With $2.4M From Atlas, 500 Startups & More, Colingo’s Live Online School Aspires To Teach The World English

Like clockwork, today brings yet another entrant into the fast-growing and noisy language learning space. Just last night we told you about the expansion of Verbling, which is putting a live, interactive spin on language education.

This morning, Colingo joined Verbling and others in this mission — to take on tired incumbents like Rosetta Stones and tackle the multi-billion dollar opportunity in the language learning market. Unlike many of its cohorts, yet similar to Verbling, Colingo is taking a web-first approach, using in-browser, Google Hangouts-based video chat to bring language learners together with native speakers (and teachers) and to help them learn through conversation and immersion.

However, while some startups and services focus on breadth and offer support for multiple languages, Colingo is trying to stand out from the pack by focusing on English-language proficiency and learning. The startup wants to create a live, global and digital English school, starting with the launch of its teacher-led, group video chat classes, personalized skill training and private tutoring.

To do so, Colingo founder Ben Lowenstein told us today that the company has raised $2.4 million in seed funding to help it ramp up hiring and meet the growing demand for quality English-language learning services in developing countries. Atlas Venture led the startup’s first investment, with contributions from 500 Startups, Morado Ventures, Crosslink Capital, Havoc Capital and Social Leverage, as well as handful of angel investors, including Khosla Partner Ben Ling, Dogster founder Ted Rheingold and Chegg founder Aayush Phumbhra.

With Livemocha, Babbel, Voxy, MindSnacks, OpenEnglish and Duolingo all having raised multiple millions, Colingo becomes the latest indication that investor interest in language learning continues. Although it launches officially today, Colingo has been building the foundations of its English-language platform for over a year now and as of today, the startup counts 27 teachers, 70-plus curricular skills and over 150,000 students from 180 countries in its network.

Given the early success OpenEnglish has had in Brazil, and the huge opportunity it sees going forward, it may not surprise you to learn that it has the largest share of Colingo’s customer base with over 30K students. Following Brazil are the U.S. and Mexico and Lowenstein that Eastern Europe and Latin America (at large) represent two potentially core areas for Colingo’s growth going forward.

Beyond a growing Latin American user base — which is really just a micro-representation of the fast-growing demand for quality English-language learning programs across Latin America — Colingo is trying to differentiate by not only focusing on English, but a particular segment of English learners. Colingo’s core demographic, Lowenstein says, is those who have a basic understanding of English but lack the confidence or fluency to speak comfortably in conversational and professional settings.

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Offering live classes 24-hours-a-day, Colingo’s classes aim to blend “authentic conversation about contemporary topics,” Lowenstein says, with a more structured curriculum of skill-training and assessment. So, while users have the freedom to join as many classes as they want and seek, private, one-on-one tutoring, at their own pace and speed, Colingo is trying to strike a balance on its approach to language education.

On the one hand, it’s meant to be casual and conversational, so ESL students can learn English from a certified teacher (and native speaker) by discussing topics they actually care about, whether that’s the latest news from the NFL, the day’s political headlines or fresh celebrity gossip.

The idea, the founder says, is to remove formalized learning methods from language education, whether it be rote memorization or using boring examples and exercises (the book is on the table, under the table, next to the table, etc etc). But the goal of removing the formality from learning isn’t to reduce Colingo’s responsibility or to avoid having to offer credentials, it’s to provide a more authentic and appealing learning experience, he says, balanced with the structure of training and assessment on over 70 core grammar and pronunciation skills.

In addition, like Harvard (and Verbling to a degree), Colingo is focused on becoming a Small Private Online Class (SPOC) platform, as opposed to the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) model which has skyrocketed to popularity thanks to the likes of Coursera, Udacity and EdX, among others. The Colingo CEO believes that part of the reason MOOC platforms have traditionally suffered from such appalling dropout rates (near 90 percent in some cases) has to do with the lack of sustained interpersonal interaction.

While some MOOC platforms have been battling this, it’s easy for students to fall through the cracks when their classmates are remote, remain relatively anonymous and number in the the thousands. Conversely, Colingo has made its live, online classes the centerpiece of its platform for this very reason — to encourage group interaction among students and teachers. The startup also intentionally keeps class sizes small, with the average size of classes on Colingo being three to five students, allowing students to build confidence without having to pronounce unfamiliar words in front of 50K people.

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Ultimately, one doesn’t learn to drive a car by watching a YouTube video, the CEO explains, so the mission for Lowenstein and Colingo’s teachers is to get their students to tap the brakes on studying and start testing themselves by speaking with others — as much as possible. But it’s not just aimless immersion, again, the startup wants to focus these conversations on a succession of skills within a larger learning path.

It may sound obscure, but that’s potentially where Colingo’s real value could lie: In its ability to create a conversational and immersive learning experience that’s both casual and structured. A little bit of formal education, a little rambling video chat about how terrible the Jacksonville Jaguars are.

After a 7-day free trial, Colingo offers a monthly subscription for $50/month, which offers students unlimited access to its platform, or those looking for more personalized, one-on-one instruction can opt into its “Personal Teacher” plan, which costs $150/month.

Colingo has an uphill battle in front of it just given how many language learning services, apps and platforms are out there. It will have to find a way to overcome an obstacle that has stalled many language startups: Maintaining both teacher and curricular quality at scale. It’s not easy to do, but the startup is off to a good start.

Find Colingo at home here.