The future of mobile education belongs to platforms.
GUEST COLUMN | by Andrew Cohen
“What’s your go-to-market strategy?” “How are you going to cut through the noise?” “How are you different than ‘X’?” These are increasingly common questions that mobile education startups are getting asked by investors these days, and few entrepreneurs have great answers. Indeed, with over 50,000 education apps on the App Store, today’s app developers must spend more and more resources on product and marketing in order to cut through the noise. No longer are standalone, single-purpose learning apps able to strike easy riches by simply getting discovered on the App Store. Succeeding as a mobile education app has increasingly become a game of economies of scale. The future of mobile learning belongs to platforms.
Large education publishers are naturally among the best-positioned to create such economies of scale, thanks to their broad customer bases, huge troves of digital content, and significant financial and technical resources. Publishers like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt are thus already partnering with apps like Kno to create e-reader platforms that serve the formal K-12 and college textbook markets in whole new ways.
But the most exciting platform innovation is coming from startups in the retail education space (B2C), whose innovation is not encumbered by slow moving school and university procurement systems. Companies like Udemy, Voxy, Fingerprint Digital, and Brainscape are creating their own global communities of learners, where word-of-mouth and broad differentiation of content gives learners reasons to keep using the product for years. This allows learners to continue discovering new ways to use the platform even if they are not using the app in a formal class setting. It also gives the platforms’ developers the loyal users and scale needed to justify ongoing product investment.
In general, there are three major types of mobile education platforms that are establishing themselves in the App Store:
Evergreen content platforms provide a curated marketplace where learners can discover courses, games, exercises, and other types of learning materials within a single app environment. These can range from pre-K app platforms like Agnitus and Fingerprint Play, to foreign language, test prep, and general knowledge course marketplaces like Brainscape. Even professional skill-building platforms like Udemy are rapidly expanding on the iPad in order to give their community of instructors a new channel to sell their video-based courses. Evergreen content platforms provide developers with a continuous, multi-year stream of returns for each individual content investment, as users increasingly discover existing content archives with every year of the community’s growth.
News-based content platforms teach key concepts through the lens of relevant, real-time, real-world scenarios. Voxy, for example, provides foreign language learners with access to actual news articles that have been translated into their target language and wrapped in an engaging level-appropriate curriculum. TuvaLabs (still in beta) is currently emerging to teach math lessons based on real-life news such as Sports and Economics. These types of platforms tend to rely more on recurring subscription revenue models rather than large individual content sales. As the movement toward increased career readiness continues to increase, we will likely see more platforms emerge to bridge the gap between the real world and the classroom.
Group learning environments motivate learners by encouraging peer-to-peer collaboration and allowing learners to see each other’s progress. Edmodo’s iPad app accomplishes this by providing teachers and students with social network-like features and tools that allow teachers to assign and track student activities and grades. Socrative accomplishes this through a smart student response system that quickly pushes teacher-generated exercises and games to all of the students’ in the class. And Learnist and Brainscape allow learners to collaboratively author their own study materials with or without the teacher’s involvement. Group learning environments tend to employ “freemium” revenue models where only the “power users” are asked to pay for certain advanced features.
The aggregation of so many learners into these massive mobile education communities means that retaining each user, or securing each repeat purchase, becomes increasingly more affordable for the platforms’ developers. Such resulting higher profit margins allow these developers to invest more resources into product development, social and game mechanics, and the further solidification of their position on the App Store, without having to rely on the whims of Apple’s and Google’s search algorithm gods.
The mechanics of the mobile app markets thus provide edtech startups with an opportunity to compete with educational publishers in a way that they never could do on the web. Over the next several years, teachers, universities, and school districts will continue to take notice of these B2C learning platforms, and will probably integrate some of them into the formal education system itself. Whether that happens independently from the leading textbook publishers, or as part of a consolidation with them, remains to be seen.
Andrew Cohen is the founder & CEO of Brainscape, a mobile education platform that helps high school students, college students, medical students, lifelong learners, and foreign language junkies all over the world. Previously, he worked as an international development economist with the World Bank and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. He created the first version of Brainscape in Microsoft Excel in order to study Spanish and French more efficiently while living abroad, and further developed the project during his Masters degree in Education Technology from Columbia University. Andrew has dedicated his career toward optimizing the way people learn. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org