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Learning Apps Have Boomed During the Pandemic. Now Comes the Real Test

After a tough year of toggling between remote and in-person schooling, many students, teachers and their families feel burned out from pandemic learning. But companies that market digital learning tools to schools are enjoying a coronavirus windfall.

Venture and equity financing for education technology start-ups has more than doubled, surging to $12.58 billion worldwide last year from $4.81 billion in 2019, according to a report from CB Insights, a firm that tracks start-ups and venture capital.

During the same period, the number of laptops and tablets shipped to primary and secondary schools in the United States nearly doubled to 26.7 million, from 14 million, according to data from Futuresource Consulting, a market research company in Britain.

“We’ve seen a real explosion in demand,” said Michael Boreham, a senior market analyst at Futuresource. “It’s been a massive, massive sea change out of necessity.”

co-founded Blackboard, now one of the largest learning management systems for schools and colleges. “You can’t train hundreds of thousands of teachers and millions of students in online education and not expect there to be profound effects.”

Tech evangelists have long predicted that computers would transform education. The future of learning, many promised, involved apps powered by artificial intelligence that would adjust lessons to children’s abilities faster and more precisely than their human teachers ever could.

improve students’ outcomes.

Instead, during the pandemic, many schools simply turned to digital tools like videoconferencing to transfer traditional practices and schedules online. Critics say that push to replicate the school day for remote students has only exacerbated disparities for many children facing pandemic challenges at home.

“We will never again in our lifetime see a more powerful demonstration of the conservatism of educational systems,” said Justin Reich, an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies online learning and recently wrote the book “Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education.”

Apps that enable online interactions between teachers and students are reporting extraordinary growth, and investors have followed.

Among the biggest deals, CB Insights said: Zuoyebang, a Chinese ed-tech giant that offers live online lessons and homework help for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, raised a total of $2.35 billion last year from investors including Alibaba and Sequoia Capital China.

Yuanfudao, another Chinese tutoring start-up, raised a total of $3.5 billion from investors like Tencent. And Kahoot, a quiz app from Norway used by millions of teachers, recently raised about $215 million from SoftBank.

raised $100 million. Now Newsela is valued at $1 billion, a milestone that may be common among consumer apps like Instacart and Deliveroo but is still relatively rare for education apps aimed at American public schools.

Nearpod also reported exponential growth. After making the video lesson app free, the start-up saw its user base surge to 1.2 million teachers at the end of last year — a fivefold jump over 2019. Last month, Nearpod announced that it had agreed to be acquired by Renaissance, a company that sells academic assessment software to schools, for $650 million.

Some consumer tech giants that provided free services to schools also reaped benefits, gaining audience share and getting millions of students accustomed to using their product.

more than 150 million students and educators, up from 40 million early last year. And Zoom Video Communications says it has provided free services during the pandemic to more than 125,000 schools in 25 countries.

But whether tools that teachers have come to rely on for remote learning can maintain their popularity will hinge on how useful the apps are in the classroom.

Nesi Harold, an eighth-grade science teacher in the Houston area, have used features on the app to poll students, create quizzes or ask students to use a drawing tool to sketch the solar system — digital tools that work for both live classroom and remote instruction.

“It allows me to broadcast the lesson to all of my learners, no matter where they are,” said Ms. Harold, who simultaneously teaches in-person and remote students.

one complaint: She can’t store more than a few lessons at a time on Nearpod because her school hasn’t bought a license. “It’s still pricey,” she said.

The future in education is less clear for enterprise services, like Zoom, that were designed for business use and adopted by schools out of pandemic necessity.

In an email, Kelly Steckelberg, Zoom’s chief financial officer, said she expected educational institutions would invest in “new ways to virtually communicate” beyond remote teaching — such as using Zoom for Parent Teacher Association meetings, school board meetings and parent-teacher conferences.

Mr. Chasen, the ed-tech entrepreneur, is counting on it. He recently founded Class Technologies, a start-up that offers online course management tools — like attendance-taking and grading features — for educators and corporate trainers holding live classes on Zoom. The company has raised $46 million from investors including Bill Tai, one of the earliest backers of Zoom.

“I’m not coming up with some new advanced A.I. methodology,” Mr. Chasen said of his new app for video classrooms. “You know what teachers needed? They needed the ability to hand out work in class, give a quiz and grade it.”

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Learning Apps Have Boomed in the Pandemic. Now Comes the Real Test.

After a tough year of toggling between remote and in-person schooling, many students, teachers and their families feel burned out from pandemic learning. But companies that market digital learning tools to schools are enjoying a coronavirus windfall.

Venture and equity financing for education technology start-ups has more than doubled, surging to $12.58 billion worldwide last year from $4.81 billion in 2019, according to a report from CB Insights, a firm that tracks start-ups and venture capital.

During the same period, the number of laptops and tablets shipped to primary and secondary schools in the United States nearly doubled to 26.7 million, from 14 million, according to data from Futuresource Consulting, a market research company in Britain.

“We’ve seen a real explosion in demand,” said Michael Boreham, a senior market analyst at Futuresource. “It’s been a massive, massive sea change out of necessity.”

co-founded Blackboard, now one of the largest learning management systems for schools and colleges. “You can’t train hundreds of thousands of teachers and millions of students in online education and not expect there to be profound effects.”

Tech evangelists have long predicted that computers would transform education. The future of learning, many promised, involved apps powered by artificial intelligence that would adjust lessons to children’s abilities faster and more precisely than their human teachers ever could.

improve students’ outcomes.

Instead, during the pandemic, many schools simply turned to digital tools like videoconferencing to transfer traditional practices and schedules online. Critics say that push to replicate the school day for remote students has only exacerbated disparities for many children facing pandemic challenges at home.

“We will never again in our lifetime see a more powerful demonstration of the conservatism of educational systems,” said Justin Reich, an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies online learning and recently wrote the book “Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education.”

Apps that enable online interactions between teachers and students are reporting extraordinary growth, and investors have followed.

Among the biggest deals, CB Insights said: Zuoyebang, a Chinese ed-tech giant that offers live online lessons and homework help for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, raised a total of $2.35 billion last year from investors including Alibaba and Sequoia Capital China.

Yuanfudao, another Chinese tutoring start-up, raised a total of $3.5 billion from investors like Tencent. And Kahoot, a quiz app from Norway used by millions of teachers, recently raised about $215 million from SoftBank.

raised $100 million. Now Newsela is valued at $1 billion, a milestone that may be common among consumer apps like Instacart and Deliveroo but is still relatively rare for education apps aimed at American public schools.

Nearpod also reported exponential growth. After making the video lesson app free, the start-up saw its user base surge to 1.2 million teachers at the end of last year — a fivefold jump over 2019. Last month, Nearpod announced that it had agreed to be acquired by Renaissance, a company that sells academic assessment software to schools, for $650 million.

Some consumer tech giants that provided free services to schools also reaped benefits, gaining audience share and getting millions of students accustomed to using their product.

more than 150 million students and educators, up from 40 million early last year. And Zoom Video Communications says it has provided free services during the pandemic to more than 125,000 schools in 25 countries.

But whether tools that teachers have come to rely on for remote learning can maintain their popularity will hinge on how useful the apps are in the classroom.

Nesi Harold, an eighth-grade science teacher in the Houston area, have used features on the app to poll students, create quizzes or ask students to use a drawing tool to sketch the solar system — digital tools that work for both live classroom and remote instruction.

“It allows me to broadcast the lesson to all of my learners, no matter where they are,” said Ms. Harold, who simultaneously teaches in-person and remote students.

one complaint: She can’t store more than a few lessons at a time on Nearpod because her school hasn’t bought a license. “It’s still pricey,” she said.

The future in education is less clear for enterprise services, like Zoom, that were designed for business use and adopted by schools out of pandemic necessity.

In an email, Kelly Steckelberg, Zoom’s chief financial officer, said she expected educational institutions would invest in “new ways to virtually communicate” beyond remote teaching — such as using Zoom for Parent Teacher Association meetings, school board meetings and parent-teacher conferences.

Mr. Chasen, the ed-tech entrepreneur, is counting on it. He recently founded Class Technologies, a start-up that offers online course management tools — like attendance-taking and grading features — for educators and corporate trainers holding live classes on Zoom. The company has raised $46 million from investors including Bill Tai, one of the earliest backers of Zoom.

“I’m not coming up with some new advanced A.I. methodology,” Mr. Chasen said of his new app for video classrooms. “You know what teachers needed? They needed the ability to hand out work in class, give a quiz and grade it.”

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Three Feet or Six? Distancing Guideline for Schools Stirs Debate

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is clear and consistent in its social distancing recommendation: To reduce the risk of contracting the coronavirus, people should remain at least six feet away from others who are not in their households. The guideline holds whether you are eating in a restaurant, lifting weights at a gym or learning long division in a fourth-grade classroom.

The guideline has been especially consequential for schools, many of which have not fully reopened because they do not have enough space to keep students six feet apart.

Now, spurred by a better understanding of how the virus spreads and a growing concern about the harms of keeping children out of school, some public health experts are calling on the agency to reduce the recommended distance in schools from six feet to three.

“It never struck me that six feet was particularly sensical in the context of mitigation,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “I wish the C.D.C. would just come out and say this is not a major issue.”

reviewing the matter.

The idea remains contentious, in part because few studies have directly compared different distancing strategies. But the issue also boils down to a devilishly difficult and often personal question: How safe is safe enough?

“There’s no magic threshold for any distance,” said Dr. Benjamin Linas, a specialist in infectious diseases at Boston University. “There’s risk at six feet, there’s risk at three feet, there’s risk at nine feet. There’s risk always.” He added, “The question is just how much of a risk? And what do you give up in exchange?”

relatively low-risk environments; children under 10 seem to transmit the virus less readily than adults.

In recent months, there have been hints that six feet of distancing may not be necessary in school settings. Case rates have generally been low even in schools with looser distancing policies. “We know lots of schools have opened up to less than six feet and have not seen big outbreaks,” said Dr. Jha.

In a 2020 analysis of observational studies in a variety of settings, researchers found that physical distancing of at least one meter substantially reduced transmission rates of several different coronaviruses, including the one that causes Covid-19. But they found some evidence to suggest that a two meter guideline “might be more effective.”

“One of the really important data points that has been missing is a direct head-to-head comparison of places that had implemented three feet of distance versus six feet of distance,” said Dr. Elissa Perkins, the director of emergency medicine infectious disease management at Boston University School of Medicine.

the team reported in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases last week. The study also found that Covid-19 rates were lower in schools than in the surrounding communities.

The authors say the findings provide reassurance that schools can loosen their distancing requirements and still be safe, provided they take other precautions, like enforcing universal mask wearing.

“Masking still appears to be effective,” said lead investigator Dr. Westyn Branch-Elliman, an infectious diseases specialist at the VA Boston Healthcare System. “And so, provided we have universal masking mandates, I think it’s very reasonable to move to a three-foot recommendation.”

Not everyone finds the study so convincing. A. Marm Kilpatrick, an infectious disease researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said that the school-district data was too noisy to draw firm conclusions from. “It doesn’t really allow you to get, I think, an answer that you can feel really confident in,” he said.

The study’s authors acknowledged that they could not rule out the possibility that increased distancing provided a small benefit.

With aerosol transmission, safety generally increases with distance; the farther the aerosols travel, the more they diluted become. “It’s like being close to a smoker,” Dr. Marr said. “The closer you are, the more you’re going to breathe in.”

And distance aside, the more people there are in a room, the higher the odds that one of them will be infected with the coronavirus. A six-foot rule helps reduce that risk, said Donald Milton, an aerosol expert at the University of Maryland: “If people are six feet apart, you can’t pack them in. And so, it’s safer just because it’s less dense.”

Masks and good ventilation do a lot to reduce the risk. With these measures in place, the difference between three and six feet was likely to be relatively small, scientists said. And if Covid-19 is not very prevalent in the surrounding community, the absolute risk of contracting the virus in schools is likely to remain low, as long as these protections are in place.

“We can always do things to reduce our risks further,” Dr. Marr said. “But at some point, you reach diminishing returns, and you have to think about the costs of trying to achieve those additional risk reductions.”

Some experts say that a small increase in risk is outweighed by the benefits of fully reopening schools. “Trying to follow the six-foot guideline should not prevent us from getting kids back to school full time with masks, with at least three-foot distancing,” Dr. Marr said.

Others said it was too soon to loosen the C.D.C. guidelines. “Ultimately, I think there could be a place for this changing guidance,” Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist at George Mason University, said in an email. “But it’s not now, when we are struggling to vaccinate people, we’re still seeing over 60,000 cases a day and we’re trying to not reverse the progress we’ve made.”

Even proponents of changing the guideline say that any shift to looser distancing will have to be done carefully, and in combination with other precautionary measures. “If you’re in an area where there’s not a strong tendency to rely on masks, I don’t think it would be wise to extrapolate our data to that environment,” Dr. Perkins said.

Moreover, officials risk muddying the public health messaging if they establish different standards for schools than for other shared spaces. “I’ve evolved on this,” Dr. Linas said. “Last summer I felt like, ‘How are we going to explain to people that it’s six feet everywhere except for schools? That seems not consistent and problematic.’”

But schools are unique, he said. They are relatively controlled environments that can enforce certain safety measures, and they have unique benefits for society. “The benefits of school are different than the benefits of movie theaters or restaurants,” he said. “So I’d be willing to assume a little bit more risk just to keep them open.”

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Purdue Pharma Offers Plan to End Sackler Control and Mounting Lawsuits

In a filing that signifies the beginning of the end of the country’s most notorious manufacturer of prescription opioids, Purdue Pharma submitted its bankruptcy restructuring plan just before midnight on Monday. The blueprint requires members of the billionaire Sackler family to relinquish control of the company and transforms it into a new corporation with revenue directed exclusively toward abating the addiction epidemic that its signature painkiller, OxyContin, helped create.

The plan, more than 300 pages long, is the company’s formal bid to end thousands of lawsuits and includes a pledge from the Sacklers to pay $4.275 billion from their personal fortune — $1.3 billion more than their original offer — to reimburse states, municipalities, tribes and other plaintiffs for costs associated with the epidemic.

If the plan is approved by a majority of the company’s creditors and Judge Robert D. Drain of federal bankruptcy court in White Plains, N.Y., payments will start pouring into three buckets: one to compensate individual plaintiffs, like families whose relatives overdosed or guardians of infants born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, as well as hospitals and insurers; another for tribes; and the third — and largest — for state and local governments, which have been devastated by the costs of a drug epidemic that has only worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“With drug overdoses still at record levels, it is past time to put Purdue’s assets to work addressing the crisis,” said Steve Miller, chairman of Purdue’s board of directors, in a statement. “We are confident this plan achieves that critical goal. ”

filed for bankruptcy protection in 2019.

pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges in November for defrauding health agencies and violating anti-kickback laws.

Individual members of the Sackler family agreed to pay the federal government $225 million in civil penalties, but said in a statement that they had “acted ethically and lawfully.” Although the Sacklers were not charged criminally, the Justice Department reserved the right to pursue criminal charges later.

recent public health principles that were signed by at least two dozen major medical, drug policy and academic institutions and that include attention to drug prevention, youth education, racial equity and transparency.

The plan will be voted on by tens of thousands of parties. Confirmation hearings will ensue, and a conclusion is expected in a few months. From the start of the bankruptcy proceedings 18 months ago, leaders of a major bloc of municipalities signaled their support, as did 24 states.

Lloyd B. Miller, who represents numerous tribes including the Navajo Nation, said his clients were on board.

“It’s critical that more opioid treatment funding starts flowing into tribal communities, all the more so given the extraordinary devastation tribes have suffered during the Covid pandemic,” he said.

But since 2019, when Purdue filed for bankruptcy, 24 other states — some controlled by Democrats, others by Republicans — and the District of Columbia have opposed the move, noting that Purdue has continued to profit from its OxyContin sales.

Maura Healey, the attorney general of Massachusetts, who was the first to sue individual members of the Sackler family, contended that under this plan, the Sackler payments would come from their investment returns rather than from principal.

“The Sacklers became billionaires by causing a national tragedy,” Ms. Healey said in a statement. “They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it by paying a fraction of their investment returns over the next nine years and walking away richer than they are today.”

Attorneys general for the opposing states said that although the plan was an improvement over earlier proposals, they still found it disappointing for several reasons. Among those, they said, the plan should be amended to establish “a prompt and orderly wind-down of the company that does not excessively entangle it with states and other creditors.”

Two branches of the Sackler family — heirs of two of the brothers who founded the company — said: “Today marks an important step toward providing help to those who suffer from addiction, and we hope this proposed resolution will signal the beginning of a far-reaching effort to deliver assistance where it is needed.”

The eldest brother, Dr. Arthur Sackler, sold his shares before OxyContin was introduced and his relatives are not part of the litigation.

A forensic audit of the Sacklers’ finances, commissioned by Purdue in the course of the bankruptcy investigations, determined that from 2008 to 2017 the family earned more than $10 billion from the company. Lawyers for the family said that the full amount was not liquid: More than half went toward taxes and investments in businesses that will be sold as part of the bankruptcy agreement.

Although states and other blocs of creditors have vociferously objected to elements of the plan for 18 months, many factors seem to favor the likelihood of approval: the duration of the litigation, the exorbitant cost to all parties, the urgency of the worsening opioid crisis and the overall depletion of public health resources by the coronavirus pandemic.

The new company would continue to sell OxyContin, a painkiller that is still approved by the Food and Drug Administration under limited circumstances. But it would diversify its products to include generics and a drug to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, as well as set aside new drugs to reverse overdoses and treat addiction, to be distributed on a nonprofit basis as a public health initiative.

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Who Is Making Sure the A.I. Machines Aren’t Racist?

Hundreds of people gathered for the first lecture at what had become the world’s most important conference on artificial intelligence — row after row of faces. Some were East Asian, a few were Indian, and a few were women. But the vast majority were white men. More than 5,500 people attended the meeting, five years ago in Barcelona, Spain.

Timnit Gebru, then a graduate student at Stanford University, remembers counting only six Black people other than herself, all of whom she knew, all of whom were men.

The homogeneous crowd crystallized for her a glaring issue. The big thinkers of tech say A.I. is the future. It will underpin everything from search engines and email to the software that drives our cars, directs the policing of our streets and helps create our vaccines.

But it is being built in a way that replicates the biases of the almost entirely male, predominantly white work force making it.

especially with the current hype and demand for people in the field,” she wrote. “The people creating the technology are a big part of the system. If many are actively excluded from its creation, this technology will benefit a few while harming a great many.”

The A.I. community buzzed about the mini-manifesto. Soon after, Dr. Gebru helped create a new organization, Black in A.I. After finishing her Ph.D., she was hired by Google.

She teamed with Margaret Mitchell, who was building a group inside Google dedicated to “ethical A.I.” Dr. Mitchell had previously worked in the research lab at Microsoft. She had grabbed attention when she told Bloomberg News in 2016 that A.I. suffered from a “sea of dudes” problem. She estimated that she had worked with hundreds of men over the previous five years and about 10 women.

said she had been fired after criticizing Google’s approach to minority hiring and, with a research paper, highlighting the harmful biases in the A.I. systems that underpin Google’s search engine and other services.

“Your life starts getting worse when you start advocating for underrepresented people,” Dr. Gebru said in an email before her firing. “You start making the other leaders upset.”

As Dr. Mitchell defended Dr. Gebru, the company removed her, too. She had searched through her own Google email account for material that would support their position and forwarded emails to another account, which somehow got her into trouble. Google declined to comment for this article.

Their departure became a point of contention for A.I. researchers and other tech workers. Some saw a giant company no longer willing to listen, too eager to get technology out the door without considering its implications. I saw an old problem — part technological and part sociological — finally breaking into the open.

talking digital assistants and conversational “chatbots,” Google Photos relied on an A.I. system that learned its skills by analyzing enormous amounts of digital data.

Called a “neural network,” this mathematical system could learn tasks that engineers could never code into a machine on their own. By analyzing thousands of photos of gorillas, it could learn to recognize a gorilla. It was also capable of egregious mistakes. The onus was on engineers to choose the right data when training these mathematical systems. (In this case, the easiest fix was to eliminate “gorilla” as a photo category.)

As a software engineer, Mr. Alciné understood the problem. He compared it to making lasagna. “If you mess up the lasagna ingredients early, the whole thing is ruined,” he said. “It is the same thing with A.I. You have to be very intentional about what you put into it. Otherwise, it is very difficult to undo.”

the study drove a backlash against facial recognition technology and, particularly, its use in law enforcement. Microsoft’s chief legal officer said the company had turned down sales to law enforcement when there was concern the technology could unreasonably infringe on people’s rights, and he made a public call for government regulation.

Twelve months later, Microsoft backed a bill in Washington State that would require notices to be posted in public places using facial recognition and ensure that government agencies obtained a court order when looking for specific people. The bill passed, and it takes effect later this year. The company, which did not respond to a request for comment for this article, did not back other legislation that would have provided stronger protections.

Ms. Buolamwini began to collaborate with Ms. Raji, who moved to M.I.T. They started testing facial recognition technology from a third American tech giant: Amazon. The company had started to market its technology to police departments and government agencies under the name Amazon Rekognition.

Ms. Buolamwini and Ms. Raji published a study showing that an Amazon face service also had trouble identifying the sex of female and darker-​skinned faces. According to the study, the service mistook women for men 19 percent of the time and misidentified darker-​skinned women for men 31 percent of the time. For lighter-​skinned males, the error rate was zero.

New York Times article that described it.

In an open letter, Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Gebru rejected Amazon’s argument and called on it to stop selling to law enforcement. The letter was signed by 25 artificial intelligence researchers from Google, Microsoft and academia.

Last June, Amazon backed down. It announced that it would not let the police use its technology for at least a year, saying it wanted to give Congress time to create rules for the ethical use of the technology. Congress has yet to take up the issue. Amazon declined to comment for this article.

Dr. Gebru and Dr. Mitchell had less success fighting for change inside their own company. Corporate gatekeepers at Google were heading them off with a new review system that had lawyers and even communications staff vetting research papers.

Dr. Gebru’s dismissal in December stemmed, she said, from the company’s treatment of a research paper she wrote alongside six other researchers, including Dr. Mitchell and three others at Google. The paper discussed ways that a new type of language technology, including a system built by Google that underpins its search engine, can show bias against women and people of color.

After she submitted the paper to an academic conference, Dr. Gebru said, a Google manager demanded that she either retract the paper or remove the names of Google employees. She said she would resign if the company could not tell her why it wanted her to retract the paper and answer other concerns.

Cade Metz is a technology correspondent at The Times and the author of “Genius Makers: The Mavericks Who Brought A.I. to Google, Facebook, and the World,” from which this article is adapted.

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Yo-Yo Ma plays cello in vaccine waiting room in Massachusetts – video

The renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma gives an impromptu performance in a vaccine waiting room in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, after having received his second dose of the coronavirus vaccine. He performs Ave Maria and the prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No 1 to the small number of patients waiting to receive the dose. Ma, who played for about 15 minutes, is a part-time resident of the area and wanted to ‘give something back’ to his community, according to a local paper, the Berkshire Eagle

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