Edtech startups flock to the promise and potential of personalized learning

The rise of remote instruction left many parents freshly aware of (and annoyed by) the shortcomings of Zoom school, but for Letha McLaren, COVID-19 brought an epiphany: the importance of a headset.

McLaren’s son, who deals with executive dysfunction, was better able to focus through the screen because he used a headset that blocked out some other noises. With the device, he could hear what the teacher was saying at all times, and better yet, was keener on paying attention. McLaren, in turn, learned what her son, a straight-A student, responds best to.

The broader takeaway for McLaren was that traditional classrooms don’t serve all students due to learning and thinking differences. So, she teamed up with longtime friend Suchi Deshpande to help a market of parents who found themselves in a similar boat, trying to find a better format for educating their children. Learnfully is a personalized learning platform that connects neurodiverse students, who have conditions such as ADHD or dyslexia, with specialists to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses.

Personalized learning has long had a halo around it. After all, an adaptive curriculum that changes based on a student’s emotional or educational state feels pretty sensible. Why not adapt learning on a student-by-student basis, instead of applying the same curriculum to everyone within a class? The easy answer, of course, is that it’s easier to scale the latter, and the former requires more money and time from end-users.

Startups such as Learnfully, along with Wayfinder and Empowerly, are breaking into the market with fresh takes on what it means to prioritize a student’s emotions in personalizing education. While consumers and venture capitalists certainly understand the vitality of personalized education like never before, these startups are navigating the longstanding challenges of true integration.

Closing the feedback loop

Innovating on traditional learning often requires retooling supplemental services for students outside of the classroom. McLaren explained that Learnfully is focusing less on the “what” of learning and more on the “how.”

“Students may struggle in math, but it’s because they don’t understand the building blocks which permit them to do some math programs – and so we really focus on the foundation, which oftentimes boils down to literacy.” The co-founder said the “educational therapy” approach helps Learnfully differentiate from classic tutoring platforms like Wyzant — part of the reason it was able to close a $1.25 million seed round a few weeks ago.

“The school administration’s goals, the teacher’s goals, the parent’s goals of supporting their kid in the classroom — those don’t tend to be aligned,” McLaren said. “Then when you play around the fact that the kids in the classroom are all at different levels, and they all learn differently, it’s almost an impossible thing to address inside a classroom.”

The educational therapy service matches students to instructors, and then connects parents to further resources to support their kids outside of instructional time.

While Learnfully’s model helps it escape the traditional red tape of school administrations, reliance on parents can lead to other inequities. For example, consumer spending power is higher in more affluent families, meaning that only the parents who can afford further education for their neurodiverse children will have access to the Learnfully service. Additionally, by working outside of the classroom, what a student experiences on Learnfully could look wildly different than, say, an experiment in a school science lab. How do you square the two? Oftentimes, a platform in pursuit of specialization can result in initial fragmentation.

Learnfully offers a learner assessment for $299, and then charges $60 per hour for personalized instruction.

McLaren hopes that the gap between Learnfully and traditional school could be bridged if parents are more educated about their kids’ needs.

“All of our services are as much for the parents as they are for the learner,” she said. “Oftentimes, they want to help their kid but they don’t know what to do; they don’t know what information to take into a parent-teacher conference.” Now, she thinks that parents can bring more information to teachers – on what works, what doesn’t, and what could help kids get better support inside the classroom.

As Learnfully innovates outside of the classroom, another early-stage startup with millions in venture backing believes that the best way to scale is to integrate into teacher workflows – without further burdening educators.

Schools can’t ignore it

Spun out of the Stanford Institute of Design, Wayfinder is a social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum provider. The startup recently announced a $6.6 million Series A funding round led by Long Night Ventures, with participation from Reach Capital, Evolve Ventures, Not Boring Capital, the Designer Fund, Oregon Venture Fund and others.

The company offers a curriculum that aims to answer deceptively complicated questions: How do you make children feel like they belong? How do you give a student’s life meaning?

Matthew Winn, the chief of staff and director of partnerships at Wayfinder, thinks that the pandemic triggered schools to realize the necessity of a formal approach to SEL.

“Our young people are really struggling and we need to do something, so where they may have had a sort of cobbled-together approach to SEL beforehand, now we need to start taking this as seriously as we take math and science and English,” he said. “It is really sort of like a foundational piece – if students’ well-being isn’t taken care of, they aren’t going to be able to be doing anything else.”

While the mission makes sense, execution has some challenges. Teachers have historically faced issues with burnout and low pay, so adding another service or mandate to their plates may seem futile.

“The initial hump of ‘here’s something else you have to do’ can be, at first, a bit of a barrier,” he said. “But we have enough evidence at this point that when schools are doing Wayfinder right, it’s making teachers’ jobs easier. It’s an extra thing, but it’s not an extra burden.” Wayfinder put together a school success team, made up of former educators, to figure out how to best support roll-out and make sure the platform isn’t one of those “edtech products that just sits on the shelf.”

The company said that the core curriculum and activity library are intentionally flexible, so a school could either do a five-minute Wayfinder exercise or dedicate an entire period or block of time to the exercises.

John Gasko, the chief well-being and SEL officer at Uplift Education in Texas, spent the past few years integrating Wayfinder’s Purpose curriculum into mandatory 11th- and 12th-grade advisory classes.

“Given we have been in a pandemic for two years, the magnitude of challenges in our schools has made the implementation of new bodies of work, however strong, difficult,” he said. While Wayfinder may have more elusive outcomes than a platform that tracks engagement, Gasko noted that teachers have found it “highly effective” in supporting student motivation and, subsequently, limiting learning loss.

Over time, Gasko’s goal is to have all teachers across different subjects be able to access and integrate Wayfinder content. As of winter 2021, 60,000 students across 34 U.S. states and 15 countries are using Wayfinder’s products, it said. By positioning itself as a go-to platform for student engagement, Wayfinder could eventually expand into a service that offers career readiness support or life coaching.

For now, though, Wayfinder’s longevity will be defined by whether it can convince schools to focus on the emotional well-being of students – and pay for vital yet vague outcomes such as student belonging. Winn said that the platform price is based on an annual per-student license determined by the size of the school and district. He declined to provide a range for how cheap or expensive the costs make look, “because the context at each school varies so much.”

“I think there’s a broader cultural shift happening, authenticated by a mental health crisis, that schools can’t ignore,” Winn said.

As Learnfully and Wayfinder attempt to find the best way to scale adaptive, emotionally aware learning, Empowerly is seeking to build a thoughtful company off of a metric that schools have already shown they care about: college admissions.

Score-based success

Empowerly is a managed marketplace that connects high school students to counselors, including former admissions officers and longtime high school advisers, for college application and admissions support.

The college admissions support world is a well-known market, as shown by competitors such as ApplyBoard, which was most recently valued at $3.2 billion; and Nestlings, which previously acquired AdmitAlly and Concourse. Empowerly, which has raised $1.6 million in known capital so far, is betting on its proprietary scoring methodology as a key moat. The moonshot of the company is attempting to find a holistic way to measure a student’s chances of getting into a college beyond what SAT/ACT and GPA averages can hint at.

Empowerly’s proprietary score uses predictive machine learning models to measure and monitor traditionally subjective traits of students, such as academic extracurriculars or written essays. To better understand a student’s chances of admission, Empowerly compares a student’s holistic score to what it believes is an average accepted applicant’s “gold score” at a given college.

“We basically wanted to mimic what admissions officers do when evaluating applications,” said Empowerly co-founder ​​Hanmei Wu. “We wanted to include extracurriculars and essays because we often quantitatively measure that even though a lot of it is subjective.”

Much of Empowerly’s impact depends on how early a student starts using its services. If a sophomore in high school wants to increase their chances of getting accepted to Howard University, for example, they can start making their score look more like those of accepted students. For a senior, it may be more difficult to course-correct.

And for the moment, at least, Empowerly’s services are limited to consumers who can afford them. Pricing is decided on a customer-by-customer basis depending on how often a student would like to meet with a counselor, but after the free consultation, fees can start at $2,000.

The company measures student success in a number of ways, including that 94% of Empowerly students have been accepted into their top three choice schools and 98% have gained admission into a top 100 school.

The idea of score-based acceptance has become more controversial in recent years, with the University of California system recently announcing that it will no longer consider SAT and ACT scores during the admissions process. The move came after critics argued that standardized testing could disproportionately benefit wealthy students who can afford expensive tutors and classes, while others argue that the exam isn’t the issue, it’s the underfunding of schools for historically overlooked populations.

Empowerly isn’t breaking away from the idea of score-based acceptance rates as a whole, but instead is trying to provide more context around what could constitute a student’s chances. Wu believes that student GPA will continue to be important, but not as a sole determinant of success.

“They look at GPA as an indication of ‘will they survive the rigorousness of college,’” she said. “But a part of it at the same time is if students are able to really prove themselves through other ways, like if they started a nonprofit or are the oldest of a family of eight raised by their sibling.”

The pandemic’s extended stay has caused edtech entrepreneurs – and society – to view learning outcomes as broader than job placement and exam scores. Companies like Learnfully, Wayfinder and Empowerly are all building businesses around more elusive yet holistic student needs, with potential success that could set a new benchmark for how learning is scaled. But it remains to be seen whether services like these wind up being tools to level the educational playing field or merely another avenue for inequity to be exacerbated.