Tech’s coveted internships were some of the first roles to be cut as offices closed and businesses shuttered in response to the coronavirus. A number of companies across the country, including Glassdoor, StubHub, Funding Circle, Yelp, Checkr and even the National Institutes of Health, canceled their internship programs altogether.
For InsideSherpa co-founders Tom Brunskill and Pasha Rayan, the canceled internships were an opportunity. InsideSherpa, a Y Combinator graduate, hosts virtual work experience programs for college students all around the world.
College students, searching for a way to get job-ready, flocked to the platform from Northern Italy to South-East Asia, to all over the United States. Enrollments in InsideSherpa grew more than 86%, up to 1 million students.
The educational service successfully attracted student interest, and now, has landed investor interest. Today, InsideSherpa announced that it raised $9.3 million in Series A funding, led by Lightspeed Venture Partners . The startup has now raised $11.6 million in known venture funding. Other investors include FundersClub, Y Combinator and Arizona State University.
The financing will be used to grow InsideSherpa’s staff, with more engineering, product and sales roles. Along with the financing, InsideSherpa announced that it has rebranded to Forage.
Forage isn’t selling an internship replacement, but instead comes in one degree before the recruitment process. Students can go to the website and take a course from large companies such as Deloittee, Citi, BCG and GE. The course, designed in collaboration with the particular company and Forage, gives students a chance to “explore what a career would look like at their firm before the internship or entry-level application process opens,” Brunskill explains.
Forage is focused on partnering with large companies that employ upwards of 1,000 students per year via internships to help open up new pipelines. The corporate partners pay a subscription fee per year to post courses, and students can access all courses for free.
Popular courses include the KPMG Data Analytics Program, JPMorgan Chase & Co. Software Engineering Program and the Microsoft Engineering Program.
While Forage declined to disclose ARR, it confirmed that it was profitable heading into its fundraise, which formally closed in July.
Within edtech, flocks of companies have tried (and failed) to deliver on the promise of skills-based learning and employment opportunities as an outcome. The strategy of getting cozy with corporate partners isn’t unique to Forage, but the team views it as a competitive advantage. Of course, the effectiveness of that strategy matters more than the fact that it exists in the first place. Forage did not disclose efficacy information, but said that “some” corporate partners hired up to 52% of the cohort from their programs.
When Brunskill and Rayan first started Forage in 2017, they imagined a mentoring marketplace to connect students to young professionals. Three years later, much has changed.
“While students were interested in the product, they weren’t using it the way we intended,” he said. “Students kept saying to us ‘we just want an internship at company X, can you get me one?’ ”
While Brunskill doesn’t believe there’s any silver bullet solution to fixing education or recruitment systems, he remains optimistic in Forage’s future. After all, even if democratizing access to skills is the first step in a bigger race, it’s not an easy one.
I live in San Francisco, but I work an East Coast schedule to get a jump on the news day. So I’d already been at my desk for a couple of hours on Wednesday morning when I looked up and saw this:
As unsettling as it was to see the natural environment so transformed, I still got my work done. This is not to boast: I have a desk job and a working air filter. (People who make deliveries in the toxic air or are homeschooling their children while working from home during a global pandemic, however, impress the hell out of me.)
Not coincidentally, two of the Extra Crunch stories that ran since our Tuesday newsletter tie directly into what’s going on outside my window:
As this guest post predicted, a suboptimal attempt I made to track a delayed package using interactive voice response (IVR) indeed poisoned my customer experience, and;
As we’ve covered previously, the COVID-19 pandemic is making the world a lot smaller.
Investors who focus on their own backyards still have an advantage, but the ability to set up a quick coffee meeting with a promising investor is no longer one of them.
Even though some VCs are cutting first checks after Zoom calls, regional investors’ personal networks are still a trump card. Tourists will always rely on guide books, however, which is why we continue to survey investors around the world.
A Dealroom report issued this summer determined that 97 VC funds backed more than 1,600 funding rounds in Poland last year. With over 2,400 early- and late-stage startups and 400,000 engineers in the country, it’s easy to see why foreign investors are taking notice.
Even for fledgling startups, creating a robust customer service channel — or at least one that doesn’t annoy people — is a reliable way to keep users in the sales funnel.
Using AI and automation is fine, but now that consumers have grown used to asking phones and smart speakers to predict the weather and read recipe instructions, their expectations are higher than ever.
If you’re trying to figure out what people want from hyper-personalized customer experiences and how you can operationalize AI to give them what they’re after, start here.
For today’s edition of The Exchange, Natasha Mascarenhas joined Alex Wilhelm to examine how the pandemic-fueled surge of interest in edtech is manifesting on the funding front.
The numbers suggest that funding will far surpass the sector’s high-water mark set in 2018, so the duo studied the numbers through August 31, which included a number of mega-rounds that exceeded $100 million.
“Now the challenge for the sector will be keeping its growth alive in 2021, showing investors that their 2020 bets were not merely wagers made during a single, overheated year,” they conclude.
There’s a lot of buzz about special purpose acquisition companies these days.
Used-car marketplace Shift announced its SPAC in June 2020, and is on track to complete the process in the next few months, so co-founder/co-CEO George Arison wrote an Extra Crunch guest post to share what he has learned.
Step one: “If you go the SPAC route, you’ll need to become an expert at financial engineering.”
Image Credits: Sophie Alcorn
I am a software engineer and have been looking at job postings in the U.S. I’ve heard from my friends about J-1 Visa Training or J-1 Research.
What is a J-1 status? What are the requirements to qualify? Do I need to find a U.S. employer willing to sponsor me before I apply for one? Can I get a visa? How long could I stay?
Dr. Patricia Scanlon is founder and CEO of SoapBox Labs, a Dublin-based developer of safe and secure speech-recognition technology designed specifically for children. She was named one of Forbes Top 50 Women in Tech in 2018.
Before the pandemic, more than 40% of new internet users were children. Estimates now suggest that children’s screen time has surged by 60% or more with children 12 and under spending upward of five hours per day on screens (with all of the associated benefits and perils).
Although it’s easy to marvel at the technological prowess of digital natives, educators (and parents) are painfully aware that young “remote learners” often struggle to navigate the keyboards, menus and interfaces required to make good on the promise of education technology.
Against that backdrop, voice-enabled digital assistants hold out hope of a more frictionless interaction with technology. But while kids are fond of asking Alexa or Siri to beatbox, tell jokes or make animal sounds, parents and teachers know that these systems have trouble comprehending their youngest users once they deviate from predictable requests.
The challenge stems from the fact that the speech recognition software that powers popular voice assistants like Alexa, Siri and Google was never designed for use with children, whose voices, language and behavior are far more complex than that of adults.
It is not just that kid’s voices are squeakier, their vocal tracts are thinner and shorter, their vocal folds smaller and their larynx has not yet fully developed. This results in very different speech patterns than that of an older child or an adult.
From the graphic below it is easy to see that simply changing the pitch of adult voices used to train speech recognition fails to reproduce the complexity of information required to comprehend a child’s speech. Children’s language structures and patterns vary greatly. They make leaps in syntax, pronunciation and grammar that need to be taken into account by the natural language processing component of speech recognition systems. That complexity is compounded by interspeaker variability among children at a wide range of different developmental stages that need not be accounted for with adult speech.
Changing the pitch of adult voices used to train speech recognition fails to reproduce the complexity of information required to comprehend a child’s speech. Image Credits: SoapBox Labs
A child’s speech behavior is not just more variable than adults, it is wildly erratic. Children over-enunciate words, elongate certain syllables, punctuate each word as they think aloud or skip some words entirely. Their speech patterns are not beholden to common cadences familiar to systems built for adult users. As adults, we have learned how to best interact with these devices, how to elicit the best response. We straighten ourselves up, we formulate the request in our heads, modify it based on learned behavior and we speak our requests out loud, inhale a deep breath … “Alexa … ” Kids simply blurt out their unthought out requests as if Siri or Alexa were human, and more often than not get an erroneous or canned response.
In an educational setting, these challenges are exacerbated by the fact that speech recognition must grapple with not just ambient noise and the unpredictability of the classroom, but changes in a child’s speech throughout the year, and the multiplicity of accents and dialects in a typical elementary school. Physical, language and behavioral differences between kids and adults also increase dramatically the younger the child. That means that young learners, who stand to benefit most from speech recognition, are the most difficult for developers to build for.
To account for and understand the highly varied quirks of children’s language requires speech recognition systems built to intentionally learn from the ways kids speak. Children’s speech cannot be treated simply as just another accent or dialect for speech recognition to accommodate; it’s fundamentally and practically different, and it changes as children grow and develop physically as well as in language skills.
Unlike most consumer contexts, accuracy has profound implications for children. A system that tells a kid they are wrong when they are right (false negative) damages their confidence; that tells them they are right when they are wrong (false positive) risks socioemotional (and psychometric) harm. In an entertainment setting, in apps, gaming, robotics and smart toys, these false negatives or positives lead to frustrating experiences. In schools, errors, misunderstanding or canned responses can have far more profound educational — and equity — implications.
Well-documentedbiasin speech recognition can, for example, have pernicious effects with children. It is not acceptable for a product to work with poorer accuracy — delivering false positives and negatives — for kids of a certain demographic or socioeconomic background. A growing body of research suggests that voice can be an extremely valuable interface for kids but we cannot allow or ignore the potential for it to magnify already endemic biases and inequities in our schools.
Speech recognition has the potential to be a powerful tool for kids at home and in the classroom. It can fill critical gaps in supporting children through the stages of literacy and language learning, helping kids better understand — and be understood by — the world around them. It can pave the way for a new era of “invisible” observational measures that work reliably, even in a remote setting. But most of today’s speech recognition tools are ill-suited to this goal. The technologies found in Siri, Alexa and other voice assistants have a job to do — to understand adults who speak clearly and predictably — and, for the most part, they do that job well. If speech recognition is to work for kids, it has to be modeled for, and respond to, their unique voices, language and behaviors.
Like any successful founder, Andrew Grauer had bright, long-term ambitions for Course Hero from the moment he launched it in 2006.
He started the business to create a place where students could ask questions and get answers similar to Chegg, which launched 15 months before Course Hero . But as he slowly built it, he was tempted by a larger question: “What would a university look like if it was built by the internet?”
And so, the Redwood City-based startup itched at that nebulous goal throughout the years. Course Hero tested and failed products: free curated e-courses, in-person tutoring and teacher advice and ratings.
Clarity only came when Grauer realized that the core goal Course Hero launched with — giving students a place to ask and answer questions — wasn’t simply one product that should be fit into a broader suite of services. Instead, it was a thesis around which to build products. So, the startup began looking for different ways and formats to organize knowledge and questions and answers.
“That was a breakthrough insight,” Grauer said. The startup stopped launching other business verticals and decided to stick to Q&A as its core — and only — business. It sells Netflix-like subscriptions to students looking for access to learning and teaching content. Teachers and publishers can put course-specific study content on the platform.
Image Credits: Getty Images/manopjk
In 2020, Course Hero is a profitable business with annual run revenue upward of $100 million.
Today, Course Hero tells TechCrunch that it has raised a new tranche of capital in a Series B extension round of $70 million. The round is now totaling $80 million, bringing Course Hero’s total known venture capital to date to $95 million.
But in Course Hero’s case, the new capital comes as a stark contrast to how the business functioned before 2020. After launching, the startup waited eight years to raise a $15 million Series A. Now, after going another nearly six years without raising venture capital, Course Hero has closed two rounds in this year alone.
Course Hero’s change of heart with venture capital boils down to the company meeting new scale demands. Last year, it passed 1 million subscribers on the platform. Now, it is eyeing “many millions” of students, the co-founder says.
Paraphrasing Bill Gates, Grauer said, “We do overestimate what we can do in just three years. And we dramatically underestimate what we can do closer to 10 years.”
Any edtech company that raises money off of current momentum in remote education will have to face the reality of what it is like to grow when remote learning is no longer a necessity. In other words, when the coronavirus pandemic ends, will these same platforms still find surges in usage?
“That’s the risk and reward of raising capital,” Grauer said. He added that “if you raise too much money early on, you can get misaligned expectations based on different time horizons set up by different terms of incoming shareholders or investors.”
Course Hero sees tailwinds in a dynamic that has been brewing since before the pandemic and will likely grow during and after: the growth of “nontraditional students” enrolling in and participating in higher education. Grauer noted that more than 40% of students work 30 hours or more per week. Over a quarter of students are parents, and of that quarter, over 70% are single moms.
“Because that’s the reality, and because we can make an affordable subscription and the economics can work, Course Hero is aligned to serving the majority, the real majority, and that’s the beauty of opportunity,” he said. There is a freemium model, but on an annual plan, a subscription costs $9.95 per month. On a monthly plan, a subscription costs $39.99 per month.
It’s not an opportunity the company hopes to expand into, it’s a reality of its diverse customer base. An internal data analytics survey of Course Hero shows that 58% of students that subscribe work at least part time. Over 25% of subscribers are 35 years old or older, and 22% of subscribers are parents.
Looking ahead, Course Hero hopes to continue to broaden its multisided marketplace.
In July, the business announced it is launching Educator Exchange, which allows college faculty to make money by uploading study materials for fellow teachers or students.
The “direct-to-faculty” relationship could pacify earlier tensions between the platform and teachers by giving the latter a way to monetize on how Course Hero “open sources” creative content on the point of copyright infringement.
Grauer compares Course Hero’s long-term vision to that of Google Maps, in that the platform can make recommendations of content based on other people’s usage.
But we’re not talking recommendations for the closest gas station. Based on how a user learns, Course Hero can recommend a specific professor who has a specific syllabus on a topic in which the user is interested.
“We’ve seen that specificity level differentiates us from others,” he said. “It helps students when they’re doing their real work, that one homework, that studying for one test. And I think that’s where the magic is for us.”
Schools and universities across the United States are split on whether to open for the fall semester, thanks to the ongoing pandemic.
Albion College, a small liberal arts school in Michigan, said in June it would allow its nearly 1,500 students to return to campus for the new academic year starting in August. Lectures would be limited in size and the semester would finish by Thanksgiving rather than December. The school said it would test both staff and students upon their arrival to campus and throughout the academic year.
But less than two weeks before students began arriving on campus, the school announced it would require them to download and install a contact-tracing app called Aura, which it says will help it tackle any coronavirus outbreak on campus.
There’s a catch. The app is designed to track students’ real-time locations around the clock, and there is no way to opt out.
The Aura app lets the school know when a student tests positive for COVID-19. It also comes with a contact-tracing feature that alerts students when they have come into close proximity with a person who tested positive for the virus. But the feature requires constant access to the student’s real-time location, which the college says is necessary to track the spread of any exposure.
The school’s mandatory use of the app sparked privacy concerns and prompted parents to launch a petition to make using the app optional.
Worse, the app had at least two security vulnerabilities only discovered after the app was rolled out. One of the vulnerabilities allowed access to the app’s back-end servers. The other allowed us to infer a student’s COVID-19 test results.
The vulnerabilities were fixed. But students are still expected to use the app or face suspension.
Track and trace
Exactly how Aura came to be and how Albion became its first major customer is a mystery.
Aura was developed by Nucleus Careers in the months after the pandemic began. Nucleus Careers is a Pennsylvania-based recruiting firm founded in 2020, with no apparent history or experience in building or developing healthcare apps besides a brief mention in a recent press release. The app was built in partnership with Genetworx, a Virginia-based lab providing coronavirus tests. (We asked Genetworx about the app and its involvement, but TechCrunch did not hear back from the company.)
The app helps students locate and schedule COVID-19 testing on campus. Once a student is tested for COVID-19, the results are fed into the app.
If the test comes back negative, the app displays a QR code which, when scanned, says the student is “certified” free of the virus. If the student tests positive or has yet to be tested, the student’s QR code will read “denied.”
Aura uses the student’s real-time location to determine if they have come into contact with another person with the virus. Most other contact-tracing apps use nearby Bluetooth signals, which experts say is more privacy-friendly.
Hundreds of academics have argued that collecting and storing location data is bad for privacy.
The Aura app generates a QR code based on the student’s COVID-19 test results. Scan the QR code to reveal the student’s test result status. (Image: TechCrunch)
In addition to having to install the app, students were told they are not allowed to leave campus for the duration of the semester without permission over fears that contact with the wider community might bring the virus back to campus.
If a student leaves campus without permission, the app will alert the school, and the student’s ID card will be locked and access to campus buildings will be revoked, according to an email to students, seen by TechCrunch.
Students are not allowed to turn off their location and can be suspended and “removed from campus” if they violate the policy, the email read.
Private universities in the U.S. like Albion can largely set and enforce their own rules and have been likened to “shadow criminal justice systems — without any of the protections or powers of a criminal court,” where students can face discipline and expulsion for almost any reason with little to no recourse. Last year, TechCrunch reported on a student at Tufts University who was expelled for alleged grade hacking, despite exculpatory evidence in her favor.
Albion said in an online Q&A that the “only time a student’s location data will be accessed is if they test positive or if they leave campus without following proper procedure.” But the school has not said how it will ensure that student location data is not improperly accessed, or who has access.
“I think it’s more creepy than anything and has caused me a lot of anxiety about going back,” one student going into their senior year, who asked not to be named, told TechCrunch.
A ‘rush job’
One Albion student was not convinced the app was safe or private.
The student, who asked to go by her Twitter handle @Q3w3e3, decompiles and analyzes apps on the side. “I just like knowing what apps are doing,” she told TechCrunch.
Buried in the app’s source code, she found hardcoded secret keys for the app’s backend servers, hosted on Amazon Web Services. She tweeted her findings — with careful redactions to prevent misuse — and reported the problems to Nucleus, but did not hear back.
endpoint: ‘https://t.co/a5j4nvu5nQ‘, accessKeyId: ‘[REMOVED FOR REASONS]’, secretAccessKey: ‘[REMOVED FOR REASONS]’, region: ‘us-west-2’
A security researcher, who asked to go by her handle Gilda, was watching the tweets about Aura roll in. Gilda also dug into the app and found and tested the keys.
“The keys were practically ‘full access’,” Gilda told TechCrunch. She said the keys — since changed — gave her access to the app’s databases and cloud storage in which she found patient data, including COVID-19 test results with names, addresses and dates of birth.
Nucleus pushed out an updated version of the app on the same day with the keys removed, but did not acknowledge the vulnerability.
TechCrunch also wanted to look under the hood to see how Aura works. We used a network analysis tool, Burp Suite, to understand the network data going in and out of the app. (We’ve done this a fewtimesbefore.) Using our spare iPhone, we registered an Aura account and logged in. The app normally pulls in recent COVID-19 tests. In our case, we didn’t have any and so the scannable QR code, generated by the app, declared that I had been “denied” clearance to enter campus — as to be expected.
But our network analysis tool showed that the QR code was not generated on the device but on a hidden part of Aura’s website. The web address that generated the QR code included the Aura user’s account number, which isn’t visible from the app. If we increased or decreased the account number in the web address by a single digit, it generated a QR code for that user’s Aura account.
In other words, because we could see another user’s QR code, we could also see the student’s full name, their COVID-19 test result status and what date the student was certified or denied.
TechCrunch did not enumerate each QR code, but through limited testing found that the bug may have exposed about 15,000 QR codes.
We described the app’s vulnerabilities to Will Strafach, a security researcher and chief executive at Guardian Firewall. Strafach said the app sounded like a “rush job,” and that the enumeration bug could be easily caught during a security review. “The fact that they were unaware tells me they did not even bother to do this,” he said. And, the keys left in the source code, said Strafach, suggested “a ‘just-ship-it’ attitude to a worrisome extreme.”
An email sent by Albion president Matthew Johnson, dated August 18 and shared with TechCrunch, confirmed that the school has since launched a security review of the app.
We sent Nucleus several questions — including about the vulnerabilities and if the app had gone through a security audit. Nucleus fixed the QR code vulnerability after TechCrunch detailed the bug. But a spokesperson for the company, Tony Defazio, did not provide comment. “I advised the company of your inquiry,” he said. The spokesperson did not return follow-up emails.
In response to the student’s findings, Albion said that the app was compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, which governs the privacy of health data and medical records. HIPAA also holds companies — including universities — accountable for security lapses involving health data. That can mean heavy fines or, in some cases, prosecution.
Albion spokesperson Chuck Carlson did not respond to our emails requesting comment.
At least two other schools, Bucknell University and Temple University, are reopening for the fall semester by requiring students to present two negative COVID-19 tests through Genetworx. The schools are not using Aura, but their own in-house student app to deliver the test results.
Albion students, meanwhile, are split on whether to comply, or refuse and face the consequences. @Q3w3e3 said she will not use the app. “I’m trying to work with the college to find an alternative way to be tested,” she told TechCrunch.
Parents have also expressed their anger at the policy.
“I absolutely hate it. I think it’s a violation of her privacy and civil liberties,” said Elizabeth Burbank, a parent of an Albion student, who signed the petition against the school’s tracking effort.
“I do want to keep my daughter safe, of course, and help keep others safe as well. We are more than happy to do our part. I do not believe however, a GPS tracker is the way to go,” she said. “Wash our hands. Eat healthy. And keep researching treatments and vaccines. That should be our focus.
“I do intend to do all I can to protect my daughter’s right to privacy and challenge her right to free movement in her community,” she said.
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Google has partnered with one of the largest states in India to provide its digital classroom services to tens of millions of students and teachers, the search giant said today, as it makes a further education push in the world’s second largest internet market.
The company, which recently announced plans to invest $10 billion in India, said it had partnered with the government of the western state of Maharashtra that will see 23 million students and teachers access Google’s education offering at no charge.
Thursday’s announcement follows a recent survey by the Maharashtra government in which it had sought teachers’ interest in digital classroom alternatives. More than 150,000 teachers signed up for the program in less than 48 hours, Google said.
Maharashtra is the worst hit Indian state by COVID-19, with more than 460,000 confirmed cases. The state, like others in India, complied with New Delhi’s lockdown order in late March that prompted schools and other public places to close across the nation.
“All of us had questions regarding the future of education. We have come a step closer to answering these questions due to the pandemic,” said Uddhav Thackeray, chief minister of Maharashtra, in a statement.
Varsha Gaikwad, the education minister of Maharashtra, said the partnership with Google will help her department roll out tech solutions to students in about 190,000 schools.
“Our goal is to make Maharashtra the most progressive state in education by making effective use of online resources, platforms, bandwidth and technology, using the power of the internet to reach out to the masses and bridge the gap in education,” she said.
The pandemic, which has brought several sectors to their knees in the country, has accelerated the growth of startups that operate digital learning platforms in the country. Byju’s, Facebook -backed Unacademy, Vedantu and Toppr among other startups have amassed tens of millions of new students since March this year.
Google is providing students and teachers with a range of services, including G Suite for Education, Google Forms for conducting quizzes and tests, access to Google Meet video conferencing services and Google Classroom, which enables educators to create, review and organize assignments, as well as communicate directly with students.
The company said it has also made Teach from Anywhere, a hub for educators, in Marathi, a very popular language in the state of Maharashtra.
“Our teachers and schools have the huge responsibility in shaping the future of our new generation, and we continue to be honored to play a role in offering digital tools that can enable more teachers to help even more students stay firmly on their journey of learning, during these times and beyond,” wrote Sanjay Gupta, country head and vice president of Google India, in a blog post.
The company has rushed to work with educators in India in recent months. Last month, Google announced that it had partnered with the Central Board of Secondary Education, a government body that oversees education in private and public schools in India, to provide its education offerings to more than 1 million teachers across 22,000 schools in India.
It also unveiled a grant of $1 million to Kaivalya Education Foundation (KEF), a foundation in India that works with partners to provide underprivileged children with education opportunities from Google.org, Google’s philanthropic arm.
Google’s global rival, Facebook, also partnered with CBSE last month to launch a certified curriculum on digital safety and online well-being, and augmented reality for students and educators in the country.
Toppr, one of the largest online learning startups in India, has secured $46 million in a new financing round as it looks to scale its platform including a new product.
Dubai-headquartered investment firm Foundation Holdings led the Mumbai-based seven-year-old startup’s Series D round. Kaizen Private Equity, an existing investor, also participated in the new round, which brings Toppr’s to-date raise to over $92 million.
Toppr operates four products and services that are aimed at K-12 students. Learning app, Toppr’s marquee service, offers students live classes and sessions to clear doubts, pre-recorded lessons and tests.
Toppr’s catalog covers 17 subjects and prepares students for five dozen competitive exams, explained Toppr founder and chief executive Zishaan Hayath in an interview with TechCrunch.
A portion of Toppr’s library is available to students at no charge on Learning app, but full access requires a membership. The subscription starts at 1,000 Indian rupee ($13.35) and goes as high as 3,000 Indian rupee ($40).
The startup launched Codr, a product aimed at helping all school-age children learn computer programming, last month. A Codr session costs about $9.35. Toppr also maintains a free problem solving app that enables a student to take a picture of a question and get its solution instantly, explained Hayath.
In background, the app uses character recognition and machine learning to sift through a large bank of problems Toppr has amassed over the years to determine its solution.
Toppr’s Learning app has amassed over 13 million users, more than 150,000 of whom are paying subscribers, he said. In recent months, the startup has also worked on a new product called School OS, which enables a school to digitize their learning experience. Through School OS, a teacher can assign and collect homework digitally, and students can attend live classes.
Zishaan Hayath, the founder and chief executive of Toppr, a Mumbai-headquartered edtech startup (Photo: Toppr)
“They can also attend classes from previous years, or of grades ahead of them. Our schooling system is built in a way that keeps you locked in the current year’s curriculum. On digital, one of the benefits is that you don’t have to follow such rules. So for instance, if a student in tenth grade needs to brush up some concept from grade nine, they can do so at any moment,” said Hayath.
More than 40 schools have deployed School OS for their 60,000 students, he said. The startup plans to have 300,000 students enrolled to School OS in the next few months.
“Toppr has emerged as the highest traffic destination for K-12 learning and hosts over 1 million sessions every day. Toppr’s community of 50,000+ educators from across the country has contributed to over 35 lakh learning pieces, including questions, solutions, concepts, games and videos for the students. Our investment in Toppr also reflects our commitment to empowering great teachers via the new School OS. The new School OS already has 55,000+ learners on it,” said Aakash Sachdev, Managing Director of Foundation Holdings, in a statement.
Sachdev has joined Toppr’s board as part of the new financing round. Foundation Holdings said it will work with Toppr to make the startup “IPO ready” in the coming years and publicly list on Nasdaq or any other international stock exchange.
Hayath said the startup will continue to focus on scaling its various products and services, and also invest a little on marketing — an aspect he said Toppr has never spent any penny on.
Another relatively new area for Toppr is exploring merger and acquisition deals. Hayath said the startup has so far resisted the idea of acquiring a team or firm to grow inorganically, but is open to scouting deals for a right fit.
Toppr’s fundraising announcement today comes as edtech startups in India witness a significant surge in their userbases at a time when firms in other industries are finding it difficult to steer through the coronavirus pandemic.
The state of New York voted this week to pause any implementation of facial recognition technology in schools for two years. The moratorium, approved by the New York Assembly and Senate Wednesday, comes after an upstate school district adopted the technology earlier this year, prompting a lawsuit in June from the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of parents. If New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signs the legislation into law, the moratorium would freeze the use of any facial recognition school systems in the state until July 1, 2022.
Earlier this week, a school district in Topeka, Kansas announced that it would employ facial recognition technology at a temperature check kiosk for staff as part of its plan to reopen schools. Unfortunately, such a system would not be capable of preventing asymptomatic spread of the virus—one of COVID-19’s most challenging features.
With the pandemic still ravaging the U.S., the issue of school reopening has become deeply politicized. In a briefing earlier this month, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany argued that “science should not stand in the way” of reopenings.
“Facial recognition companies will use any angle they can to market their product to schools—but this one is just absolutely ridiculous,” Fight for the Future Campaign Director Caitlin Seeley George said of the technology’s proposed school implementation in Kansas. “Facial recognition will not stop the spread of COVID-19, and schools shouldn’t buy into this hokum.”
New York’s moratorium was viewed as a major victory by digital privacy advocates, who call into question not only the surveillance technology’s potential concerns for civil liberties but also the tech’s ability to accomplish its stated goals at all. The efficacy of such technology has come under fire repeatedly in studies demonstrating high false positive rates and racial biases coded into the systems themselves.
“We’ve said for years that facial recognition and other biometric surveillance technologies have no place in schools, and this is a monumental leap forward to protect students from this kind of invasive surveillance,” NYCLU Education Policy Center Deputy Director Stefanie Coyle said.
“Schools should be an environment where children can learn and grow, and the presence of a flawed and racially-biased system constantly monitoring students makes that impossible.”
When Quizlet became a unicorn earlier this year, CEO Matthew Glotzbach said he’d prefer to distance the company from the common nomenclature for a startup valued at or above $1 billion.
“The way Quizlet has gotten to this point is by building and growing a very responsible business,” he said. “It’s the result of the hard work of the team for a decade. We’re much more like a camel.”
It’s clear, though, that the tides might be changing. In edtech, the rich are getting richer. Last week, Mountain View-based Coursera announced it had raised a $130 million Series F round a day after The Information broke a story about Udemy reportedly raising new financing at a $3 billion valuation.
For anyone who has been following my edtech coverage in recent few months, this momentum is hardly surprising. Earlier in the pandemic, MasterClass raised $100 million, Quizlet became a unicorn and Byju’s became India’s second-most-valuable startup.
Ian Chiu, an investor at Owl Ventures, tells TechCrunch that the rise of big rounds brings a “watershed moment” to the $6 trillion education market. Owl Ventures was founded in 2014 and is one of the biggest edtech-focused firms out there, but Chiu says the recent strong capital flow shows that the sector is finally emerging as a sector other investors are noticing.
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.