Zynga Invests in Education Gamification Startups

San Francisco-based game company Zynga's non-profit wing Zynga.org has announced that it will invest $1 million in a new program aimed at helping tech startups build games which aid children's learning. According to Jessica E. Lessin in the Wall Street Journal, an initial handful of startups have already been selected to join an accelerator this summer. It will be hosted at the Zynga offices and Zynga employees will be provided to help product improvement.

Zynga's non-profit is partnering with NewSchools Venture Fund, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit that has invested $250 million in early-stage education programs, including startups and charter schools. The two collaborated to select the first batch of startups starting this summer. The startups include Edmodo, which provides social networking tools for teachers and students and a platform for educational apps, along with app-makers like Kidaptive.

Ken Weber, Zynga.org's executive director, says that this summer's accelerator is just the first of many with the current aim being to launch two such batches of five startups a year ongoing for the foreseeable future.

Mark Pincus is the Zynga Chief Executive and has stated the company's long term goal is to have a much bigger impact on education through games, but that the process is ongoing and formative with the conversion of their existing products to a more educative focus being a non-trivial task.

"It is going to be too slow for us to get a FarmVille or any of our core games to focus on kids and learning," he said. "This is an opportunity to really accelerate the pace of innovation around games to engage kids to learn."

Education tech is exploding with an increase of accelerators, incubators and groups willing to fund them. However, the products produced are still struggling to be sold to larger school districts hampered by strict procurement procedures and increasingly restricted budgets. While Pincus acknowledged difficulties in gaining widespread adoption of the idea of gamifying student learning, they are determined to press on and confident of long term success.

This attitude is shared by NewSchools Venture Fund CEO Ted Mitchell, who believes that teachers impressed by features of free and trial products will pressure administrators to invest in the new technology, creating a groundswell of support that would lead to widespread adoption.

He also said the partnership with Zynga made sense for their mission to improve the way kids learn in the classroom and outside of school.

"We are trying to put together what we know about how to get greater student engagement and gaming has done that."

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