There’s a growing focus on the intersection of education and technology, from Apple’s initiatives to reinvent the textbook and Inkling’s efforts to take virtualized textbooks to professional publishers to Bertelsmann and others backing a $100 million fund for innovative education.
All of these projects, in one way or another, focus on higher education. Peter Thiel declared that higher education is in a bubble, and John Katzman, the founder and Executive Chairman of 2tor, wrote that your alma mater may very well be in jeopardy.
Among other things, this is due to the fact that the cost of higher education is soaring, and as a result, there’s more attention being given to distance learning — or, in other words — ways that the Web and digital technology can transcend borders to bring a quality education to people, regardless of proximity to a campus, at a far lower price.
Of course, online classes and programs have typically been seen as simple, sometimes ineffectual, micro-correspondence courses to be taken as supplements rather than replacements to quality, on-campus education. The key word here is “quality.” Katzman has told us in the past that online education isn’t of a high quality is because it’s not striving to be great, which is why 2tor is partnering with graduate programs to provide technology platforms to not replace, but significantly extend, the classroom experience.
The startup has thus far partnered with USC’s Rossier School of Education for their online Master of Arts in Teaching degree as well as USC’s Masters program for Teaching and Social Work, Georgetown’s nursing program, UNC’s MBA program, and plans to go after another nine programs/institutions. To do so, the startup has raised $65 million in venture capital from Bessemer Venture Partners, Highland Capital, Redpoint, Novak Biddle, City Light, and others, which makes it one of the highest funded education startups out there.
The reason for raising so much? The startup is investing as much as $10 million in each program, to give its partnering institutions that quality online education that can only be developed with significant capital input — a program that’s customized, includes faculty participation, social networking, synchronous video and more. As an illustration, 2tor itself has grown to a staff of 370, with over 3,500 students participating in its first three programs, from over 30 different countries.
Obviously, the long-term goal for 2tor is to transform higher education through partnerships with top universities to offer the best masters program in every academic discipline, even when compared to its offline counterpart. In that sense, the startup is seeking not to replicate the classroom experience, but flip it on its head.
To do that, 2tor’s web-based infrastructure allows professors to share materials with their students, provide lectures and interactive lessons, student support services, socialized interactivity and so on. But the real key is mobile. This spring, 2tor released an iPad and iPhone app that allows students to attend live, synchronous class sessions via webcam anywhere, with 3G or 4G networks. And, today, 2tor is officially bringing the same functionality of its iPad app to Android tablets.
Co-founder Jeremy Johnson tells us that the Master of Social Work program at USC, which already has over 1,200 enrolled students, is now seeing 500 active users of its iOS apps. And, for reference, it defines an “active user” as one who signs in at least 10 times a month, spending an average of five minutes per-login, and views at least five pages. That’s some pretty great engagement for a mobile higher education platform. And obviously, it hopes that, by now offering a similar experience on Android, it can further increase its students’ mobile activity and access.
Allowing students to gain access to an interactive whiteboard, go through the deck of a slideshow, jump into a break-out session with other students, and then back into a live environment — all while swiping across learning management pages on a tablet — ups the ante for online educational programs. And to think you can do all that while sitting in a chair on the beach in Florida.
What’s more, for the institutions, these kind of suped-up online programs mean they don’t have to change their standards of admission, students can just apply to the school as they would normally, and choose between online or onsite options, without having to feel that their education will suffer should they go digital. And 2tor can still give institutions field placement, with the ability to — in the case of USC’s teaching program — place students in over 1,000 school districts.
There’s a big opportunity here in higher education, and 2tor is leading the way in one form. University Ventures Fund has backed Higher Education Online, representing another, and Udemy yet another. They can all coexist and collaborate, and no doubt the future will hold a blend of these and other approaches.
As to the road ahead for 2tor, the startup is in the process of raising yet another round to continue moving into new institutions, and no doubt we’ll be hearing more from them soon.
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