Amid General Outcry Over Student Data Privacy, BrightBytes Wins Schools' Trust And Raises $15M

The Saas Education Startup Now Serves 1 In 10 U.S. Schools

Many education technology companies are playing defense these days as parents, feeling duped by the fine print in vendor contracts, raise questions about student data privacy and security. Nevertheless BrightBytes, which is a bit like a business intelligence for schools driven by a team of data scientists and researchers, today announced $15 million in Series B funding along with plans to expand its team and its footprint overseas.

The company has differentiated itself with tools that link dollars spent on technology solutions to learning outcomes, while at the same time maintaining a Chinese wall between its recommendations and specific vendors. For school leaders overwhelmed by a tidal wave of student data points and technology pitches, the startup offers a research-based safe harbor for decision-making. For example, if a school is a good fit for digital games, BrightBytes might suggest the design elements to look for--simulations, social elements, feedback--but would stop short of naming products or solutions.

“Educators use us to turn expertise into action,” says Rob Mancabelli, cofounder and CEO. “There's research that points the way to best practices. Educators know that they want to go there, but they don't know how they're doing right now, and what to do if there are gaps.”

So far, that strategy is working. The company’s subscriber base has more than quadrupled in size since it raised $2.5 million in Series A funding last July, with approximately 10,000 schools now signed on. BrightBytes will use the new cash, from a round led by Bessemer Venture Partners, to hire more engineers and data scientists and to grow in China, Australia, and beyond.

BrightBytes is riding on the heels of two macro trends: ever-more granular student data, which its data scientists have mapped to academic research in proprietary ways, and the growing role of technology in classrooms. But as school districts like Los Angeles have learned, and as BrightBytes analysis bears out, these opportunities can quickly become stumbling blocks.

“Buying technology for the classroom without laying the groundwork for that to be effective will result in almost zero change in learning outcomes,” Mancabelli says, citing an example of the kind of decision that BrightBytes can facilitate. “Schools think it's a question of professional development, but we’ve found that there are 22 factors--it's a very complex, school-by-school difference.”

The rigorous decision-making frameworks that BrightBytes offers schools are a welcome sign of maturity in a market that sometimes seems stuck in awkward adolescence.

On the positive front, many consumer-style apps have gone mainstream. “Enterprise education,” or the application of enterprise software models to schools and districts, has started to hit its stride, with companies like MasteryConnect and Securly paving the way. And venture capital invested in education is breaking records; just last month, New Schools Venture Fund announced that it had added $12 million to its Seed Fund arsenal.

Meanwhile, integrating student information systems remains a headache. Plus, backlash against the terms of use of student data, justified or not, has left companies like InBloom and Amplify exposed to a wearying headwind of criticism. The stakes are high: Schools worldwide are spending $40 billion per year on learning technology, a number that is sure to increase.

According to investors, BrightByte’s success would be a boon for the education technology market as a whole. “Much of the negativity surrounding the ed-tech movement centers on poor experiences and misspent dollars,” Tom Segal, of Rethink Education, wrote of his firm’s Series A contribution. “These problems are often self-inflicted by districts that get in way over their heads, mostly because they seek to be innovative without doing their proper homework and, perhaps more importantly, by adopting entirely new systems of learning without properly outfitting their teachers with the skills and guidance to effectively utilize new technologies.”

If BrightBytes has its way, doing the “proper homework” on education technology investments is going to get a lot easier.

[Image: Tom Morris]

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