Posts from hacking education

The Work-Life Balance Revolution

Yesterday, I had a gap in the middle of the day. So the Gotham Gal and I took an hour-long walk with our dog Ollie. It cleared my head and when I got back to work, I was full of energy and clarity.

I’ve been working exclusively from home since the end of November 2019 when we left NYC to go to LA. It has been a stretch of incredible productivity for me.

I am not arguing against going back to the office. As I’ve said in many posts recently, I can’t wait to go back to the office. But I am sure that many of us have had the same experience that I have had working from home during the pandemic. It has its advantages.

And in that realization exists the possibility that we are on the cusp on a revolution in how many of us can find work life balance going forward.

My friend Tom wrote this post last week suggesting that a husband and wife can now work a total of 50 hours a week between them and have two full-time jobs and raise a family. This part sums up the idea pretty well:

Why do I think 25 hours/ week is the equivalent of a 50-hour week (counting commuting)?

Given a nine-to five schedule with an hour for lunch, the 40 hour work week was only 35 to begin with.

As an ex-CEO, I think that at least ten hours of each workweek go to socialization, surfing the internet, checking with the spouse or checking up on the children, chatting on smartphones etc. (Mary thinks only five).

Meetings and travel to meetings waste a huge amount of time and money. One reason that Zooming appears not to have reduced productivity is that many of the meetings weren’t productive to begin with.

Office space and often parking are expenses to the employer but they are not income to the worker. If office space and all its attendant costs can be drastically reduced, employers can afford to pay more dollars in salary for the same productivity.

Commuting expense including perhaps even the second car, daycare, clothing and dry-cleaning bills, and paid before and after school activities whose purpose is to supervise school age kids are all expenses which go away when parents can work from home. Even if the WFH employee has less gross taxable income, he or she will have more cash at the end of each month.

https://blog.tomevslin.com/2021/01/newnormal-the-50-hour-family-work-week.html

Even if Tom is off by a bit with his math, he makes a terrific point. Companies can ask for less of a family’s time, pay them more, and get the same amount of work done using the techniques we have perfected during the pandemic.

I realize that not all jobs lend themselves to this approach. But maybe more than you think. Take doctors. We used to have to go see doctors in their offices. Now with digital health services like those offered by our portfolio companies Brave and Nurx, the doctors are seeing the patients from their homes (or wherever they are).

Teaching is another occupation that presents a lot of opportunity to rethink time and location. Many teachers have been learning how to help their students master new things from their kitchen counters over the last year.

I want to say it again. I am not suggesting that we won’t be going to offices anymore. I am not saying doctors won’t have offices anymore. I am not saying teachers won’t be in classrooms anymore.

What I am saying is that we can and should be asking how much of our work time needs to be in person, face to face, and how much can be virtual. And I am certain that we will be asking that. In our year-end reviews at USV, we heard again and again from our team that they wanted to ask those questions. They should. Commuting and business travel are not the necessities they were last century.

And, naturally, this coming work-life balance revolution presents tremendous opportunities for new products, services, and companies. We have been seeing many of them crop up over the last year and have invested in a few of them.

From bad comes good. This pandemic and all of the things that have come with it has been awful. But I believe it will unleash all sorts of new behaviors and businesses that will be for the better. If you squint, you can see them coming.

#climate crisis#economics#employment#enterprise#entrepreneurship#Family#hacking education#health care#management#VC & Technology

Expand E-Rate To Low Income Households

E-Rate is a program put in place in the 1996 Telecommunications Act to expand Universal Service Fund fees to schools in order to help them upgrade their telecom infrastructure. Telcos charge customers Universal Service Fund fees so that they can provide “universal service”, originally aimed at rural and other locations that were/are not profitable to service otherwise.

E-Rate has largely been successful in helping schools move from no internet, to DSL and low bandwidth internet, to cable and fiber over the last twenty years.

But now we have the realization that remote, blended, and hybrid learning models, brought on by the pandemic and likely here to stay in some form, require something more. They require that EVERY child needs a reliable high bandwidth connection to the internet from their home.

School districts all over the country have been scrambling for the last nine months to raise money from charitable sources so that they can provide hot spots and other ways to get kids internet in their homes so they can attend school. I have participated in a number of these campaigns and they have been heroic in many ways, but it is still not enough.

The FCC can do something simple and powerful. They can do it now. They can expand E-Rate to include low income households who need reliable and high bandwidth internet so that their children can attend school.

I would like to see them do that asap.

#hacking education#hacking government#policy

Going Direct To Learners With Software

I was talking to a group of education entrepreneurs (on Zoom naturally) last week and was advocating for the “direct to learner” approach that defines our eduction investing strategy at USV. For the most part, we do not like to back companies that sell learning tools to educational institutions. We like to back companies that use software to go directly to learners, wherever they may be.

As an example of a powerful model that I like very much, I talked about Scratch, the visual programming environment built at MIT over the last twenty years. Anyone can use Scratch, from anywhere, as long as they have a computing device.

And between that talk and today, Scratch published their 2019 Annual Report. Scratch is a non-profit that the Gotham Gal and I have supported over the years. So I read that annual report with interest.

Here are some charts from that annual report:

Scratch is heavily used in schools all around the world. But it is not sold to schools. It is simply used by schools. It is also used by kids, parents, tutors, and anyone else who wants to help a child learn to instruct a machine to do something fun and rewarding.

That’s the power of using software to go direct to learners. You can reach so many learners and teach them so much.

#hacking education

Sora

My partner Rebecca wrote about our most recent education investment, Sora, on the USV blog today. We have been investing in learning for over a decade at USV and have built a terrific learning portfolio focusing on companies that are providing services direct to the learner (as opposed to selling “ed tech” to institutions).

What we had not done, until now, is backed a company providing an alternative learning “institution.” Sora does that. And so I thought it would be worth talking a bit about that.

Sora is a high school “built for you.” As Rebecca wrote in the USV blog post about Sora:

Through a combination of small social pods, self-directed projects, and student-run organizations, high schoolers shape their academic and extracurricular experience, as well as the governance of the school. Instead of tests and assessments, high schoolers prove what they know by what they can do –  code a video game, wire a miniature greenhouse, or produce a paid ad spot for a company.  Students are encouraged to lean into subjects that speak to them and build a project portfolio in the disciplines where they’re most excited.

and

Over time, Sora students hit all of the traditional curriculum milestones essential for high school graduation, in a more tactile, self-directed manner and without exams as a benchmark of their mastery or creativity. Even in these early days, Sora is wrapping up the final stages of accreditation and is part of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, meaning students graduate with a transcript easily understood by colleges if they choose to pursue that path.  

So if you or your child is/are not having a great high school experience and you want something else, check out Sora. Sora is not free, like your local public high school, but it is very affordable and we hope that it becomes even more affordable over time as it scales into a new, different, and possibly better way for some to go to high school.

#hacking education

Funding Friday: NextMaker Box

Regular readers will know that I am a huge fan and funder of teaching kids to code. I believe helping young people learn to think logically via coding exercises is helpful to their development in so many ways.

So when I came across the NextMaker project on Kickstarter, I backed it instantly.

NextMaker is a monthly box that comes with a project that your kids can do combining coding with making things. The programming is all block based (visual) so youngsters can do it easily and it is fun for them.

I’m embedding the video here on the web, but if you get this via email, click on this link and watch it.

#crowdfunding#hacking education

I'm No Good At Numbers

In the final presentation session of our Summer Bridge internship program yesterday, an impressive young man told us that he had stayed away from a career in business because he “was not good at numbers.”

I stopped him and suggested that maybe he is good at numbers but only numbers that interest him. He pondered that for a minute and agreed that when numbers matter to him, he’s interested in them.

That’s how everyone is in my experience. If things get too abstract or too fuzzy, people tune out and then convince themselves they aren’t any good at the subject.

Of course some people are better at numbers than others. I’ve always had a feel for numbers. But I can’t sing. So everyone has their strengths and weaknesses.

But I reject the idea that some people are not good at math. I think if you make math interesting and relevant to them, everyone can and will do math.

#hacking education

Quizlet’s State of Remote Learning Report 2020

Our portfolio company Quizlet put out a “State of Remote Learning Report” this week based on what they are seeing across their global learning platform during the pandemic. Quizlet wrote a blog post about it as well.

There are some very interesting data points in the report:

Quizlet explains this chart in their report this way:

Although no country was prepared for the quick pivot to remote learning, most were able to not only return to their pre-COVID-19 online study levels, but actually became more engaged than before. In fact, across Quizlet’s top 50 markets, we saw a 200 to 400percent increase in new students and teachers signing up to use the platform as schools moved to distance learning models. This was especially true in countries, such as Singapore, where the national government mandated classes to resume and provided guidance on the structure and tools to use in a remote setting. The U.S. however, was far less prepared than many other countries to pivot and engage their students online through the rest of the school year. As shelter in place orders came into effect, U.S. high school student visits dropped, and even as students tried to finishout the school year and regained some of their study habits back, the U.S. did not return to normal study engagement levels.

So the US has not reacted to the shift to online learning nearly as successfully as many other countries around the world.

It also seems that subjects like math tend to work better in an online environment.

These are just two of the interesting data points in the report. The entire report is worth a read and it is only ten pages. You can read it here.

#hacking education

Investing In Learning

USV has invested in the education sector for a bit more than ten years. We kicked things off with an event we called Hacking Education back in March 2009.

We have focused on “direct to learner” businesses and have mostly avoided investing in companies that sell to the established education system.

This has been a good strategy and we have assembled a fantastic direct to learner portfolio that includes companies like Duolingo, Quizlet, Skillshare, Codecademy, and Outschool.

We’ve been doing some work to understand this portfolio in the light of this remote learning moment we are in.

This portfolio reaches hundreds of millions of learners all around the world each month. Many learners use these products for free. A small percentage of learners pay. And yet this portfolio will generate close to a half a billion dollars of revenue in 2020.

Another interesting thing about this portfolio is that none of these companies have spent a lot of capital building their businesses. They have all been very capital efficient and most are cash flow positive at this point.

What this tells me is that direct to learner businesses are very attractive. They can serve a very large number of learners very efficiently, they can lightly monetize and yet produce massive revenues because of their scale, and they don’t require a huge amount of capital to build.

We hope to find more businesses like this to invest in as we think we are just at the beginning of rethinking how we want to learn and educate.

If you want to see some of this in action, you should check out Codecademy’s Learn From Home Day tomorrow, May 13th, starting at 10:45am ET. It looks to be a fun day of learning.

#hacking education

Learn To Code If You've Lost Your Job

Learning to code was the thing that unlocked it all for me. I learned to hack in Basic during high school. I parlayed that into a programming job in college, which led to my first job out of college, which then led to a job that helped me pay for graduate school, which led to a job in venture capital.

That is why I have made getting computer science broadly deployed in the K-12 system in NYC and around the US the philanthropic effort that I put most of my charitable time into. I really believe that learning to code can put you on a path of opportunity.

So I was excited to see that our portfolio company Codecademy, which helps anyone learn to code online, has a program to provide 100,000 displaced workers a free subscription to their Pro product.

Here is how it works. For every Codecademy Pro membership that is bought, the company is donating 5 to displaced workers.

So far, that has resulted in 50,000 “scholarships” for displaced workers. And I am confident they will reach their goal of 100,000 scholarships for displaced workers.

If you are a displaced worker and want to learn to code for free, you can apply here (need to login first).

And if you want to learn to code and support five scholarships by doing that, you can do that here.

#hacking education

The Duolingo English Test

I wrote about our portfolio company Duolingo’s English Proficiency Test back in August of last year. I have always loved the idea that a company that helps people learn a language can also help people prove their fluency in a language. It is two sides of the same coin.

But the road to success with the English Proficiency Test has been hard. The “incumbent provider” of English proficiency tests, Test Of English As A Foreign Language (aka TOEFL), has had all of the companies and universities who accept it locked up for many years. And if you are required to certify with TOEFL, well then you take TOEFL.

The Duolingo English Test is and has always been a way better product than TOEFL. But in some markets, incumbency matters more than better. One of the primary benefits of the Duolingo English Test is you take it at home on your computer versus having to go to a proctored location. It costs less ($49 vs $205). And the test takes one hour vs three hours. And yet, it has been hard to crack into this market.

And then the pandemic hit. No more in-person testing. As the international higher education publication PIE News puts it:

With the suspension of traditional English proficiency tests in countries most affected by the coronavirus, a wave of US institutions are now accepting the results of the Duolingo English Test, either as stand-alone proof or as a supplement to other measures of English-language proficiency.

https://thepienews.com/news/us-more-heis-accepting-the-duolingo-english-test-amid-uncertainty/

Duolingo’s co-founder and CEO, Luis von Ahn, told me this in an email yesterday:

1. The number of tests we administer per day has gone up 10x!

2. 500 new university programs have begun accepting the Duolingo English Test in the last 8 weeks (we had 1,000 before this). 

3. Both TOEFL and IELTS, after spending a lot of time saying that online tests were no good, now have online options.

So now the market is open to competition and the best product can win. I’m betting on Duolingo (and have been since we made our seed investment in the company in 2012).

#hacking education