Amid the rush of attention that online education is getting from the tech world, universities, students and investors, a startup that focuses on content for brick-and-mortar classrooms has picked up more funding. Flashnotes — a Boston-based marketplace for college pupils to buy and sell study notes and other online help for specific courses — has raised a Series A of $3.6 million. It will be using the funds to expand its service across the U.S. to some 300 institutions in the next year; as well as to increase penetration in the schools where Flashnotes is already active.
The round was led by Stage 1 Ventures, with participation also from new investor Runa Capital, and existing investors SoftBank Capital and Atlas Ventures. For now, this is mainly a strategic investment, Mike Matousek, founder and CEO, tells me: there are no immediate plans to roll out Flashnotes either to Japan or with any of SoftBank’s other properties, or in Russia for that matter.
Some might scoff at how Flashnotes turns learning into a profiteering activity. Tapping into the fact that students are often looking for ways of making a little extra cash, Flashnotes promises users they can keep 70% of any purchase amounts (it keeps the other 30% for itself).
Typical prices are around $9 for a 20-page study guide, with the range between $1.99 and $63. The latter was a bundle of notes from a course, a final study guide in effect, for a marketing class at Ohio State University.
Since launching, the company has enabled WebRTC on its platform, which has opened Flashnotes up to including multimedia alongside notes, with video tutorials and more now also being added to the marketplace. And it has added integration to facilitate easier notes uploading — for example in an integration with Evernote. Matousek tells me that handwritten notes in PDF form remain the platform’s most popular kind of content.
Flashnotes encourages a sense of competition among those contributing content to the platform by publishing a leaderboard. (Current leader: “Tony2050″ from Florida State University, who has earned $11,953.72 on Flashnotes.)
But there is a higher aim here, too, Matousek tells me. While the promise of a lot of online learning is to use the internet to help bridge the digital divide — online classes and textbooks being more economical than the physical experience — a lot of that industry is far from being mass-market, he believes.
“I’m a big fan of the concept of MOOCs, but we are talking about a wide shift being still decades away,” he says. “It’s amazing what they are doing to help immerse students, but I think it will ultimately be a hybrid approach between online and offline because students still need something tangible.”
Meanwhile, in the world of brick-and-mortar higher education dropout rates are at around 40%, Matousek says. Flashnotes believes that by offering students a way of getting extra help for particular classes, it will keep those students engaged in the work and keep from falling too far behind and then leaving completely.
Flashnotes has a limit to how it will let its platform be used, and also insists that it’s best used in combination with actually just turning up. “We have a zero tolerance for allowing exams to get posted, and for those who are simply buying notes and skipping class, you wouldn’t be getting much out of it anyway,” he explains. “This is a supplemental thing. That’s how we position it.”
There is, of course, competition for Flashnotes. Chegg, the online textbook rental company that went public in November 2013, has over the years gobbled up Cramster, another online platform designed for students to help each other with work, and P2P marketplace Student of Fortune. (Combined, the two now form Chegg Homework Help.) This seems to concentrate less on notes from specific classes and more on general expertise tutorials — possibly a more scalable concept but less directly relevant to specific classes.
Matousek, believes that what Flashnotes is providing is something that is more core to the experience of taking a specific class. “It’s not just a feature in a bigger platform, but a standalone opportunity,” he says. “There is a real need to improve the core learning experience.”