Silicon Valley-style thinking about the power of online networks has transformed how people communicate and collaborate both in their personal lives, through sites like Facebook, and in their professional ones, through services like Yammer and Podio.
Now a couple of Silicon Valley bigwigs are turning their attention to the world of education--the thinking being that the things they’ve learned about the power of network effects can transform K12 education and make it more vibrant, effective, and engaging.
Edmodo is social network for teachers and students that was founded in 2008 by two Chicago area IT professionals who had worked in school systems and seen how teachers struggled to bring digital materials into their classrooms. Today, the company is announcing that Silicon Valley powerhouses Greylock Ventures and Benchmark Capital are investing $15 million into the company in a Series B round of funding.
Equally important is the digital-networking brainpower (and Rolodexes) that will be joining the company’s board: LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman  and former Facebook  vice president of product Matt Cohler.
Cohler, who has backed Dropbox, Quora, Instagram, and Zendesk, tells Fast Company that Edmodo’s rapid growth is part of what captured his attention. Though only three years old, the company currently has 5 million teachers and students using the service in 60,000 schools around the world. In Silicon Valley, anything that catches on that quickly is worth paying attention to.
Teachers are using it as hubs for communicating with their students, and students are using it to collaborate on projects. In a world where children are growing up as digital natives, using a platform like Edmodo isn't a shiny new object but rather the obvious way they would expect to interact with their teachers and each other.
Teachers are also using the service to connect with each other, to share learnings, materials, and lesson plans--effectively making an end-run around the traditional top-down method of setting curricula in most school systems.
The service is currently free, and the company’s investors and its cofounders stress to Fast Company that it will stay that way. But they danced around questions about how the company would make money in the long run, saying their current focus is on scaling it up.
"It’s in a position to be one of the most important networks in the world," Cohler says.
That might make sense in the consumer and enterprise world, where great products usually find people willing to pay for the value they create. In the consumer world, the large number of users Facebook has attracted has created the conditions for a booming advertising business. In the enterprise world, services like Yammer have found willing customers among companies eager to leverage its productivity gains.
The K12 education world, however, is a different beast altogether. Purse strings are controlled by school boards whose funding decisions are driven by a multitude of factors that don’t necessarily resemble the calculations made by consumers or corporations.
How Edmodo will make money going forward is not clear. In a conversation with Fast Company, Borg hints at possible revenue streams--for example, by becoming a platform on which other (paid, we assume) applications could sit, or by becoming a channel for educational materials to reach classrooms. Borg says he is looking to Hoffman and Cohler, both veterans of building out vibrant networks, for "insights on how to leverage a massively adopted networked business."
Robert Hutter, a partner at Learn Capital and one of Edmodo’s original investors, tells Fast Company there's potential for economic opportunity in bringing all education systems onto a single platform. The traditional education world has been enormously fragmented, he says."By removing that fragmentation, we create the possibility for a lot of value creation down the line."
[Image: Flickr user MJ/TR ]