Top Hat Lands $8M For A Learning Platform That Will Make Teachers Want Phones In Class

There’s nothing more fundamental to education than the student-teacher relationship. Not surprisingly, products and companies that leverage technology to strengthen and support this dialogue are increasingly finding inroads into the classroom. Cell phones, tablets and laptops have become pervasive among student populations and, while they bring plenty of potential for distraction, one startup sees an opportunity to use these new tools of student communication to create a more interactive and engaging educational experience.

Launching in 2010, the Toronto and San Francisco-based Top Hat Monocle has evolved from a simple polling system based on those hand-held clickers professors use to poll students during discussions into a web and mobile-based classroom response solution that offers students a more engaging learning experience, while providing professors with a way to get realtime feedback on student comprehension.

Since launch, Top Hat’s platform has worked its way into more than 200 educational institutions globally, and today, the startup is ready to begin accelerating its expansion into higher education, fueled by a new infusion of capital. On Wednesday morning, the startup announced that it has closed $8 million in series A financing led by Emergence Capital Partners and iNovia Capital, with SoftTech VC, Version One Ventures and Golden Venture Partners participating. As a result of the round, Emergence partner Gordon Ritter and iNovia Capital’s Shawn Abbott will be joining the startup’s board of directors.

Top Hat will use its new funding (which brings total investment to $9.5 million) to scale its sales and marketing teams and to support product development initiatives as it begins working with professors, textbook publishers and content providers to build out its platform with interactive content.

From the outset, the startup’s goal has been to help turn the historically passive learning experience into one that’s engaging and active. Of course, those are just buzzwords. In reality, Top Hat recognized that mobile devices and laptops are on a indefatigable march into the classroom. While startups like Inkling are moving to help publishing companies turn textbooks into interactive, mobile learning tools, the profusion of cell phones and mobile devices among college students are largely under-utilized and just end up being a distraction.

Seeing this as an opportunity to change learning behavior without having to go through universities themselves, Top Hat began targeting professors, offering them an alternative to the model championed by the big clicker companies (like iClicker to name one). Turning back to the textbook model, Top Hat offered professors the platform for free, while selling it to students for $20/semester.

Given the friction that exists around textbooks (and the declining sales of textbook publishers), this might not seem like the optimal approach — many educational startups balk at the student sales model and rightfully so. Students are, by nature, cash strapped.

But Top Hat’s founders tell us that the semester subscription model has proven (somewhat surprisingly) successful, as opt-in rates are above 90 percent. And, just to clarify for those unfamiliar, Top Hat provides professors with a platform through which they can create and host polls, quizzes and interactive demonstrations in class, while students can participate on any device they own, whether it be a smartphone, feature phone, iPad or laptop. Being nearly device agnostic has been key to Top Hat’s adoption among students, as there are few college students today who don’t own at least one of those.

Meanwhile, clicker companies have begun to use their technology a point of access by which to bring increased functionality to student’s phones and devices. Yet, most of these focus on in-class polling, so Top Hat has been busy building out its platform to be more expansive, enabling professors and students to create, distribute and take quizzes or interact with multimedia presentations.

Students submit their responses to the teacher, who can then easily tally and track responses and engagement, while students have the ability to respond directly to the answers of other students, thread-style. It also helps that the $20 they shell out to use Top Hat means that students can use the platform in any classroom, so, as more teachers within a given school adopt the platform, the idea is that the value increases proportionally.

Of course, as mentioned at the beginning, novel technology is only worth the investment if it actually enhances the learning experience and improves retention and performance. To that point, Top Hat Chief Revenue Officer Andrew D’Souza tells us that, on average, professors are reporting a 5 percent increase in grades — and when the platform is used to its full potential, that increases to a 23 percent improvement. (More on that here.) Part of increasing its outreach and sales teams will be geared towards helping professors optimize their use of the platform to get the most out of it.

The Top Hat founders believe that for those professors that are open to using student device adoption as a good thing — or an opportunity to positively leverage that competition for their attention — the platform provides a way to engage students who might have otherwise remained silent.

To that point, the startup is also working on adding certain gamification elements to its solution (which we covered earlier this year), giving professors the opportunity to launch tournaments, which are meant to act as a study aid by encouraging a little competition as students vie over who can master the material and move on through the brackets to educational victory. Their progress is tracked on a leaderboard, with a bunch of other sharing and hosting mechanisms built in, so that students can start having a little fun with the often tedious study process.

It’s also interesting to see Emergence Capital as the leader of Top Hat’s new round — which has previously backed both Yammer and Salesforce — perhaps a sign of confidence in the idea that SaaS models can be translated to higher education to help increase penetration just as they’ve done for enterprise.

For more on Top Hat Monocle, find them at home here. Prior coverage here.

[Disclosure: My significant other recently began work at Top Hat, so please keep that in mind when reading my take.]