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Edtech's pivotal moment: Coronavirus brings sudden challenge, opportunity

Companies are rushing to offer free online services as campuses close over COVID-19. One question is whether the gains will last.

A girl sits at a computer

A girl in Italy joined her teacher and classmates online as the coronavirus shut schools.

Photo: Alfonso Di Vincenzo/KONTROLAB/LightRocket via Getty Images

As some school campuses shut down in-person classes and many others prepare to follow suit because of coronavirus, ed-tech companies are gearing up for what could be the industry's biggest test — and opportunity.

Companies offering everything from online coding classes to communications and video tools are encouraging schools and educators to get in touch, in many cases offering free access, and in some cases hoping these gifts eventually translate to revenue. Though closures are not yet widespread, ed-tech companies are already seeing growing interest.


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Now they face some key questions, including whether they can handle a possible onslaught of new customers — and sustain gains they make during a challenging but important moment.

The scrambling over COVID-19 "highlights the importance of having things like this accessible," said Sal Khan, founder and CEO of Khan Academy, the nonprofit known for its free online lessons. "It would be good practice to be able to virtualize at the touch of a button."

The spread of the virus has taken over the lives of people like Krishna Vedati, the co-founder and CEO of Tynker, an online education company that teaches kids programming and other STEM subjects through games and courses. He said that, as of Tuesday, 551 schools in 43 countries and across 42 states had signed up, a response to a mass offer his company made Friday to provide free and full access to the platform and curriculum until May.

"We started looking at this thing … saw that it's getting out of hand," he said. "We said, let's do it and worry about it later." Mountain View-based Tynker is a venture-backed startup with 50-plus employees, and Vedati said his team "wrote software tools in the last three days" to handle the flood of new users.

Another startup offering free access is WeVideo, also of Mountain View, whose video-making tools are mostly used by K-12 students and educators for book reports, slideshows, podcasts and other multimedia presentations. John Kline, vice president for education sales, said Tuesday that WeVideo had received applications from about 40 schools, mostly from overseas in places like South Korea, Japan and the United Arab Emirates. Half a dozen of the inquiries have come from U.S. schools.

So far, the 60-person startup that serves about 4 million students in the United States and Canada can accommodate a reasonable volume of new customers, but it may get tough if requests pile up, Kline said. WeVideo is offering free access through July, but, "If things (get) worse, I don't know what we'll do," he said, adding that the company might need to ask customers to help cover costs.

Zoom, the San Jose-based video-conferencing company, is temporarily removing the 40-minute limit on free basic accounts for schools in Japan and Italy, and K-12 schools in the U.S. can request the same. Zoom is used by, among others, Stanford University, which moved all classes online because of coronavirus.

Other companies offering free services include Pronto, a provider of online communications for educators, students and parents, and Discovery Education, a provider of digital textbooks and materials. Well-known players in edtech are ramping up efforts, too. Google, whose G Suite for Education has 90 million users, made Hangouts Meet features available for free through July 1.

Whatever solutions schools adopt will need to keep student privacy in mind, according to Common Sense Media, the San Francisco-based family and media advocacy group. "'Free' does not always mean free if students' data is the price they pay," a spokesperson said.

Related:

Some schools are also looking to replicate a true classroom experience, like a virtual lecture, as opposed to offerings that let students go at their own pace. Such solutions are possible through Hangouts or paid services like Zoom but could run into limitations depending on a district's budget and technical capabilities.

Another challenge for both edtech and educators: the equity gap. Not all students have access to computers or broadband connections at home.

There are some possible solutions to the digital divide, including online-learning tools that can be accessed on a mobile phone. Google has "Rolling Study Halls," which bring school buses, educators, devices and Wi-Fi to some rural communities in the nation. At least one school district, in Washington state, is reportedly providing mobile hot spots to students who need them.

Khan said his group is trying to think of other ways it can help. "I'm brainstorming with my team," he said. "We've been talking. Can we get some great teachers and get them on Zoom calls? And as many students as want to can join." He wonders if schools should move up their summer vacations to now, then have students start the next school year earlier.

Whatever happens, "It's our duty to step in," Khan said. "This is why we exist."

Protocol | Fintech

Plaid’s COO is riding fintech’s choppy waves

He's a striking presence on the beach. If he navigates Plaid's data challenges, Eric Sager will loom large in the financial world as well.

Plaid COO Eric Sager is an avid surfer.

Photo: Plaid

Eric Sager is an avid surfer. It's a fitting passion for the No. 2 executive at Plaid, a startup that's riding fintech's rough waters — including a rogue wave on the horizon that could cause a wipeout.

As Plaid's chief operating officer, Sager has been helping the startup navigate that choppiness, from an abandoned merger with Visa to a harsh critique by the CEO of a top Wall Street bank.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

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The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

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Saul Hudson
Saul Hudson has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, especially in understanding and targeting messages in cutting-edge technologies. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, in helping companies to build passionate audiences and accelerate their growth. Hudson has reported from more than 30 countries, from war zones to boardrooms to presidential palaces. He has led multinational, multi-lingual teams and managed operations for hundreds of journalists. Hudson is a Managing Partner at Angle42, a strategic communications consultancy.
Power

Google wants to help you get a life

Digital car windows, curved AR glasses, automatic presentations and other patents from Big Tech.

A new patent from Google offers a few suggestions.

Image: USPTO

Another week has come to pass, meaning it's time again for Big Tech patents! You've hopefully been busy reading all the new Manual Series stories that have come out this week and are now looking forward to hearing what comes after what comes next. Google wants to get rid of your double-chin selfie videos and find things for you as you sit bored at home; Apple wants to bring translucent displays to car windows; and Microsoft is exploring how much you can stress out a virtual assistant.

And remember: The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

People

Citizen’s plan to keep people safe (and beat COVID-19) with an app

Citizen CEO Andrew Frame talks privacy, safety, coronavirus and the future of the neighborhood watch.

Citizen added COVID-19 tracking to its app over the summer — but its bigger plans got derailed.

Photo: Citizen

Citizen is an app built on the idea that transparency is a good thing. It's the place users — more than 7 million of them, in 28 cities with many more to come soon — can find out when there's a crime, a protest or an incident of any kind nearby. (Just yesterday, it alerted me, along with 17,900 residents of Washington, D.C., that it was about to get very windy. It did indeed get windy.) Users can stream or upload video of what's going on, locals can chat about the latest incidents and everyone's a little safer at the end of the day knowing what's happening in their city.

At least, that's how CEO Andrew Frame sees it. Critics of Citizen say the app is creating hordes of voyeurs, incentivizing people to run into dangerous situations just to grab a video, and encouraging racial profiling and other problematic behaviors all under the guise of whatever "safety" means. They say the app promotes paranoia, alerting users to things that they don't actually need to know about. (That the app was originally called "Vigilante" doesn't help its case.)

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

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