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

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

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."

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