Silicon Valley Turns Attention to Education Technology

The Silicon Valley, located in the heart of California, has always been an incubator of technological innovation, so it is no surprise that efforts to successfully meld education and technology would originate there as well. Several startups that hope to specialize in this field are drawing both philanthropic funds, and, lately, venture capital dollars.

In recent months, Bay Area education-tech companies such as Piazza Technologies Inc., a question-and-answer service for students and teachers, and Desmos Inc., which makes a Web-based graphing calculator, have received new funding. Overall, venture capitalists invested $429.1 million in 82 education-technology deals last year, up from $334.3 million and 58 deals the year before, according to Thomson Reuters.

More and more startups are entering the field that has now grown to nearly $7.5 billion dollars, and are trying to make a splash at events such as the recently concluded South By Southwest. Some are also banking on the different approach, trying to appeal to students, parents and teachers directly in order to bypass cumbersome paperwork and tight budget constraints of the nation's school districts.

One such startup, ClassDojo, which allows teachers to monitor student behavior in real time, attributes its success to getting teachers to try the free tool and then recommend it to others. The company's CEO Sam Chaudhary hopes that the positive word-of-mouth will make the free and paid version aimed at parents and scheduled for release later this year, a hit as well.

There are many companies, however, who feel that they can not afford to ignore the billions of dollars that make up the school district budgets. BloomBoard sells a software to aid in teacher evaluations that cost the schools $2,500 per year. Its CEO Jason Lange hopes to take advantage of the drive by many districts to update their teacher evaluation systems.

[The company] is trying to land contracts by taking advantage of the nearly three-year-old "Race to the Top" federal education initiative, which has doled out billions of dollars to states that implement new systems for evaluating their teachers.

He says education is "a brutal industry averse to change in every way, shape and form." Still, he says the falling prices of some technology and the growing amount of data schools have to handle make this an "unprecedented time" for change.

04 2, 2012
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