Teachers can put Chromebooks on lockdown when giving Classroom quizzes

Technology’s heavy hitters are in Chicago this week, showing off their latest ed-tech offerings at International Society for Technology in Education conference. For Google, that means some key updates to Classrooms, the free, browser-based educational software that’s currently used by “over 30 million students” globally, by its count.

The app is getting a number of tweaks, including, most notably, more control over quizzes. The Google Forms Quiz now features a “locked mode,” which prohibits students from surfing the web or opening apps until the answers are submitted — in other words, it stops them from cheating on the machine, while taking a test.

Interestingly, this is the first feature added to the app that’s exclusive to managed Chromebooks — i.e. those devices that are sold with the sole purpose of being used in the classroom. That marks a change for the app, which is otherwise open and platform agnostic, for any machine that can access the web. The reason here seems pretty straight-forward, of course — locking users out of other apps requires a lot more system control than more standardized features.

Also new is a Classwork page, which is designed to be a sort of go-to destination for both teachers and students, organizing questions and assignments in a single destination. Among other things, that information can now be organized by topic or unit, whereas everything was previously just categorized by date. The new People page, meanwhile. lets teachers add and remove fellow teachers, students and guardians, while other tweaks have been made to the Stream and system settings pages.

Microsoft also used the occasion to announce new lesson plans from partners like the BBC and an Aquatic DLC for Minecraft: Education Edition.

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China’s VIPKID, which links native English speakers with online learners, raises another $500M, reportedly at $3B+ valuation

The online language school market is continuing to heat up, and a startup that connects native English speakers with an audience of students spanning China and 35 other countries for live language tutorials, is helping fan those flames. VIPKID, based out of Beijing, today announced that it has raised $500 million in funding — a Series D+ round that potentially values the startup at over $3 billion, based on reports in April when it was still raising the money.

(We’ve reached out to the company to see if we can get more detail on that front.)

This latest growth round was led by a group of investors that include both strategic and financial players: Coatue Management, Tencent, Sequoia Capital and Yunfeng Capital — Alibaba chief Jack Ma’s investment company — were all co-leads on the deal.

For some context on that valuation and how it has soared in the last year, it was in August 2017 that VIPKID raised $200 million on a $1.5 billion valuation. It has now raised some $850 million in financing since being founded in 2013.

The company’s size has soared in that time, too. Last year VIPKID said that it had 20,000 teachers and 200,000 paying students from 32 countries. Now those numbers are at over 40,000 teachers and 300,000 students across 35 markets.

With the bulk of the latter group still coming from China — as we have written before, it’s targeting a very large group of upwardly-mobile parents in the country who are looking to improve their children’s English skills — it looks like VIPKID might be looking to ramp up targeting more markets.

But as with many other two-sided marketplaces, VIPKID also faces a lot of competition on the supply front: as we reported in April, it’s competing against the likes of other Chinese companies like VIPABC, 51Talk, and others to hire native English speakers to fuel their live tutoring programs.

VIPKID’s core product is likely attractive to investors because of how it has successfully tapped into more than one growth area in the tech world, namely online education, live video streaming services and e-commerce. Going forward, the company plans to use the funding in three areas, according to founder and CEO Cindy Mi (pictured above), that will help advance all three of these.

“The first is to enhance the student learning experience by adding more leading educational curriculum content and products such as online textbooks, and creating a seamless user experience by enhancing engineering, technology and product,” she said in a statement. “The second is to provide additional tools and assistance to teachers and continued growth of the teacher community to support the increase in product offerings. The third is to leverage the latest advances in machine learning to explore and pioneer the future of learning.”

It’s interesting to note that VIPKID does not seem to be focused right now on moving outside of its core focus of teaching English. However, you could imagine how the same tools and framework could be used for other language vectors — for example, teaching Mandarin to English speakers, or Spanish to an Indian audience. In other words, VIPKID might just be at the tip of the iceberg in terms of its potential.

Online education is getting fuelled by a massive wave of capital at the moment. VIPKID notes that in the first half of 2018, Chinese K-12 education startups picked no less than $1.5 billion in financing. Further afield, Memrise earlier this month raised $15.5 million; and Blinkist — which condenses non-fiction books in aid of encouraging “life-long learning” — yesterday announced $18.8 million in funding. And Coursera may also be due for a financing injection soon, too.

Within the bigger category, there are some clear leaders emerging, and that is where the bulk of money is going, it seems.

“We believe that VIPKID is transforming the shape of traditional education on a global scale and is providing an excellent new model for future education,” said Philippe Laffont, Founder of Coatue Management, in a statement. “Coatue is excited about VIPKID’s opportunity to integrate outstanding educational resources globally and boost its internationalization process.”

Notably, WeChat owner and Internet giant Tencent works with another online education startup, Age of Learning, meaning there is potential for helping VIPKID also grow using its network effect. “Tencent attaches great importance to investment in online education,” said Lin Haifeng, managing partner at Tencent Investment, in a statement. “We hope to have close cooperation with our most important partners like VIPKID and to help the Chinese education industry explore the global market and the boundaries and possibilities of education.”

Other investors have included Kobe Bryant, Innovation Works, Learn Capital, Sequoia Capital, Matrix Partners and Northern Light Venture.

See more from Cindy Mi speaking to us at Disrupt last September here.

Chan Zuckerberg Initiative hires to donate tech, not just money

A cell atlas. AI that reads science papers. Personalized learning software. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s $45 billion philanthropy organization wants to build technology that can do good at scale rather than just trying to drown problems in cash. Now 2.5 years after its launch, CZI has finally filled out its tech leadership team.

Today CZI announced the hire of Jonathan Goldman as its head of Data. He was formerly the Director of Data Science and Analytics at Intuit after selling it his startup Level Up Analytics. Before that he picked up a PhD in Physics at Stanford, and he’s on the Khan Academy board. Phil Smoot has been named CZI’s head of engineering. He was the VP of eng for Microsoft OneDrive and SharePoint, and previously worked on Hotmail and Outlook.

CZI’s tech leadership team with its founders (from left): Sandra Liu Huang, Phil Smoot, Jonathan Goldman, Priscilla Chan, Mark Zuckerberg

Together with CZI’s head of product Sandra Liu Huang who’d been acting as its interim head of technology, they’ll be tackling massive technology products that could improve medicine, research, and education. Critics have asked whether the Zuckerberg family philanthropy has brought its money to issues that might be more complex than just needing funding. But tech is what Zuckerberg does, and Chan’s experience as a doctor and teacher could focus their impact where its most critical.

When asked about the challenges Goldman and Smoot would tackle, a CZI spokesperson told me “Figuring out how to create a strong technical culture within philanthropy, which hasn’t really been done before. Also keeping ourselves rigorous in how we approach the work even though there aren’t conventional market indicators.”

For example, its data coordination platform for the Human Cell Atlas could help doctors map out our biology in a new level of detail that could help fight disease. The Meta tool uses AI to analyze and prioritize research papers so scientists don’t miss out on important new findings. CZI is also supporting the Summit Learning Platform, a tool for teachers to personalize their instruction for students with different learning styles, from those that excel from solo reading to those who prefer group projects.

“We’re putting engineers, data scientists and product managers side by side with bench scientists, educators and policy advocates. Translating these different languages can be challenging at times, but we all know the breakthroughs that come out of these efforts will be well worth it” a spokesperson concluded.

Microsoft acquires social learning platform Flipgrid

Microsoft has acquired Flipgrid, a social education app that utilizes short video clips to create collaborative lesson plans. The Minneapolis-based startup, which began life as Vidku, has had strong growth for an experience that has been alternatively described as Instagram and Snapchat for the classroom. Early last year, it reported an 800 percent year-over-year growth in teacher accounts.

It’s certainly a play that makes sense in Microsoft’s portfolio, as the company looks to take back the education market currently being dominated by Google, thanks to its wildly popular Chromebook category. In May of last year, the company launched an educational variant of Windows 10, which joined such existing plays as its Minecraft Education Edition.

“We’re thrilled to see the impact Flipgrid has had in social learning thus far and look forward to helping them continue to thrive as part of the Microsoft family,” Microsoft VP Eran Megiddo, said in a release tied to the announcement. “We’re diligently committed to making sure their platform and products continue to work across the Microsoft, Google and partner ecosystems to benefit students and teachers everywhere.” 

How, precisely, Flipgrid will fit into Microsoft’s overall edtech play remains to be seen, though the company has already integrated the app into Microsoft Teams in Office 365 for Education. As with its Office 365 Education offering, the company will be making the app free for schools. Those who already purchased an account, meanwhile, will be getting a refund.

A round of updates to the app is forthcoming, as well. Microsoft will be unveiling those at Flipgrid’s education conference in early April. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Google demo shows how AR can thrive on the web

Google has been hyping up augmented reality on the web, and it's easy to understand why — it promises an immersive experience without requiring a special app. But what does that look like in practice? The company now has an easy way to find out….

Sphero raises $12M as it focuses on education

This year has been a rough one for Sphero. The Colorado-based toy robotics startup kicked off the year with dozens of layoffs, a result of tepid interest in its line of Disney-branded consumer products.

Here’s a little good news, however. The company has raised another $12 million, bringing its total up to around $119 million, according to Crunchbase. The latest round will go into helping shape the BB-8 maker into an education-first company.

“The recent round of funding has currently raised $12 million, and we anticipate at the time of final closing up to $20 million may be raised in total,” Sphero said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. Funding has/will come from existing and new investors and will be used for working capital as we engage in a larger strategy that focuses on the intersection of play and learning.”

It’s a tricky play, given how overcrowded the world of coding toys is at the moment, but Sphero has long been building out its play in the space, in tandem with its more consumer-focused offerings.

Following the success of its The Force Awakens BB-8 tie in, the company quadrupled down on its involvement with Disney’s accelerator, releasing high-tech toys based on Spider-Man and Lightning McQueen from Cars.

“[Education] is something we can actually own,” the company told me after the layoffs were revealed. “Where we do well are those experiences we can 100 percent own, from inception to go-to-market.”

Google’s Family Link software now recommends ‘teacher-approved’ apps

Google today is expanding the capabilities of its Android parental control software, Family Link, to go beyond helping parents better manage their child’s device and app usage. Now, the Family Link app will also help parents learn about what apps they may want to install for their kids, as well. In a new discovery section, Family Link will feature a list of educational apps for children ages six through nine that parents can install with a tap.

The apps are “recommended by teachers,” the section proclaims.

Google explains that it worked with teachers from across the U.S. to come up with this curated list of apps with educational value. The teachers were recruited to rate content based on their expertise in learning and child development, and had a diverse background in terms of things like years of experience, demographics, and locations in the U.S.

The apps must also meet Google’s Designed for Families (DFF) program requirements. 

At launch, the recommended apps come from publishers like MarcoPolo Learning Inc., BrainPOP, Edoki Academy and others, and include those that teach kids about facts and figures, interesting places around the world, and, of course – it’s Google! – the basics of coding, among other things.

There are currently a few dozen recommended apps, but they won’t appear all at once. Instead, Google tells us, the list will refresh on a weekly basis so as not to overwhelm either the parent or child.

Over time, Google plans to add more apps to the feature, including those for other age ranges.

Currently, all the apps are free, but Google may choose to highlight paid apps in the future, a spokesperson says.

Parents can tap on the apps to visit their page on Google Play, and add them directly to their child’s device with a tap on the “Install” button.

The feature is available in the Family Link mobile app for parents in the U.S. for the time being. Google says it will be available in other markets over time.

The recommendations of “nutritious” apps, as Google refers to them in an announcement, comes at a time when major tech companies are paying increased attention to the time spent on devices, and a growing concern among consumers – parents and otherwise – that it’s not time well spent.

At Google’s developer conference in May, the company detailed new Android-based tools for managing and monitoring screen time to promote healthier app and device usage. This includes ways to prevent the phone from distracting or stimulating users, as well as time limits for apps.

These sorts of controls are things parents want for their children, too, which is what Family Link, launched publicly in fall 2017, has provided.

But when even “screen time” itself is being seen as a concern, it makes sense that Google would want to showcase some of the apps that provide something of value.

The feature is launching today on Family Link for Android with iOS support to follow.

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StoryArc Media
Genre: GamesEducationAdventureFamily
Release Date: 2014-03-10