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The Top Education Startups of 2012

by Staff Writers

While once it might have been shocking to see a classroom outfitted with computers, or considered revolutionary to be able to take a course online, today both of those things are pretty commonplace. As technology is playing an ever bigger role in our lives, education from kindergarten to college has naturally been impacted as well, in part thanks to the revolutionary changes made possible by education-focused startups. These startups have made it possible to share lectures with students all over the world, reduce costs, and in some cases have made it easier for teachers to monitor and track student progress. All in all, they’re making some real and lasting changes in education both at home at abroad.

2012 has been a particularly great year for educational technology, with new ventures getting up and running and old ones going from fledgling companies to industry standards. This list highlights both, letting you learn a bit more about the latest additions to the educational technology market as well as understanding what companies are worth watching this year and into the next.

New

These startups were founded or launched over the past two years. They’re new to the market, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t making waves. Take a look at some of 2012′s hottest new ed startups.

  • BetterLesson:

    Launched at the end of 2011, this startup was founded by a group of teachers and schools who wanted to create a place where educators could connect, build and share lessons, and organize educational materials. The site focuses on quality over quantity, and hopes to use the $1.6 million in seed money it garnered to build a site that helps teachers improve lessons and, in turn, helps students to learn more. With more than 250 teachers signing up every day, it’s heading into 2013 strong.

  • ClassroomWindow:

    Launched just this year, ClassroomWindow offers teachers a chance to review the products and services they use in the classroom. It’s a bit like Yelp for teaching, and the founders hope it will not only empower teachers but also force educational publishers and developers to step up their game. With just $1 million in funding, the company is working with a smallish budget, but as it moves out of beta the site may just become a major player in the $25 billion K-12 education supply marketplace.

  • Clever:

    Backed by Y-Combinator, a startup incubator, Clever has built up a successful business model over the past year. The company helps educational institutions develop apps for managing student information by making it easier to access student data from Student Information Systems. Since launching, the company has earned more than $3 million in funding and has doubled the number of schools it works with from 1,000 to 2,000.

  • Codecademy:

    Despite launching less than a year ago, this startup is already emerging as a favorite. The company offers game-based online courses that teach people of all ages and experience levels how to code. In June, Codecademy announced that it had raised $10 million in venture funding, which it said would help it move into more high school and middle school classes over the coming year.

  • Coursera:

    Founded by Stanford computer science professors, Coursera provides access to courses from top-tier universities for free. There are now 34 different universities contributing course material to the site, and with over $22 million in funding this year to work with, the site is doing pretty well for itself, especially considering it just launched in April. Currently, it boasts about 1.75 million users, and while it’s not charging for courses at present, the company is working on ways to monetize its incredibly valuable and popular programs.

  • CreativeLive:

    CreativeLive is a startup that focuses on hosting online classes to help people learn new skills or hobbies. Since its founding in 2010, more than one million students have taken a course through CreativeLive’s website. In October of this year, the company announced that it has raised an additional $7.5 million in funding which will help it to expand and grow in 2013 and beyond.

  • EdX:

    One of the most talked-about educational startups of 2012 has to be MIT and Harvard’s joint venture EdX. EdX plans to offer online courses free of charge, with materials and curricula drawn from existing programs at both schools. It’s not all about just teaching students, however. Administrators also plan to use the platform to research how technology can transform learning. EdX, which just launched this fall, isn’t quite the traditional startup, as it’s not-for-profit, but if it proves successful it could create some major competition for others looking to get into the online learning market.

  • Fidelis:

    Transitioning from life in the military to life as a civilian can be hard, especially when it comes to finding education, training, and a job that uses the skills veterans already have. Fidelis focuses on helping former servicemen and women find online courses that will best serve their needs, with coaching and advisory support along the way. With $2.5 million in recent funding, the startup is revamping its website and the services it offers and will hopefully re-launch sometime early in 2013.

  • GoalBook:

    Tracking special-needs students with ILPs and IEPs can be a lot of work for teachers. GoalBook aims to make that a little easier, helping to streamline communication, engage parents, and ensure that students and all who work with them are aware of the educational goals being set. GoalBook is one of the newest startups on this list, emerging from Imagine K12′s incubator less than a year ago. It’s since scored almost a million dollars in seed funding and hopes to soon become the first social and mobile platform for special education teachers.

  • Lore:

    Formerly known as Coursekit, this company got its start in late 2011. Since then, it has raised over $24 million to fund its goal: to become a real competitor to education management platform Blackboard, partly by incorporating a wealth of social features into the site. Earlier this year, Lore reported working with more than 600 colleges and universities as well as a large number of study groups, student organizations, and other classes.

  • Minerva Project:

    Think you can’t get a Harvard-quality education online? Well, right now you might be right, but when this project launches you might have to revise that opinion. It’s an ambitious goal, but it could be possible with former Harvard president Larry Summers sitting on the advisory board, and some serious funding from investors: $25 million in 2012 alone. Courses are still in the works for this startup with plans to launch in 2014, but due to its potential to change online education we thought it was worth including here.

  • Noodle Education:

    Created by the founder of the Princeton Review and 2U and developed by veterans from big names in education like Kumon and Kaplan, Noodle has a striking educational pedigree. So what does it do? Noodle is designed to help learners get personalized recommendations about formal and informal educational opportunities, ranging from calculus courses to fitness classes. To date, about 170,000 learning institutions are featured on Noodle, but since the site just launched its alpha release in May of 2012, that number will likely grow quickly over the next year.

  • Skillshare:

    Since getting off the ground in mid-2011 with the help of almost $4 million in funding, this community marketplace for learning, where visitors can learn (or teach) just about anything for a nominal fee, has gotten a pretty solid start in the online learning market. It was named a startup to watch in 2012 by Mashable, and has expanded its courses from New York to cities all over the U.S.

  • Treehouse:

    Startup Treehouse, new to the market in 2011, uses short videos, quizzes, and badges to help users learn about web design and iOS development. Courses are relatively cheap, costing just $29 to $49 per month, earning the company $3 million in revenue over the past year. With an additional $4.75 million in funding from venture capitalists in April of this year, as well as partnerships with Estee Lauder, Disney, and Zappos, the company is poised to have a very successful 2013.

  • Udacity:

    Former Stanford professor and Google VP and researcher Sebastian Thrun launched this online education venture earlier this year. Udacity hopes to bring high-quality university classes to as many students as possible, free of charge. How does it make money? If students want certifications for the skills they’ve learned, they can pay to take a test at one of the company’s testing centers. Not only has Udacity been a major newsmaker lately, it’s also gotten a fair amount of startup cash: close to $20 million this year.

  • UniversityNow:

    UniversityNow specializes in providing affordable college degrees online, offering access to Patten University and New Charter University courses through a web-based portal. It was a great year for the fledgling company, with investors contributing $17.3 million in funding to help it add new programs and degrees. Founder Gene Wade has said he thinks they’ll continue to grow, stating, "I think we’re at a tipping point where online education is accepted. There’s an enormous demand for education around the world."

Noteworthy

These startups are on the rise, with many getting some big funding and doing a lot of expanding in 2012. We think they’re among the big names to watch as we move into next year.

  • Desire2Learn:

    Desire2Learn offers learning management systems to K-12, higher ed, corporate, and government organizations that are similar to those of edtech giant Blackboard. While founded in 1999, the company has made big waves over the past year, scoring $80 million in venture funding this September, the largest ever in a Canadian software startup. The company plans to invest in more staff and marketing, to expand its base and better serve its more than 700 current customers.

  • Echo360:

    This Australian startup grew out of a partnership with the University of Western Australia, and helps higher education institutions put lectures and other learning materials online so that students can learn anytime, anywhere. The company believes that students in the digital age need this kind of flexibility, and many colleges seem to agree: the company has more than 500 subscribing institutions. Earlier in 2012, Echo360 received $31 million in funding to expand their services to 50% of all U.S. college students over the next five years, so it could soon be a pretty huge player in the edtech market.

  • MentorMob:

    Founded in 2009, though not publicly launched until 2011, this startup’s site helps users to organize and share crowdsourced content. Its playlists of educational material have garnered it comparisons to other sites like Pinterest and Pandora, though there really isn’t another site quite like it. In fact, MentorMob won the ITA CityLIGHTS Best New Concept Award in 2011. With new funding and a website redesign this year, the MentorMob is poised to go into 2013 looking better than ever.

  • Root-1:

    Gamification is a huge buzzword in edtech right now, and Root-1 is working to capitalize on that. The company develops educational apps, most related to vocabulary and writing, that can be played online or on a smartphone. So far, the company has launched four different games, a number of which have been top-ranked and recommended by educators. In 2012, Fast Company honored Root-1 as one of its Top 10 Innovative Education Companies.

  • ShowMe:

    ShowMe is a learning community, allowing users to teach or learn anything. Since the company was founded in 2009, over 1.5 million lessons have been created using the site’s built-in tools, including a whiteboard iPad app. Having started out with just $840,000 in funding, the company has since added a number of investors, including veteran startup investor Nihal Mehta in September of this year.

  • Top Hat Monocle:

    In July of 2012, Top Hat Monocle landed a major investment deal, providing the company with $8 million to work with. Since 2010, when the company got its start, it’s evolved from a simple polling system to something much more comprehensive. The new funding will allow Top Hat to begin developing new interactive features for its platform, adding to the polls, quizzes, and demonstrations it already holds.

  • TutorSpree:

    Through TutorSpree, the old-fashioned method of finding a tutor gets a modern makeover. All tutors on the site have to be pre-approved and qualified and students can easily search for an find reviews of tutors listed on the site. Eventually, the site hopes to launch features that will allow students to work with tutors directly online, and with a $1 million investment in hand at the end of 2011, it’s better placed to work towards that goal.

  • Voxy:

    There are a lot of companies out there vying for supremacy in the online language-learning market, but we think Voxy is worth noting. The company uses mobile technology, gaming, and everyday activities as part of the learning experience. While initially focused on teaching English to Spanish and Portuguese speakers, the startup is working hard to expand into other languages. That may become a reality, with $4 million in venture funding secured by the company in March of this year.

Major Players

Whether they’re new to the startup market or are old hands, these startups have dominated edtech news throughout 2012. If you haven’t heard about them or what they do, now’s the time to learn, as they’ll only grow bigger and more important in the coming years.

  • 2U:

    Formerly known as 2tor, this education-focused startup has pulled in an insane amount of funding over the past few years: almost $100 million since 2008. 2U operates by partnering with universities to build, administer, and market their online degree programs. It’s been pretty successful so far, working with big names in education like Georgetown University, the University of North Carolina, USC, and Washington University in St. Louis. Expect to see it expand even further over the next few years, as more universities look for ways to expand into the online education market.

  • Edmodo:

    Launched in 2008, Edmodo is one of the best known and most widely used social learning networks for teachers, students, and parents, allowing homework and grades to be assigned, viewed, and submitted online. Edmodo now has more than 4.8 million users and brought in a whopping $25 million in venture funding this year, enabling its continued expansion.

  • Khan Academy:

    Even those who know next to nothing about education startups have heard of this incredibly popular company. Founded in 2006, it has become an education phenomenon over the past few years, more than tripling its number of users to 3.5 million between 2006 and 2011. What makes it so popular? The site offers thousands of lectures and games, largely at the K-12 level, that help students learn things like chemistry, math, finance concepts, and history for free. Like EdX, however, Khan Academy is non-profit, and operates only through fundraising, with major donors including Google and Bill Gates.

  • Knewton:

    Based in NYC, this startup offers an adaptive learning platform to schools to help them to customize their educational content to the unique needs of students. The more students use the platform, the better it becomes at predicting the students’ needs and interests. Knewton was named a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum and is being used in 190 countries around the world to help with everything from basic education to SAT prep. Between 2008 and 2012, Knewton has captured more than $54 million in funding, giving it a lot of spending power to expand and develop new services and features.

  • Udemy:

    Since its launch in 2010, Udemy has published more than 4,500 courses on its site. Udemy operates by offering courses from instructors and experts in a wide range of fields for between $20 and $250. It’s been so popular that the top 10 instructors alone have made $1.6 million in sales of their course materials. Udemy is still going strong, drawing on course revenue as well as more than $5 million in funding.

Did we miss any of your favorite education startups? Let us know what your picks are for the best startups of 2012 in the comments.