Just as the pandemic is loosening its grip and schools and colleges move back to in-person classes, new startups are offering video platforms they say do a better job for teaching than Zoom or other mass-market systems.
One of the latest entrants is Engageli (pronounced, “engage-ly”), which a few months ago scored $14.5 million in funding. The basic pitch is that the platform was built with teaching in mind, meaning it has features like polling built in in ways that quickly return results to professors. And the system uses a metaphor that students sit at “tables,” meaning that instructors can easily organize students into groups that can have their own breakout discussions.
The system is aimed at colleges. But will institutions that already bought other video conferencing tools to get them through the pandemic be eager to shop for a new alternative as they shift to thinking about returning to in-person teaching?
EdSurge put that question to Engageli’s co-founder, Dan Avida, a venture capitalist who was an early board member of Coursera—the online course giant that his wife, Daphne Koller, co-founded. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: Your new company is building a video platform for online teaching. What’s wrong with the videoconferencing tools that have become standard and familiar, like Zoom and Google Meet or Microsoft Teams? Haven’t schools and colleges already bought what they need by now for remote learning?
Dan Avida: So there's nothing wrong for these tools if you're conferencing. But conferencing and teaching and learning are two completely separate things.
At this point we're deployed in several dozen universities on a pilot basis."
—Dan Avida, CEO and co-founder of Engageli
I started working out of our living room [when the pandemic first hit and offices closed], and I noticed that my two daughters were walking around and holding a laptop. And one of them was busily going through the entire Netflix catalog. And the other was playing video games. And every once in a while, they would kind of say something and it was obvious to me that they were also sitting in online class, but you know, being kids, they know how to timeshare very effectively. And so we felt that for teaching synchronously, you need to develop a special product.
What types of institutions are trying the software so far?
At this point we're deployed in several dozen universities on a pilot basis. One instructor [trying it] is working in one of the larger University of California [campuses]. We have some pilots going on in Ivy League universities. We have a few going on in international universities, including my alma mater, which is the Israeli Institute of Technology—they’re running a pilot. We have several of the larger and more advanced U.K. universities running pilots. We’re starting a pilot with a very large community college.
So it’s all higher ed. We're starting to work with a small number, at this point, of people doing corporate education. And we’re talking to continuing education people.
We’re now a year into the disruptions of the global COVID-19 pandemic, and for many students, class is now online. In fact, one joke we’ve been hearing is that it doesn’t really matter how fancy or name-brand your university is—everyone now attends “Zoom University,” meaning that since everyone is using Zoom or something very similar, class all kind of looks the same. You’re talking about adding some features to make videoconferencing software more tailored to learning, but isn’t the critique really about the limits of online versus face to face? Don’t people really want to be in person?
I mean, now it's very popular to complain about, Oh, you know, the good old days and all that. And will some people go back to the in-person class? Absolutely.
But I graduated from college way before there was such a thing as the internet. And I definitely went to, at least by Israeli standards, an elite institution—I went to the Israeli equivalent of MIT. And I didn’t show up to any of my classes, because I could learn from a textbook—there was many other ways to learn.
We're not going to replace the physical infrastructure of the classrooms. And candidly, that is why we're not focused on K-12, because I think for K-12, they are traditional students and for them it is good to be in person. And so I think for kids of that age, up to 18, they should go and have recess and have lunch with their friends and do everything that they do. But today when learning really is lifelong …
I mean, is my daughter [in college] very much looking forward to some of our classes being in person. Absolutely. But I really think it's going to be a very blended thing.
I understand that Engageli has a feature that can match students into small breakout groups that are diverse. How does your algorithm determine diversity?
So I have two different ways to do it. One is, the instructor uploads a spreadsheet, and by each student there’s a set of attributes. So the instructor decides on what that dimension or dimensions they want to have us randomize the tables, such that every table is as diverse as possible. So we don't determine the attributes, we just make it algorithmically so that every table is as diverse as possible.
And the second way is … we enable the instructor to ask a question and get answers. And based on these answers, we can divide people into tables, such as that each table asks people with a diverse point of view.
Are you worried at all that once life returns to in-person on most campuses after the pandemic, there there won't be as big a market for your platform?
Even before the pandemic, about half of [college] students had taken at least one online course. Now [in the pandemic] it went from 50 percent to 100 percent. We don't think it's going to revert back to just 50 percent. I don't want to guess, but it's going to be somewhere between 50 and 100 percent.