People

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.

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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 | Workplace

A new McKinsey study shows that women do more emotional labor at work

The 2021 Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey found that women are far more likely than men to help their teams manage time and work-life balance and provide emotional support.

Senior leaders who identify as women were 60% more likely to provide emotional support to their teams and 26% more likely to help team members navigate work/life challenges, according to the report.

Photo: Luis Alvarez via Getty Images

Over the last year, emotional support, time management skills and work-life balance have become drastically more important and difficult in the workplace — and women leaders were far more likely than men to step in and do that work for their teams, according to the latest iteration of McKinsey and LeanIn.org's annual Women in the Workplace report.

Senior leaders who identify as women were 60% more likely to provide emotional support to their teams, 24% more likely to ensure their teams' workload is manageable and 26% more likely to help team members navigate work/life challenges, according to the report. In addition, about one in five women senior leaders spend a substantial amount of time on DEI work that is not central to their job, compared to less than one in 10 male senior leaders.

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Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: akramer@protocol.com), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

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Amazon needs New World’s launch to be a success

New World arrives Tuesday. Whether it flops could determine the future of Amazon Games.

New World launches on Tuesday, after four delays. It could be Amazon's first big hit.

Image: Amazon

Amazon's New World launches on Tuesday, marking the end of a long and bumpy road to release day for the company's most pivotal video game release to date. There's a lot riding on New World, a massively multiplayer online game in the vein of iconic successes like Blizzard's long-running World of Warcraft and Square Enix's immensely popular Final Fantasy XIV.

If the game succeeds, New World will mark a rare success for a technology company in the gaming space. With the exception of Microsoft, which entered the console game industry nearly two decades ago, tech firms have tried time and again to use their engineering talent and resources to crack the code behind making successful video games. Almost every attempt has failed, but Amazon is the closest to having a hit on its hands. If it flops, we could see Amazon's gaming ambitions go the way of Google's.

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Nick Statt
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Protocol | Enterprise

Underneath the Dreamforce pomp, Salesforce flexes its financial muscle

Last week, investors got a taste of Salesforce's post-Slack future. And despite looming risks, Wall Street appears to be buying it.

Dreamforce is a chance for customers to come together and celebrate everything Salesforce.

Photo: Salesforce

It's easy to forget that Dreamforce serves an important purpose for Salesforce beyond turning downtown San Francisco into a "Burning Man for people with jobs."

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Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Protocol | Policy

Section 230’s lefty defenders are lawyering up

A Q&A with Elizabeth Banker, the new vice president of legal advocacy at the Democratic-allied tech group Chamber of Progress.

Cases related to Section 230 are on the rise.

Photo: Geoff Livingston/Getty Images

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The provision in question shields sites from being sued over content that third-party users, known in 230-speak as "information content providers," post. Firms say Sec. 230 protects free speech online while allowing companies to moderate the platforms as they see fit. The law is often considered a boon to tech companies, in part because it often leads to lawsuits against them being dismissed quickly.

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