Anticipating a Blended Classroom Boom Led by Education Startups

As kids head back to school this month and next, some will find a rather new arrangement greeting them: blended classrooms.

These don’t feel like the ways that many of us attended class, with a single teacher lecturing at students from front and center (“Bueller?”). As it’s difficult–if not impossible–for cash-strapped schools to develop their own original learning products in house, startups are at the forefront of these changes. Thanks to many of them, more instruction is now being simultaneously delivered–by a live teacher, via web-based curricula, and in the form of students teaching one another, among other forms–within the walls of traditional classrooms.

Innosight Institute, a think tank started by HBS alums that focuses on innovations in education and health care, explains:

Educators and entrepreneurs are increasingly creating blended-learning environments –where rather than doing online learning at a distance, students learn in an adult-supervised school environment for at least part of the time..a small but growing number of schools are starting to introduce blended learning into their core programming for mainstream students.

This is at least partially a response to more technology-based tools and student data being accessible to educators, not to mention an increasing number of public and private funding opportunities in the space. (Department of Education funding for personalized learning initiatives will be distributed nationwide to the tune of $400M by the end of the year. This is just as some districtts, including many in Florida, are starting to require the use of blended learning approaches in an attempt to save money.)

As the number of online degrees being issued surpass traditional ones, this year the number of charter schools and districts trying startups’ alpha and beta versions of blended products and supportive offerings will be higher than ever. An increasing number of brick and mortar schools are now paying for tools that their faculty members have been requesting (more insights into individual student performance, ability to access information remotely), and startups are happy to provide licenses for technology that they are uniquely positioned to build (responsive systems for sharing curricula and cloud-based collaboration tools among them).

Rather than create one-off math or reading apps, “middleware” companies for education are trying to help schools systemically implement blended techniques. Among the companies complimenting in-person instruction are Clever, which shared education software and hopes of standardizing APIs for schools at the most recent YC Demo DayLearnSprout has recently launched tools to make information in Student Information Systems more transparent and secure. Instructure introduced its Canvas learning management system as an open way to increase teacher effectiveness and parental engagement. And New Tech Network has built Echo, a system that integrates Google Apps for Education and online assignment information to facilitate project-based learning.

One startup working to introduce blended designs and strategies to schools is San Carlos-based Education Elements. Its SaaS, cloud-based “hybrid learning management system” will be in 44 schools this fall (up from 11 last year), including Mission Dolores Academy and Aspire Public Schools. In recent months it has brought former Starbucks COO Howard Behar onto its board. Since raising $6M in Series A funding it’s also added Shelli Taylor of Disney English in China as COO and Jawbone exec David Sanchez to lead product and partnership development. In some ways Education Elements acts as classroom curator: making recommendations about buildout of physical spaces and how to best schedule course time between collaboration, teaching, and screentime (switching between modes based on “lab,” “classroom,” and “flex” plans).

Students at California and Wisconsin-based Rocketship Education schools, which focus heavily on online content to improve the quality of students’ time spent learning, have long been exposed to the concept of hybrid forms of instruction to help them meet Common Core State Standards. But CEO John Danner said that it hasn’t always been easy to find organizational partners who were as concerned with student performances as teachers were.

“Two or three years ago, no one had metrics,” said Danner, which caused his schools to start working towards other ways to measure individualized student performance. Alas, non-profit schools working to develop software with foundation funding was a distraction from their core objective, educating students. Enter Junyo, an entrepreneurial endeavor that looked to provide learning analytics to schools and now counts Rocketship among its clients. According to Danner, “If startups can deliver blended solutions to superintendents at affordable price points, they can help fill in the missing piece.”

Junyo will be piloting its personalized student platform with thousands of students this year between charter and public schools. The Menlo Park company says it looks to give parents and teachers feedback about learner performance that schools currently operate without. Blended is not just a focus on technology, said Junyo co-founder and former Oodle VP Kim Jacobson, but also values insights that can be made offline with the availability of more objective information.

Jennifer Carolan, co-founder of the NewSchools Seed Fund, says she’s seen a major shift in how teachers are providing lessons and connecting with their students. As a non-profit seed fund, it’s among the first of its kind and has invested in Education Elements and Junyo among other tech companies. “Emerging platforms like Edmodo, Education Elements and Engrade help raise attention for the tools, products, and apps that have come on the scene,” Carolan says. (The former said it had reached 80,000 schools when it announced that it had raised a $25M Series C funding round earlier this summer. Engrade’s reported 4.5M person user base helped it secure a $3M seed round recently.)

Even as the field is in its relative infancy, it’s already offered alternative options for planning classroom content–an area that has long been dominated by textbook publishers–along with the promise of more immediate information about student progress and learning..

Image from Innosight Institute K-12 Blended Learning Report.