SF Startups Are Leading a New Era for Edtech, Closing the Digital Divide

A big year of funding has led to a lot of innovation in the edtech space. Yet while many people have already made the switch to videoconferencing and other tech-enabled educational tools, some have been left out of the digital shift.
Written by Jeremy Porr
January 19, 2021Updated: January 27, 2021

2020 was a year unlike any other, and while the pandemic may have turned the world upside down, Bay Area tech leaders jumped at the chance to innovate. Those in the edtech space specifically saw consumer interest spike as remote learning became the new normal for students everywhere.

As a result, fresh financing followed for several Bay Area-based edtech companies including Masterclass, Quizlet, Udemy, Coursera, Course Hero, and Springboard.

Masterclass, Coursera and Udemy closed on rounds equal to or surpassing $100 million. Course Hero earned a total of $80 million and both Quizlet and Springboard followed with rounds totaling $30 million and $31 million, respectively.

Shelley Osbourne, vice president of learning at Udemy, believes that the uptick in popularity of online learning platforms will long outlast the pandemic.

“It’s been really interesting watching how online education has become such an important force for good and for opportunity. Certainly, [last] year [was] challenging. But we’ve seen education come forward as a way through those challenges,” Osbourne said in an interview with Built In.

Renewed interest in distance learning via digital platforms revitalized the edtech industry by placing a new focus on connectivity, versatility and student-centered learning in the era of social distancing.

Last year, Udemy experienced huge surges in the amount of business learners accessing the platform to reskill or upskill for their careers, according to Osbourne.

 

Udemy for Business experienced huge surges of business learners on its platform last year.
photo: udemy

“We see people shifting their perspective,” Osbourne continued. “In the past, online education might have been seen as a possibility, and today, it really is sort of table stakes. We’ve realized that it’s the future and it’s no longer a fad. It’s the way we learn.”

 

The Work Can’t Wait

Although Osbourne believes online learning is the way of the future, she also believes one major challenge still presents itself to the edtech industry as a whole: increasing access.

The shift to online learning, while prosperous for the edtech giants of Silicon Valley, has left some students in the dust.

Roughly 16 million U.S. students, a disproportionate amount of which are Black, Native American or Latinx, report lacking sufficient technology to learn remotely, according to a study by Common Sense Media.

“All the federal broadband funding money is going to rural areas, but there’s a big problem in urban areas,” Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, said in an interview with Built In.

Thirty-six million U.S households do not have a wireline connection into their home, and of that 36 million, 26 million are located in urban areas, according to the NDIA.

“This is structurally racist; more of our communities of color are in urban areas than they are in rural areas,” Siefer continued.

As Americans of all ages turned to the internet for critical purposes during the pandemic, renewed focus was placed on how the digital divide — the gap between those who do or do not have access to technology — may hinder one’s ability to complete common tasks or schoolwork.

Lack of access to digital technology leaves many students out on their own and falling behind on homework, creating what Siefer refers to as the homework gap. Now that learning has shifted to being completely online and most public libraries with free internet access are closed, it’s unclear what other options those same students have.

“They need laptops and technology that they can take home and use, something tangible,” Siefer continued.

Schools with a higher percentage of students of color own fewer computers than predominantly white schools, according to a study by Stanford University.

“Creating more educational opportunities for children via online learning is the key to setting those children up for success in the future and eliminating some of the existing inequalities we see today,” Siefer said.

Also in San FranciscoThese Are Built In SF’s 5 Most-Viewed News Stories of 2020

 

Bridging the Gap

But all hope is not lost. Some Bay Area tech leaders are stepping up and taking action in the fight to close the digital divide.

Hewlett Packard launched its HP Refresh program last March to help communities crowdsource computer donations to local schools. In May, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey donated $10 million to a campaign aimed at providing computers and internet access to every student in the Oakland Unified School District.

In October, Bay Area-based edtech platform Osmo partnered with several nonprofit groups to distribute 50 of its devices as well as Amazon Fire Tablets to the Navajo Nation. Some 60 percent of Navajo homes lack access to the internet and the Navajo Nation has also been hit hard by the pandemic. This summer, it was home to the highest per-capita COVID-19 infection rate in the U.S.

“The core belief here is we want to help provide access to technology for kids who may not otherwise have access at home or at school, we’ve done a ton of work that we’re proud of on this front,” Karen O’Dell, director of PR at Osmo, told Built In.

 

Osmo donated 50 of its learning devices as well as Amazon Fire tablets to the Navajo Nation.
photo: osmo

Osmo worked with Protect Native Elders, USA Envision Us and the GetUsPPE.org initiative to donate hundreds of pounds of hospital-grade personal protective equipment as well as school supplies to Navajo schools and community hubs. Additionally, the company has donated over $100,000 of Osmo products to expand technological access to children across the U.S.

It is all part of an effort to take a proactive approach to the problem of digital access, Pramod Sharma, CEO of Osmo, told Built In. It is an approach he hopes catches on throughout the industry.

“If we want to bridge the gap, we need to do it sooner than later,” Sharma told Built In. “Because we are a company that is working for a younger demographic, it’s even more important for us, but again, we play a very small role. I think every education company should play a part.”

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