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As edtech crowds up, Campuswire bets big on real-time learning

Campuswire was in a fortuitous spot when colleges and universities across the world shut down on short notice because of the threat of coronavirus. Founded by Tade Oyerinde in 2018, Campuswire is a virtual solution for any teacher who wants to digitize their internal classroom communications, from Q&A time to the lecture itself.

The strategy, for the most part, has worked. Campuswire is now used at more than 300 universities among 200,000 students, Oyerinde tells me.

While Campuswire’s pitch was set to boom overnight, the founder instead saw a bigger challenge approaching: more competition. As professors moved online, lectures moved to Zoom or tools built atop of Zoom. Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts filled in the gap for classrooms that couldn’t afford fancy licenses. Campuswire’s key monetization strategy, which was selling pro licenses for its online class software, felt threatened by alternatives.

So, after months of iterating, Campuswire has adapted its monetization strategy and today announced that it is launching live courses taught by professors. Instead of solely working with professors to streamline internal class communications, Campuswire will now help teachers produce classes that students can then take for a fee. The tuition revenue will be split between the teacher and Campuswire.

Campuswire courses kick off with an angel investing class taught by Charles Hudson, the founder and general partner of Precursor Ventures. Hudson lectures at Stanford occasionally, and working with Campuswire allows him to teach a broader set of students.

Meanwhile, Campuswire software will be free to use starting in January 2021.

The move marks Campuswire’s further dive into synchronous learning. Campuswire’s model is built on how existing classrooms work in universities and colleges. Classes on Campuswire are capped at 500 to promote conversation, and large lectures are supplemented with teacher assistant (TA) classes to hammer home confusing concepts.

Meanwhile, it’s clear amid the pandemic that asynchronous learning has its perks (students can learn on their own schedule, while educators are able to work more flexible hours). Still, Oyerinde thinks a pre-recorded format is not effective for pedagogy purposes.

“This is kind of the hill we’re going to die on,” he said. “Real, lasting learning has to be synchronous for the majority of people.”

In other words, while there’s a small group of gifted-and-talented students who can watch a one-hour lecture and absorb every factoid and nuance, the majority of students need engagement, interaction and motivation to understand a topic, he argues. It’s the reason why MOOCs, or massive open online course providers, only have a 2-3% completion rate on their courses, he argues.

At its core, Campuswire has evolved from a platform trying to compete with Zoom to a platform that is trying to compete with these MOOCS through engaging content taught by experienced professors. Its main differentiation from MOOCs is that it’s live and has teacher assistants.

There are a number of startups that are trying to create engaging, celebrity professor-taught classes through hybrid plays. MasterClass, which just raised $100 million a few months ago, sells entertainment and education in one go, offering cooking classes from Gordon Ramsay and tennis lessons from Serena Williams. While you can’t interact with Ramsay or Williams, you can chat with fellow classmates.

BookClub connects readers to the authors they are reading, giving bookworms an opportunity to ask about cliffhangers and character development. The upstart is still in its early stages, but founder David Blake says that readers could talk directly to authors down the road. There’s also Teachable, which got acquired by Hotmart earlier this year. Teachable helps any expert who wants to create a business around their expertise do so with a virtual course. Arlan Hamilton, a seed-stage investor, has a course on the platform.

Today’s pivot signals the founder’s mindset that, in order to grow to the billion-dollar business mark in edtech, you need to sell more than software that Google and Microsoft will always give away for free.

“Online learning can be 100 times bigger than it is today,” Oyerinde said. “Once you actually support synchronicity, you actually support people getting to actually interact with UCLA/Princeton/Cornell professors, not just watching them on pre-recorded videos.”

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Twilio launches an app for frontline workers, a free 1:1 video toolkit and a new IoT platform

Twilio is hosting its annual Signal conference today and as usual, the company is using the event to launch a host of new products and features. For the most part, especially if you’re a web or mobile developer, these are not groundbreaking new features. The core Twilio services, after all, have been in place for a while now. Instead, today’s announcements build out some of the edges of the overall Twilio product ecosystem.

The most interesting launch — at least from the perspective of most developers — is probably the general availability of Twilio’s Video Web RTC Go. The free video service allows you to add 1:1 video chats to your web and mobile applications. The company notes that this is not a free trial, but you are limited to 25 GB of bandwidth through Twilio’s relays per month, or about 100,000 participant minutes. You also get logging and diagnostic features. So freemium, I guess, but with generous limits to get you started. If you need more, you can upgrade to a higher tier later.

“Twilio Video WebRTC Go is a free tier and a free offering for developers to get started building those one to one video connections for things like distance learning, client consultations — all of those things that you might have a need for in these new use cases that we’ve seen evolve through the pandemic,” Quinton Wall, Twilio’s Senior Director for Platform and Developer Experience, told me. “And what we really wanted to do is take away all the barriers and make a free tier — and a perpetually free tier — that gives them all the tools that they need to build on top of WebRTC to get going. ”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The second major announcement is the launch of Twilio’s latest IoT service: the Microvisor IoT platform. Twilio acquired IoT hardware and software specialist Electric Imp earlier this year and when it first launched its IoT efforts, it started with cellular connectivity through its Super SIM product. The idea behind the Microvisor IoT platform is to give embedded developers all the tools they need to build connected devices and the lifecycle management tools to keep them updated and secure.

As Evan Cummack, the GM of Twilio IoT, told me, as the company dug deeper into the IoT market, it found that a lot of projects were failing.

“When we really dug into what was going on with our customers individually, what we saw was the reasons for a lot of these failures,” he explained. “Sometimes it was a fundamental misjudgment in terms of what end-users wanted, or the end-user experience, or value and business models, but a lot of the time, it was a technical failure, or it was that the technical challenges were so steep that the ROI equation fell apart. You couldn’t deliver substantial enough value in order to justify the technical effort required.”

With Electric Imp, Twilio bought a full-stack platform — and there are others like it on the market. But as Cummack noted, most businesses aren’t buying those. Instead, they are trying to build their solutions from scratch and Twilio’s hypothesis was that they were doing so because they wanted to be able to write native code for these devices. Combining that with the convenience of a full-stack platform is difficult.

Image Credits: Twilio

The solution the team came up with combines this new software platform with a recent hardware innovation by Arm: TrustZones. But with Arm’s TrustZone hardware isolation feature at its core, the Microvisor platform only runs on devices that use the latest Cortex M-based processors, which obviously means its not a service you can use to upgrade your existing solutions. In return, users get secure boot features, over-the-air firmware updates and secure tunnels to connect to their devices, in addition to remote debugging features.

Also new today is Event Streams, a new API that helps developers aggregate data from all of their Twilio-powered experiences across voice, SMS, wireless connectivity through Super SIM, TaskRouter and more. The idea here is to give users a better understanding of how these channels are being used — and less so for understanding their bills and more for helping them build tools that allow businesses to better understand how they are interacting with customers.

Image Credits: Twilio

Lastly, there’s Twilio Frontline. This isn’t really a developer product but a React Native-based app for frontline workers who may need to communicate with customers. Think of an employee in a store who needs to talk to a customer who is waiting outside. The app focuses on chat, with support for SMS, WhatsApp, and web-based and in-app chat clients. Frontline can also be integrated with existing enterprise authentication and CRM systems.

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The coronavirus pandemic is expanding California’s digital divide

If every California student without an adequate internet connection got together and formed a state, it would contain more residents than Idaho or Hawaii.

A total of 1,529,000 K-12 students in California don’t have the connectivity required for adequate distance learning.

Analysis from Common Sense Media also revealed that students lacking adequate connection commonly lack an adequate device as well. The homework gap that separates those with strong connections from those on the wrong side of the digital divide will become a homework chasm without drastic and immediate intervention.

To raise awareness of the enormity and immediacy of the digital divide, I started No One Left Offline (NOLO) in San Francisco. It’s an all-volunteer nonprofit that’s creating a coalition of Bay Area organizations focused on giving students, seniors and individuals with disabilities access to high-speed, affordable Internet.

During the week of July 27, the NOLO coalition will launch the Bridge the Divide campaign to raise $50,000 in funds that will be used to directly cover broadband bills for families on the edge of the digital divide.

At this point in our response to COVID-19, emergency measures have only stopped the homework gap from growing rather than actually shrinking it. That’s precisely why we need a new form of addressing students’ lack of adequate internet and devices. The digital “haves” should embrace directly covering the broadband bills and upgrades required by the “have nots.” This form of direct giving is both the most effective and efficient means of giving every student high-speed internet and a device to make the most of that connection.

But too few people are aware of just how dire life can be on the wrong side of the digital divide. That’s why I’m hoping you — as a fellow member of the digital “haves” — will join me in taking a day off(line) on July 17. I’m convinced that it will take a day (if not more) in the digital dark for more Americans to recognize just how difficult it is to thrive, let alone survive, without stable internet, a device and a sufficient level of digital literacy.

The increased attention to the digital divide generated by this day off(line) will spur a more collective and significant response to stopping the formation of a homework chasm.

Current efforts to close the homework gap have at once been laudable and limited. For example, internet service providers (ISPs) deserve praise for taking a voluntary pledge to limit fees, forgive fines and remove data caps. But that pledge expired at the end of June, months before school starts and in the middle of an expanding economic calamity.

It’s true that many ISPs are still going to extraordinary lengths to help those in need — look no further than Verizon donating phones to Miracle Messages to help individuals experiencing homelessness connect with loved ones. However, even these extraordinary measures will not fully make up for the fact that hundreds of thousands of Californians are experiencing greater financial insecurity than ever before. They want and require a long-term solution to their digital needs — not just voluntary pledges that end in the middle of a pandemic.

In the same way, many school districts in the Bay Area have rapidly loaned hotspots and devices to students and families in need. In fact, even before COVID-19, the Oakland Unified School District and the 1Million Project were providing hotspots to students in need. These sorts of interventions, though, do not afford students on the wrong side of the homework gap the same opportunity to fully develop their digital literacy as those that have devices to call their own and internet connections sufficient to do more than just homework.

Every student deserves a device to call their own and a connection that allows them to become experts in safely and smoothly navigating the internet.

Direct giving is the solution. Financially secure individuals across the Bay Area can and should “sponsor” internet plans and devices for families in need. By sponsoring a family’s high-speed internet plan for a year or more, donors will provide students and parents alike with the security they need to focus on all of the other challenges associated with life in a pandemic. What’s more, sponsored devices would come without strings attached or “used” labels.

Students would have a fully equipped laptop to call their own as well as one that didn’t lack key functionalities, which is common among donated devices.

Because access to the internet is a human right, the government should be solving the homework gap. So far, it hasn’t been up to the task. So, in the interim, we’ll need a private sector solution. The good news is that we collectively seem up for the task. According to Fidelity, most charitable donors plan to maintain or increase their giving this year.

Consider that even 46% of millennials plan to increase their philanthropy. Unfortunately, one inhibitor to giving is the fact that “many donors don’t feel that they have the information they need to effectively support efforts” to address the ramifications of COVID-19.

That’s where NOLO and other digital inclusion coalitions step in. We’re sounding the bell: The public sector isn’t closing the homework gap; it’s on us to make sure kids have the connections and devices they need to thrive. NOLO is also providing the means to act on this information — during its Bridge the Divide campaign, donors will have a chance to sponsor broadband bills for community members served by organizations across the Bay Area including the SF Tech Council, BMAGIC and the Mission Merchants Association.

Our collective assignment is making the homework gap a priority. Our due date is nearing. The first task is taking a day off(line) on July 17. The next is donating to the Bridge the Divide campaign during the week of the 27th.

Let’s get to work.

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University entrepreneurship — without the university

Across the country, university campuses are in limbo.

The California State University system has committed to online classes in Fall 2020. Northeastern University is reopening as normal. UT Austin is taking a hybrid approach: in-person classes until Thanksgiving break, then online classes during flu season.

This presents a special set of circumstances for university entrepreneurs. The traditional resources and networks are nonoperational. But time and focus, historically the most scarce resources for ambitious students, is now at an all-time high.

It’s often noted that both Facebook and Microsoft were started during Harvard’s Reading Period, a week where classes are cancelled to let students study. This spring has been like one long Reading Period, sometimes with even less responsibility.

Deprioritizing classes

Stanford undergraduate Markie Wagner is taking advantage of the mandatory Pass/Fail policy that the school adopted. Since grades are no longer a consideration, Markie and her friends have free rein to put classes on the back burner to focus on talking to entrepreneurs and experimenting with business ideas.

She told us, “I’m going full hackathon mode this quarter. I’ve been reaching out to lots of founders and VCs to learn from them.” Planning on spending her upcoming senior year building a company, she’s getting a head start on exploration and network building.

If the pandemic forces school closings for the long-run, however, students will have to deal with more than a semester with an easier course load.

There’s near-universal resentment toward the idea of paying full tuition for online classes. Many of the students in Contrary’s network are planning gap years. Or, like Austin Moninger, even skipping senior year altogether. A senior at Rice studying computer science, he originally intended to graduate in spring of 2021. But given the virtual nature moving forward, he decided to accelerate graduation and is currently pursuing full-time software engineering roles. He notes, “We’ve all learned that we’re really paying for the experience and the network at the end of the day, so without it, I might as well take my time and money elsewhere.”

This puts universities in a precarious position: They must choose between letting students take breaks and defer admissions, which risks class size or financial issues (as an example, Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business decided against this, refusing to allow students to defer), or pushing forward at full price and risking brand damage.

That said, some students are affected by shutdowns or online classes more than the schools themselves are. Research-focused entrepreneurs working in biotech, hardware or other sectors typically require expensive lab equipment to make progress. Pure software plays like Facebook and Snap usually come to mind first when talking about university entrepreneurship, but such lean operations are certainly not the only ones being built.

It’s also unclear how prolonged closures or online classes will impact education itself and how that will impact founders in the long run. Most founders have completed the majority of their degrees by the time they commit to their companies and attempt to raise money. We have not seen any meaningful skill gap in 2020, nor do we expect to throughout the rest of the year.

Unless building a deep-tech startup, company-building can continue as long as an entrepreneur has enough of a technical or financial foundation to self-educate and learn by doing. Malwarebytes CEO Marcin Kleczynski is an excellent example of this — he famously started his cybersecurity company as a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and did the bare minimum required to get C grades in school.

Virtualizing campus

Although seed funding for university entrepreneurs has not slowed down since school closings, company-building has certainly not gotten any easier.

The main challenge for 22-year-old talent is not having energy or being scrappy — it’s usually growing the network needed to recruit the right co-founder and hire an early team. In an on-campus environment, there’s enough serendipity to make this natural. But if school closings persist and virtual offerings don’t fill the vacuum, we’ll likely see a lag in new company formation.

It’s rare that founders embark on the startup journey without having known each other for at least a year. Right now, not enough time has passed to make this a problem. But at campuses where students can’t get to know peers at a deep level, it’s impossible to build bonds over a long time period.

To combat this, at Contrary, for example, we hosted a virtual community of founders this past spring with a simple premise: Put 100 people in a room (or Slack channel, more literally), make sure they spend time together and give them the tools to build.

Over the course of six weeks, 150+ collaborations occurred as people experimented on different ideas and projects. Seventy-five percent of the founders said they’d been more productive since the remote transition occurred, and at the end of the program, nearly 70% of the group planned to continue working on their companies or begin a fresh project.

Perhaps most notable is the diversity of connections made — most interactions between participants were between students enrolled in different schools. Since even the best institutions in the world each matriculate only a single digit percentage of talent nationwide, virtualizing the program made the talent pool far larger.

Successful entrepreneurs like Steve Huffman from Reddit and Paul English from Kayak (and now Lola) gave off-the-record talks, but it turned out that most of the value came from access to a highly curated group of peers that each member wouldn’t otherwise meet. The program forced the serendipity that school closures lost, then combined that with the other necessary ingredient: Tangible opportunities to build rather than talk.

You can treat a university like a bundle of tools: The education, network, credential and social learnings all compose into one holistic experience.

Over the past decade, much of that value-stack has been eaten by other organizations.

To prove that you’re a talented individual, you can try applying for the Thiel Fellowship, or lean on name-brand past internships. Or to learn about venture, you can read Scott Kupor’s book or Paul Graham’s blog.

Until very recently, the university’s main “network effect” was the fact that you had to be there to meet other great individuals. Since COVID-19 has shifted most interactions to the cloud, however, that’s no longer the default path.

Looking forward

Hopefully flattening the curve will soon become extinguishing the curve. But until then, university-based founders will have to focus on the alternative infrastructure that powers funding, networking, credentialing and learning.

Had Contrary, Slack, Y Combinator or free AWS credits not existed prior, the closure of schools may have dealt a death knell to founders. But given the abundance of options now available to plug into the Valley and build, surprisingly little has changed.

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Dear Sophie: Can I still get a green card given COVID-19, layoffs and recent H-1B changes?

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

“Dear Sophie” columns are accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie:

I was recently laid off but found another position at a growing biotech company. My new employer just submitted the H-1B petition before the end of my grace period. I would like to stay permanently in the United States. How long do I have to apply for a green card?

If my employer isn’t willing to sponsor me, I heard I can self-petition for an EB-1A or EB-2 NIW green card?

—Hopeful in Hayward

Dear Hopeful:

Congrats on your new job offer and H-1B transfer. Many companies are hiring talented individuals right now. Every company has the right to their own immigration sponsorship policy, so it can be worthwhile to discuss this going into your new role to make sure that everybody’s on the same page as to how things can unfold with respect to your green card.

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