ABCmouse and the growing need for research in educational technology

The pandemic has prompted the adoption of educational technology, creating a market for educational technology and reshaping how children learn.

In the past year alone, investors invested $2.2 billion in education technology companies, according to EdSurge. Data from PitchBook shows that the first half of this year has already surpassed that, reaching $3.6 billion

ABCmouse, one of the most popular children’s education apps, was seen in June when its Glendale-based parent company withdrew its largest-ever funding round for an education technology company: $300 million.

Besides, a suite of educational apps for kids – from Khan Academy Kids to Newsela – promise to improve children’s academic skills. Duolingo, a popular language learning app, went public in July. On the first day of trading, shares closed 36% higher, valuing the company at nearly $5 billion. But there are still questions about whether screen time is effective and educational.

Tony Wan, head of investor content at San Francisco-based investment firm Rich Capital, said many investors who were afraid of investments in education technology in the past have seen an explosion in the adoption of educational technology tools at home and in the classroom, attracting more companies Private Equity and more prominent venture capitalists.

“I think the experience [during the pandemic] It really opened their eyes, followed by their wallets, in terms of the potential that education technology has and how broad some of these services are across geographies and across age groups,” Wan said.

Educational experience or restricted screen time?

Age of Learning, the 14-year-old represented by the iconic little gray mouse, has reached $3 billion after it secured a funding round backed by TPG, along with the Qatar Investment Authority and Madrone Capital Partners. It is one of the largest American educational technology companies of its kind.

The company was founded in 2007 by Doug Dohring, who in 2005 created and sold New Pets, a company that allowed users to own virtual pets and purchase virtual items for them using virtual money.

Dohring, who declined to speak, said he wanted to create an educational program to address the millions of students who are below grade level in reading and math, not who are trying to sell products to children. (Neo Pets has been criticized for the prevalence of advertisements on its website.)

ABCmouse pledges to get anxious kindergarten parents and older children to read and their older children quickly by “playing” educational games.

And while Age of Learning has funded numerous studies to assess whether its products work, many academics say third-party research is necessary to determine the effectiveness of these education technology applications, although effectiveness is difficult to measure.

“It’s hard to say if it really helps improve student learning, but I think it helps students engage and practice skills and motivate them to want to learn, that works for me,” said Tim Green, professor. of Educational Technology at California State University Fullerton.

Green said there isn’t a great deal of specific research on these tools, especially studies that have been replicated. One classroom with a specific teacher and a specific group of children does not represent all classes.

“If students spend 1-2 hours using the ABCmouse, I want to be able to specifically see some gains,” Green said. “I think it’s hard to do a lot of programs because these types of studies aren’t the easiest to set up, so I’m not sure that’s always possible.”

In the absence of research, teachers should assess whether children actively participate in the content or perceive it as just a game.

“We have to look at what they’re doing on the device,” said Sofia Mendoza, director of the Education Technology Initiative at Los Angeles Unified School District. She added that the implementation of these programs in the classroom should be “strategic and purposeful.”

Educators who have relied on technology during the pandemic are getting used to it. And as the education technology market continues to thrive, academics said it’s also important for investors to consider whether the companies they support are educational.

“If you’re saying you’re going to improve students’ ability to do math skills, it’s important to see that there is some evidence for that — and that can be hard to measure,” Green said. “Should investors be concerned about that? Of course.”

But Doug Lynch, a faculty member at the University of Southern California’s Rossier College of Education, isn’t convinced investors can do their due diligence when it comes to educational technology.

“Now everyone, for better or worse, is interested in education technology, so there is a lot of money coming in,” he said. “They are very smart investors, but they don’t know much about the market and what the science tells us about learning.”

Compounding the problem is the lack of a regulatory body that oversees educational technology, which makes it less scrutinized than other industries.

“We don’t take the same rigor that we do in education the way we do in healthcare, for example,” he said.

A good measure could be whether school districts buy the program, Lynch said, but some startups don’t.

COVID was the catalyst

The era of learning “make it” by many measures.

Its software has been accessed by 50 million children globally and has been used in hundreds of thousands of classrooms, according to the company.

“Never lose track of your child’s progress. All you have to do is play,” the company says in a promotional video promoting the $12.99 monthly subscription service.

Kids can navigate the app’s yellow classroom in over 850 lessons that can take the form of a zoo or a farm and include 10,000 activities ranging from reading and math to puzzles, games and drawing.

Digital lessons seem like a total win-win for over-extended parents, many of whom struggle to steer their kids away from idle screen time in a world where everything is done online.

“Our job is to build high-quality, engaging and effective digital learning programs that help children develop a love of learning and in doing so, build essential skills that help them in and out of school,” said Zachary Katz, CEO of Age of Learning. Who leads legal, corporate and business affairs.

With products aimed at kids 2 to 8 years old, Katz said kids typically spend 45 minutes on the application per week.

“You’re not talking about a great deal of screen time,” he said.

The latest capital injection will help the company expand internationally and invest in a patented system for determining a child’s skill level.

That comes because the company must also be reimbursing customers $10 million in illegal marketing and billing practices, after regulators discovered last year that Age of Learning automatically renewed tens of thousands of customer subscriptions, charging them without their consent. The FTC also found that edtech made it difficult for customers to cancel membership, which increased the company’s fines.

Even as kids return to the classroom, Katz said Age of Learning expects it to continue to grow. Its subscriber base remains at pre-COVID-19 levels.

“The gains we’ve seen in kids using our products have continued even as kids go back to school,” Katz said.

After many years of investors often neglecting the industry, we welcome interest in companies like Age of Learning.

“We know a fair amount about what can work,” Lynch said. “We don’t have all the necessary components for an ecosystem yet, so maybe COVID is the catalyst we need.”

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