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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