The demand for innovative digital learning technology has never been higher. And investment continues to flow into the edtech space. But companies looking to differentiate themselves in this increasingly competitive sector have to bring something new to the table.
Esme Learning Solutions is banking on artificial intelligence (AI), collaborative learning experiences and relationships with some of the biggest universities in the world to set them apart from the crowd. The Boston-based company today announced the close of a $7.5 million Series A that will expand its range of intensive executive-level courses and digital learning tools.
“Our vision is to be the premier digital learning company for working professionals,” said co-founder and CEO, David Shrier.
Esme was founded on Valentines Day, 2019, by Shrier and Beth Porter, co-founder and managing director. Both carry decades of educational experience. Shrier has led graduate business courses at institutions including Oxford, MIT and Imperial College; Porter was a vice president at Pearson and edX, the nonprofit online course platform developer.
While at edX Porter created the Open edX project, which has served more than 55 million learners taking massive open online courses, or MOOCs. But despite that high figure, research from MIT has found that on average, just over 3 percent of students who started a course finished it.
“If I were teaching on campus and 3 percent of my students completed the class, they would fire me,” Shrier said. Esme wants to transform the effectiveness of online learning, increasing both student engagement and the quality of course content.
The company currently offers cybersecurity, fintech and blockchain courses in conjunction with Oxford University. Classes cost approximately $3,200, take six weeks to complete with an average online learning commitment of 7-10 hours per week.
Esme will use the funds to build out its curriculum, offering more classes at more universities. Further classes from Oxford and MIT will be announced in February with additional institutions expected in the coming months, Shrier said. The company is aiming to double salaried-staff from 20 to 40 in the first quarter of 2021.
Recruitment will focus on curriculum, marketing and development divisions. And the development of additional AI will help Esme offer course content that reflects individual learners' needs, Shrier said.
“Bad television” is how Shrier described the traditional modes of online learning, which largely consisted of video lessons and online quizzes. “Our business is almost built in response to 30 years of bad television,” Shrier said. “What we do is make the experience genuinely interactive, and we use artificial intelligence agents and coaches to facilitate that.
It is an approach that is resonating with investors.
The Series A round was led by Adit Ventures, a tech-focused venture capital firm with a portfolio including Airbnb and Flexport. Esme is its first education technology investment.
“Esme Learning’s rapidly growing portfolio of courses with the leading universities of the world creates a compelling investment opportunity for us, expanding on our thesis that AI brings real transformation to the future of digital learning. We’re particularly excited to back such experienced entrepreneurs with deep domain expertise in education, cognitive science, and AI,” said Michael Block, managing director at Adit Ventures and an Esme Learning board member.
Shrier and Porter are also CEO and CTO of Adit EdTech Acquisition Corp., an edtech-focused blank check company and Adit Ventures’ affiliate. Esme’s Series A and Adit Ventures’ involvement in Adit EdTech are separate, the company told us.
Esme grew out of a series of conversations with top academic institutions around innovations in digital learning and how best to serve the needs of students, Shrier said. Taking a broader perspective elevates Esme above more myopic rivals in the edtech market, he argues.
“[There are] a lot of people trying to do a lot of things in digital learning,” Shrier said. “But frequently, what you get is someone who's good at getting a contract with a big university who's not so great about actually delivering learning innovation.”
COVID-19 has led to a resurgence in MOOC enrollment and, with continued pressure on the labor market, upskilling and reskilling are important considerations across different employment sectors. For Shrier, the pandemic “accelerated change that was already happening” in terms of global demand for digital learning and highlighted deficiencies in existing online learning platforms.
The pandemic has made it more important for leading colleges to offer cutting edge digital learning opportunities, Shrier said. According to the dean of one leading business school Shrier spoke with recently, “before COVID, digital was a nice ancillary [for universities] and now it’s a core competency.”
Since holding its first pilot class at Oxford in June 2020 Esme has seen average completion rates of over 90 percent. For Shrier, the company’s emphasis on interaction and collaboration is key because “online learning can be a really lonely experience.”
Esme classes involve small group exercises that simulate real-word business scenarios. Video content features bitesize contributions from industry experts. Rather than bring a single guest speaker to a class, Esme students will hear from 30 to 50 experts during a six-week course, Shrier said. And the utilization of AI is another important element.
Student groups are guided by AI coaches that provide personalized feedback as they work through course material. There are also interactions with regular teaching staff to augment students’ learning experience.
Esme will announce additional AI features in 2021, Shrier said. This spring, he will publish a book, “Augmenting Your Career: How to Win at Work In the Age of AI,” that addresses debates around AI and work.
“AI does not have to be your foe,” Shrier said. “AI can actually be your friend and help assist you. And this is really what we aspire to. A combination of people and AI together can do things that AI cannot do alone and people can't do alone. And that’s an exciting area that we spend a lot of time on.”