This year’s most innovative companies in education have found ways to thrive in a moment when, for better or worse, most learning is happening via screen. Some, like Skillshare and Outschool, have helped learners young and old have fun while developing their creative passions. Others, like Packback and Homer, are leveraging technology to build critical thinking skills.
For making remote learning fun
Outschool, founded in 2015, is a marketplace for virtual extracurriculars, such as ukulele lessons and food-science experiments, for students ages 3 to 18. For working parents, those activities have become a pandemic lifeline: Outschool sign-ups went from 80,000 to 1.6 million between March and October; lessons cost as little as $5, from one-offs to weekly sessions.
For livestreaming school for free to 10 million students during lockdown
Last March, less than a week after Indonesia closed schools for its 50 million–plus students, Jakartabased edtech startup Ruangguru launched a free 18-channel, livestreamed online school. It rocketed to the top of the app store charts, thanks to the company’s well-honed approach to engaging kids: teachers with on-screen expertise, fun animations, careful storyboarding, and interactive polls. Indonesian student achievement has lagged compared to its Asian neighbors, but Ruangguru aims to prevent the pandemic from widening those gaps. “It’s our responsibility to always innovate,” says cofounder and CEO Adamas Belva Syah Devara.
For giving creatives and hobbyists a pandemic outlet
One of the first platforms for video-based lessons, Skillshare has hit its stride as a learning community for more than 12 million users, 3 million of whom joined in the past year. During the pandemic, subscribers have been choosing from among 30,000 classes on subjects such as watercolor painting and photography, plus a new slate of live classes, and interest from enterprise customers has quadrupled.
For bringing children’s stories to life—without a screen and without Amazon
Popular in Europe, the Toniebox is an alternative to Alexa for parents looking for audio storytelling without an e-commerce link. Germany-based Tonies sells its brightly colored Toniebox smart speakers alongside collectible action figures, encouraging listeners ages 3 and older to play imaginatively. To date, the company has sold 1.7 million Tonieboxes; it launched in the U.S. last year.
For reinventing the bachelor’s degree
The online class pioneer launched 11 “MicroBachelors” degree programs last year, enrolling 180,000 students. Designed to serve as an on-ramp for those considering a bachelor’s degree but wary of the time and expense, MicroBachelor students can earn transferable credits and work their way toward credentials for less than a third of the cost of a traditional undergraduate program.
For giving educators an entrepreneurial boost
For teachers, New Orleans–based 4.0 is both a community and an incubator for entrepreneurial ideas. 4.0’s fellowships provide cash and coaching, giving educators tools to build solutions to challenges they see in their classrooms. 4.0 itself also runs experiments; over the past year, it has launched a basic income micro-pilot for high school seniors and created an angel syndicate of Black investors.
For improving early reading scores
When school shutdowns left parents grasping for solutions, learning app Homer stepped into the void. Founded in 2013, the company takes a research-based approach to building reading skills in children ages 2 to 8—the group that has struggled most with the transition to virtual learning. Subscriptions are growing; 75% of users participate in five lessons per day.
For training frontline healthcare workers to respond to a deadly new threat
This U.K.-based startup uses immersive AR/VR scenarios to train healthcare professionals to manage infrequent, high-risk events—a mission that COVID-19 made all the more urgent. Virti began offering training on newly vital tasks, such as safely donning and removing PPE, and is now working with the U.K.’s National Health Service as well as U.S. hospitals in Texas and California.
For bringing intellectual curiosity to online discussions
Packback is a tool for facilitating online discussions that serves 600,000 university students. When they participate in online course forums, students get peer feedback on their critical thinking. (Packback uses the pedagogical framework Bloom’s Taxonomy as the basis for its AI engine.) Initial research suggests that Packback participants are more likely to cite sources in their posts and earn higher grades.
For creating fun bilingual learning for preschoolers
Encantos creates bilingual learning experiences for kids ages 2 to 12, with a focus on preschoolers. Its award-winning videos are available on YouTube, and its newly launched subscription app creates learning pathways for literacy and life skills.