Edtech startups prepare to become ‘not just a teaching tool but a necessity’

As classrooms close to limit the spread of the coronavirus, educators scramble to move learning online

As Stanford, Princeton, Columbia and others shutter classrooms to limit the coronavirus outbreak, college educators around the country are clambering to move their classes online. 

At the same time, tech companies that enable remote learning are finding a surge in usage and signups. Zoom Video Communications, a videoconferencing company, has been crushing it in the stock market, and Duolingo, a language teaching app, has had 100% user growth in the past month in China, citing school closures as one factor. 

But Kristin Lynn Sainani, an associate professor of epidemiology and population health at Stanford, has a fair warning to those making the shift: Scrappiness has its setbacks. 

“[The transition to online] is not going to be well-planned when you’re doing it to get your class done tomorrow,” said Sainani, who has been teaching online classes since 2013. “At this point, professors are going to scramble to do the best they can.”

As the outbreak spreads and universities respond, can edtech startups help legacy institutions rapidly adopt online teaching services? And perhaps more tellingly, can they do so in a seamless way? 

Diagnosed cases of COVID-19 are increasing daily, leading to open-ended closures on campuses around the U.S. Princeton announced Monday that it is instilling social distancing policies and will reevaluate the strategy on April 5.

Sainani primarily uses Stanford’s in-house version of edX, an online course provider, and Moodle, an open-source learning platform where educators can build up courses, homework and workspaces for students. Today, she’s holding a review session on Zoom for an upcoming exam.

Zoom has temporarily made its platform free to those impacted by the outbreak, which naturally has led to increased signups (and a stock price to match). 

The Zoom “teams are working to provide teachers, administrators, and students around the world with the resources they need to quickly spin up virtual classrooms, participate in online classes, and continue their studies online,” the company wrote in a blog post. Fortunately for many IT departments, Zoom easily integrates with pre-existing platforms often used in higher ed.

Here’s Stanford’s memo on how to attend classes online using Zoom and Canvas. And here’s Boston University’s plans to use Zoom and Blackboard. Zoom declined to share metrics around how many universities and colleges have signed up for the service. 

Other startups are stepping up: OutSchool, a startup that has $10 million in known venture capital funding, is offering free remote teacher trainings so video conference classes feel less like a FaceTime and more professional. 

“A lot of schools are making [students’] lives more challenging trying to do everything live stream when they should be flipping the classroom [pre-recording a class)] or at a minimum doing both live stream and pre-recording to allow for maximum flexibility for students to both view the class lecture but also engage,” said Fred Singer, CEO of Echo360.

He added that Echo360 can do both to make sure “the same level of learning takes place.” Singer nodded to AWS Enterprise Support, “the highest support tier available” as a safety net in scenarios where they find a large influx of users.  

Others are focusing less on now, and more on the start of the fall 2020 semester.

“We need to have a measured response to this, it’s not unreasonable to believe the next couple of months the hysteria will die down and the surge of interest is going to diminish,” said Mike Silagadze, co-founder and CEO of digital textbook company Top Hat.

“We have not yet started increasing headcount mainly because the spring semester is wrapping up,” he added. “But the nice thing about software and technology is there’s inherently a scalable element to it.”

Silagadze said Top Hat plans to soon announce that it is offering its platform free of charge to users starting in the spring semester through the end of the summer term. It is also exploring a joint bundle option for institutions that want to move all learning online.

The influx then will require more headcount to handle one-on-one training with users and the company on how to best use Top Hat. Because of that, “the scaling is going to start in August, so we will make sure we have enough headcount [then].”

Tanay Kothari, a senior at Stanford on the computer science track, said that he “expects everything to be online by spring,” adding, “with this in mind, I don’t think professors are going to switch over completely to any new platform. It’s too much work for the short term.”

Sainani, in the meantime, said she is optimistic that the next few weeks could turn other teachers on to the benefits of online coursework. The professor is wary of remote learning becoming the only option, however. 

“There’s a trickier situation if [online learning] becomes not just a teaching tool but a necessity,” she said.If this outbreak continues, I guess I’ll have to learn how to debug my students’ code remotely.”