With the labor market and college campuses reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, the arrival of new online learning platforms teaching in-demand tech skills to undergraduates comes at a fortuitous time.
That's the case for the builders of these tools as well, like Podium Education. Since launching at the start of 2020, the Austin, Texas-based startup has partnered with over 20 colleges and more than 1,000 students. And announced $ 12 million in Series A funding.
Podium's premise is simple: offer online classes, with sophisticated design and production, taught by leading experts in technology fields that are attractive to companies hiring in the modern jobs market. It aims to equip all students, regardless of academic focus, with digital competencies.
“We believe that soft skills plus hard skills create the talents that the workplace demands,” said Brooks Morgan, Podium Education co-founder and CEO. "Whatever your passion is, whatever it is that you are going to try and do in this world, do it with the skills that will get you a better job within your field."
This funding round is led by Sid Krommenhoek at Album VC and Zander Rafael at Spring Tide Capital, with Firework Ventures, Degreed co-founder David Blake, Learn Capital, Goldcrest Capital, CampusLogic CEO Gregg Scoresby and 137 Ventures also participating. Podium will use the funds to offer more classes, at more colleges, Morgan said.
Podium class content is produced in-house, with prestigious teaching talent and glossy video production creating a product that resembles the offerings of other online teaching platforms like Masterclass. The company has invested heavily in content. Teaching materials include datasets from Netflix, Spotify and Lime Scooters for student use.
But unlike other competitors that cater to general consumers, Podium aims to deliver courses within the traditional university environment. Students meet weekly in a virtual setting with other members of their campus community to take classes.
Offering a program that is supplementary to existing undergraduate programs is a key difference between Podium and rival online educators, Morgan said. Podium classes can be taken for credit, and are federal financial aid and Pell Grant-eligible. Students, regardless of major, can take them to minor in data science. Thanks to the recent funding round, options to minor in web development and digital marketing are enrolling now for January 2021.
“We’re able to invest more capital than any single institution would be able to invest in a program like this,” Morgan said. “Rather than an institution having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop a program, we spend millions instead. They get world-class content, turnkey.”
The Podium partnership model requires zero out-of-pocket production expenses or from institutions and can be launched to students in as little as two weeks. Podium takes a 50 percent fee from institutions for each student enrolled in one of its courses.
“Podium helped us launch a new Data Analytics and Data Visualization program with strong student demand this past summer,” said Yusuf Dahl, executive director of the Dyer Center for Entrepreneurship at Lafayette College. “Combining a classic liberal arts education with in-demand tech skills gives our graduates a unique advantage as they enter the modern workforce.”
Resources are tight across the education sector right now. But investment in online education is growing. Colleges could make economic savings by exploring new options that seemed unnecessary just 12 months ago.
Podium is hardly the only company aiming to help universities essentially outsource some aspects of the curriculum in new fields that they may not have traditionally taught. Adjacent Academies, based in Seattle, has such a partnership with Davidson College. Others, like 2U, offer to help universities offer tech programs through their extension schools.
The benefits for students and their long-term job prospects are just as pertinent and, with unemployment at record highs, increasingly timely. “When there was record low unemployment a year ago, no matter who you are, when you’re graduating, you likely had a place in industry, right? That is not the case anymore,” said Morgan. “What we are doing is giving students the skills that match what employers are demanding.”
The Podium executive team has experience at education companies and startups including The Princeton Review, Uversity, Learn Capital and 2U. In its first months of operation, they have seen five-fold growth in the number of students taking classes.
“Our new Data Bootcamp enables students from across campus to add technical skills to their chosen field of study,” said Anthony Hendrickson, dean of the Heider College of Business at Creighton University. “The accessibility of the program for students from non-STEM backgrounds is particularly unique and powerful. We have philosophy majors, psychology majors, business majors—really a mix of all majors—learning these in-demand skills.”