even when the pandemic subsides and testing centers reopen, Duolingo thinks demand for its English test will stay strong. The company is keeping an eye on the movement among colleges to make SAT and ACT scores optional.

“If you no longer have that perfect SAT score, it’s one less thing to help you get into college or stand out amongst the pool of applicants,” Dalsimer says. “I think international students are feeling that an English test and English test score is now an even more important objective measure or criteria as an applicant to help you stand out.”

Changing Lanes

In the tracks of Uber and Lyft, other transportation startups eyed an opportunity to shuttle students to and from schools. Investors saw an opportunity, too, funneling more than $65 million in venture capital to three school ridesharing startups—HopSkipDrive, Kango and Zūm—since February 2019.

Those businesses came to a screeching halt in March. Closed school doors meant idle drivers—and layoffs at the companies. Revenue for Zūm dropped by 80 percent, its CEO disclosed to Silicon Valley Business Journal in April.

In response, they are now offering to ferry things other than children. Food deliveries and school materials, such as computers, have been part of the pivot. Kango is offering virtual homework help and online tutoring. HopSkipDrive has seen demand from seniors, and is offering to take them to grocery stories and doctor appointments.

“We’re here for anyone who needs any extra caregiving,” Joanna McFarland told EdSurge in April.

An AVID Response to COVID

For 40 years, AVID, a nonprofit that provides professional development for educators, has been growing its footprint, reaching close to 8,000 schools across the country. A sizable chunk of its business—which generated more than $65 million in revenue, per its 2018 tax filing—comes from in-person summer training institutes, attended by upwards of 40,000 educators each year.

But with in-person gatherings no longer possible, AVID CEO Sandy Husk says her team was facing a loss of roughly half of its business, which is sustained entirely by membership dues and fees for its teacher-training programs.

One of the things that this pandemic has allowed us to do is to innovate very quickly, in a way that we wouldn’t have been able to.
Sandy Husk, CEO of AVID

As the team thought about revamping its business, it wanted to do more than simply port its in-person program onto a Zoom call. And instead of a one-and-done experience that centered on the training sessions, AVID wanted to stay in touch with teachers after the event is over.

By the first week of April, it cooked up a new offering. Called “AVID DigitalXP,” it combines three days of online professional development with virtual communities, organized around specific topics, that meet throughout the school year. In these groups, teachers can share experiences with their peers and get one-on-one coaching from an expert in AVID’s network.

Around 30,000 teachers have signed up for this new program. At roughly $850 per participant, that adds up to more than $20 million in billings. That’s on par with what AVID’s traditional in-person institutes generate.

The nonprofit is offering a slimmer version of this program to non-AVID members—the first time that it is selling to customers outside its networks. AVID also launched a website, “Open Access,” that curates digital instructional materials from nine content providers including Code.org, Microsoft and MIT. It marks one of AVID’s first forays into online instructional content.

AVID, which has trained educators in online teaching, is now learning how to operate as a primarily online business, says Husk: “One of the things that this pandemic has allowed us to do is to innovate very quickly, in a way that we wouldn’t have been able to.”

Keeping the Shorelight On

Students from all over the world are eager for the classic American college experience. U.S. colleges are eager for their tuition dollars. Since 2013, private company Shorelight has served as a matchmaker, recruiting people from more than 170 countries to study on campus at institutions including the University of Kansas, the University of South Carolina and University of the Pacific.

When a mysterious virus struck Wuhan, China, at the end of last year, Shorelight leaders had a premonition that they’d soon need another way to connect international students with far-away colleges.

So they quickly combined a remote learning technology they’d previously developed, called Shorelight Live, with an on ground, first-year undergraduate program they already offered, called American Collegiate, and boom: American Collegiate Live was born.

“We were really lucky; we already had a technology solution and mindset of serving students in China over our technology,” says Chris Hoehn-Saric, general manager of Shorelight Live. “Let’s take this concept and make it a global, live-to-device opportunity to start at any of our universities.”

By April, the company and its university partners were pitching foreign students on the idea of starting their first semester from home. Online college has traditionally been a tough sell overseas, but Shorelight hopes its program—plus extenuating pandemic circumstances, like the fact that the U.S. government has stopped processing visas—will convince aspiring international students to reconsider the option.

Through American Collegiate Live, students can earn between three and 17 credits backed by the University of Massachusetts at Boston, in exchange for between $10,000 and $14,000 in tuition. Classes are taught by the university’s professors using a synchronous delivery system at times convenient for students.

The early response has been promising. American Collegiate Live has started already, and Shorelight’s new student enrollments for summer 2020—which are all for remote courses—are up 30 percent over summer 2019, according to John B. Kissell, Shorelight’s vice president for communications. The company expects more than 2,000 students to participate this fall.


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