10 startups that are shaping the future of education

Due to ongoing efforts to reform the learning experience, the education space is seen by the startup world as having a lot of untapped potential. Companies in the field offer everything from MOOCs and blended learning experiences to social networks for students seeking jobs and educators seeking feedback on their teaching. And with no shortage of companies looking to invest, the number of innovative startups popping up isn't likely to subside anytime soon.

With massive disruption potentially imminent, here are 10 education startups to watch in this exciting time:



The startup formerly known as Top Hat Monocle is already having an eventful 2013. It has partnered with publishing giant Pearson and lecture capture platform Panopto, opened a Chicago office and, as you can see, dropped a word from its name. The clicker-killing startup uses an app to transform students’ mobile devices into classroom response tools. Typically, students pay $20 each semester for access to the service, but Top Hat recently launched a “freemium” account service for classes with less than 30 students. 



Dubbed the Pinterest of teaching, Learnist allows teachers and students to curate content ranging from websites and blogs to YouTube and Google Docs and Maps on what it calls “Learnboards.” Created by online test prep company Grockit, the startup already has partnerships with companies like Discovery and BBC in order to help encourage repeat visits. An iOS app is available in iTunes and Edudemic already has a list of its top 10 Learnist boards for teachers to help you get started.



Curious.com is a video-based site targeting lifelong learners. Prior to its official launch on May 1, a five-month private beta saw 10,000 learners log 150,000 sessions, taking lessons ranging from the structure of DNA to constructing a do-it-yourself home theater system. Redpoint Ventures, former Apple chairman Bill Campbell and others contributed to the start-up’s $7.5 million in Series A financing, and Curious is hoping to differentiate itself from other video-based online learning platforms by keeping its lessons short and episodic. Though the lessons aren’t free, Curious hopes to keep the cost low at around a few dollars a lesson.



SmarterCookie is a peer-coaching platform for teachers. Founded by Tess Brustein, who wanted more feedback when she taught in New York for Teach for America, SmarterCookie allows teachers to upload short videos of their lessons and invite other teachers, coaches, principals, professors, etc. to view them and offer feedback. The site also has a guide as to what sort of feedback should be left, with the idea being that any feedback should be direct and actionable.



Like Behance did for designers and artists before it, GradFly hopes to provide an online portfolio platform for high school students interested in STEM fields. GradFly’s founder and CEO Oscar Pedroso is a former independent college admissions consultant who says he saw time and again that students were passionate about STEM fields and had no place to showcase their projects, experiments and accomplishments. Now, through GradFly, those students can connect with colleges, internships, recruiters and companies based on the preferences and interests they list on the site. For its pilot, the start-up is partnered with eight high schools in Western New York, the Universities of Rochester and Buffalo, and the Rochester Institute of Technology. 



Treehouse is a startup offering programming lessons including how to develop Web sites, build iPhone and Android apps and code in various languages. The site promises to take users “from zero experience to job ready” by teaching the skills, having users put them into practice and awarding badges that display skills learned. Partner companies include Twitter, Disney, AOL and Zappos. A “basic plan” for lessons costs $25 per month, with group rates also available for companies wishing to sign up entire teams.



Meritful is a startup aimed at helping other start-ups and small-to-medium-sized businesses recruit top college graduates. Aside from providing a way for recruiters to easily manage their relationships with students over time, it also gives students a platform to showcase their work and to ask questions of alumni and others already working for potential employers. Additionally, students can use source code, videos or pictures to describe the projects they’ve listed. The start-up recently won $100,000 in prizes at SXSW and plans to raise its seed round this summer.



Another startup that could appeal to students and lifelong-learners alike, Duolingo offers a free service for learning a foreign language. Current languages include Spanish, English, German, French, Portuguese and Italian. According to the start-up’s site, an eight-week independent study confirmed its lessons to be more effective than those offered at university level. With lessons broken down into a tree of skill levels, learners are awarded points based on their progress. Duolingo can also translate real world web content into a user's native language, allowing them to better learn foreign culture and expressions.



Siminars is an online teaching platform that brings the concepts of media like Powerpoint, web quizzes, video clips and text together, giving teachers all the tools they need to build, publish and distribute a course all in one place. Thus, a teacher could theoretically forego the use of a traditional text to teach a topic. The platform is capable of being used for anything from academic content to professional training, and is available in open, retail and private models. Adding some star-power to the startup is a deal with Deepak Chopra that will see him republishing one of his books in the format.



Looking to make the most out of the education “gamification” trend, GameDesk ranked No. 6 on Fast Company’s list of the world’s 10 most innovative companies in education. The nonprofit research, development and outreach organization was spun out of seven years of research on the use of games in education at the University of Southern California. Supporters include The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Motorola Solutions Foundation, the National Science Foundation and AT&T, whose $3.8 million donation last year was the telecom company’s largest grant awarded to date.

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Filed Under: Higher Ed K12 Technology Online Learning
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