Nearpod Gets $1.5M From NewSchools, Salesforce Exec To Bring Its Mobile “PowerPoint On Steroids” To Classrooms

The bring your own device (BYOD) movement has been sweeping through the business world, contributing to the so-called “consumerization of enterprise,” as employees are increasingly bringing their own laptops, tablets and smartphones to work. While this makes for a more convenient and flexible work experience for the end-user, allowing employees to access sensitive company data and information can cause a lot of headaches for businesses and their IT staff.

The same is true in education. As more and more students bring mobile devices into the classroom (thanks in part to one laptop per child initiatives, for example), teachers are beginning to experiment with new teaching methods by integrating technology (and mobile devices) into their daily instruction and assessment. On the other hand, the proliferation of digital learning tools can also lead to situation in which teachers begin losing control of their classrooms — and the instruction process.

That’s where Nearpod enters the picture. Launched in the summer of 2012, the Miami-based startup is on a mission to ensure that, as mobile devices enter the classroom, they are acting as a teacher’s assistant — rather than the alternative. It’s critical for digital learning tools to empower educators, not presume to replace them, Nearpod co-founder Guido Kovalskys tells us.

While the number of educational apps is growing fast, the vast majority of them work as “stand-alone solutions,” he says, so Nearpod has created a platform that provides a synchronized web and mobile experience for both teachers and students, while giving teachers control over instruction and distribution of content. In other words, Nearpod enables teachers to create and share presentations with their students’ mobile devices in realtime so that students can navigate teacher-curated web pages, videos, quizzes and lessons during class.

One part presentation creation service, one part mobile distribution channel and one part classroom response system, Nearpod allows teachers to share interactive assessments, Q&As, polls, drawings and essays and, in turn, lets students respond in realtime.

Screen shot 2013-03-21 at 4.55.43 AMTeachers can get the system up and running in a few minutes and works in iOS, Android and most web-enabled devices, the co-founder tells us; yet, more importantly (for teachers), the platform is designed to create a secure sharing environment which puts control back in the hands of the instructor. The key, Kovalskys says, is to maintain the human interaction element that is critical to the learning process, while leveraging mobile technology to make that process more engaging.

Since launching last summer, Nearpod has registered 95K teachers and has seen over 500K students download its mobile apps — across 100 countries, the founders tell us. Based on this early traction, the startup is announcing today that it has raised $500K in seed funding, led by NewSchools Venture Fund. A handful of angel investors also contributed to the round, including Salesforce senior exec Clarence So and Real Page exec Sina Shekou, among others. The new round brings Nearpod’s total capital to $1.5 million.

While the early validation is encouraging, Kovalskys admits there’s still a long way to go. Nearpod has built a system that allows teachers to build smart presentations, collecting data on everything students do while interacting with the platform and reporting that back to teachers. Essentially, it’s a presentation tool with student response and data analytics embedded within it, which then allows teachers to get a dashboard view of each question in a quiz they distributed to students, for example. This allows them to see which questions the students answered, both individually and as a whole class — via pie chart.

On top of that, Nearpod allows teachers to share HTML5 web games, engaging math tools like Desmos, or any of the simple yet engaging web apps one finds in the Chrome Web App Store. The key pain point for teachers, the co-founders tell us, is engaging students, and Nearpod wants to make that easier. There’s no sense in competing with Apple, Samsung and mobile device makers, the co-founders admit, they are the ones that can drive adoption, so Nearpod’s place is to make those devices more engaging for students.

Screen shot 2013-03-21 at 4.55.59 AMLike Top Hat and others have gone after the clicker and looked to bring the classroom response system into the software-eating-the-world age, “we want to go after PowerPoint and the projector,” Kovalskys says.

While Top Hat and others have gone after higher education, Nearpod is initially targeting K-12 schools, trying to digitize the projector while solving the synchronization problem. Of course, they’re not the only ones. The News Corp and Wireless Generation-powered educational tablet platform, Amplify, is looking to do the same, offering classroom management tools and features like a “kill switch” to enable teachers to limit student access to apps on their tablet.

On top of that, teachers can monitor student behavior, deploy content to an entire grade level and create (and evaluate) custom standardized tests — in a platform that’s built around the Common Core. Amplify’s managerial features probably outshine those offered by Nearpod, though it almost seems that News Corp. has gone overboard in this regard.

However, what’s working to Nearpod’s advantage? All teachers and students have to do is download an app (for free) and use it across their own devices. Pearson and other bigs in the educational (publishing) space have been playing in the tablet game for some time now, without a true emergence of a particular leader. Teachers and schools may opt to adopt the educational tablet-specific approach and News Corp. has plenty of capital and clout behind it (if anyone can push through that gargantuan adoption hurdle and slow sales cycle), but if the BYOD approach is to win in education — and Apple is sure hoping it will — Nearpod will have a leg up.

Screen shot 2013-03-21 at 4.56.14 AMOf course, we haven’t even mentioned learning management systems (LMSes) yet. Nearpod doesn’t offer 98 percent of the endless features that platforms like Blackboard, Moodle and Desire2Learn put forth, and there’s no reason that these companies can’t build Nearpod-like features into their systems — if they haven’t already.

However, the Nearpod founders think that they can maintain an advantage by offering the best-looking and easiest-to-use presentation tools out there. If they can do that really well, they may be able to avoid being overtaken by feature-heavy LMSes. It’s the same approach and strategic model LearnBoost and other point-solutions have taken. The real threat is from the bigs, Kovalskys admits, and Blackboard may get there eventually, but for now, they don’t.

In the meantime, Nearpod is hoping to ramp up its monetization strategy, one that offers three pricing tiers: Silver, which is free up to 50MB of storage (and allows presentations up to 20MB, supports 30 students), Gold, which is $10/month and offers 1GB of storage and up to 50 students and, lastly, “School Edition,” which is $10/month/teacher. So far, Nearpod has been making progress on the revenue front, converting 300 schools to payers since its launch last summer (so, in seven months).

At that rate, Kovalskys hopes the startup will be profitable by the end of the year, as its on track to hit a $2 million revenue run-rate this year, thanks to the freemium model. It’s a valid and well-worn approach, and it will be interesting to see if, going forward, Nearpod can compete with the LMSes and Amplifies of the world, or whether it will become an acquisition target for a startup like Top Hat. There’s plenty of potential, as long as the BYOD movement continues to sweep through K-12 education.

For more on Nearpod, find the startup at home here.