With More Than 50 Million Users, Some Great Lessons

Next-level learning with Matthew Glotzbach, CEO of Quizlet.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

We first checked in with what was then an edtech startup, Quizlet, way back in 2011 not so long after founder Andrew Sutherland created a tool to help him study for a high-school French vocabulary quiz.

Andrew aced the test, so his friends asked him if they could use the tool, too. Friends shared with friends, and Quizlet grew—a lot.

In 2017, we caught up with them again and interviewed their CEO, Matthew Glotzbach about their growth, mission, and his thoughts on technology’s role in education today.

Well, not even two years later, we revisit Matthew only to discover that Quizlet is still going up: students have completed more than 3 billion study sessions, they have a fast-growing team (they’re hiring), and they’re backed by an interesting group of investors: Fred Wilson at Union Square Ventures, Greg Sands and Mark Selcow at Costanoa Ventures, Tory Patterson at Owl Ventures, Ho Nam at Altos Ventures and Dave Margulius.

Their basic premise hasn’t changed: they are a company that builds learning tools to inspire and empower students and teachers.

Their team supports a user base of over 50 million active users per month; they’re among the top 20 U.S. websites and top education apps for iOS and Android. And with their massive reach and focus on delivering high-quality innovative learning tools—they’ve got some words of wisdom to share here in this conversation with Matthew.

What characteristics were investors looking for in edtech companies in 2018—and which characteristics will they continue looking for in 2019 and beyond?

Matthew: 2018 was a watershed year for funding in the edtech industry, raising $1.45B in the U.S. and a whopping $16.3B worldwide, with indications of this upward trend continuing. The findings also show where these investments spread across, spanning from K-12 to post-secondary learning to professional learning.

However, it’s interesting to see that today’s technology companies in the learning space – including the companies that received significant investment in 2018 – are still commonly lumped into one overarching “edtech” bucket, despite their varied business strategies and target demographics.

We should be considering three different categories of technology companies impacting learning.

The traditional definition of edtech had to do with technology solutions directed at schools, but the learning space and its impact have become much more than that. So much so, that clumping all these companies into one category of “edtech” is rather obsolete.

We should be considering three different categories of technology companies impacting learning:

1. Traditional edtech companies: a B2B model of selling technology solutions to schools, districts and institutions that help teachers manage students and education content connected to the classroom.

2. Credentialing-as-a-service companies: a hybrid B2B and B2C model that offers individual classes, as well as full courses that can lead to earning a certification or degree.

3. Consumer learning companies: a B2C model that offers supplemental tools and resources to help people learn at their own pace, often times in conjunction with either a formal education program or an online credential-as-a-service program, and often personalized for individual needs.

Investors are increasingly eyeing option three – consumer learning companies that often provide an individualized approach to learning. Consumer learning companies are able to break free from the barriers to success that traditional edtech companies are up against.

For example, selling to school districts is highly fragmented given the nature of the U.S. K-12 school system leading to a very inefficient sales model with a very high cost of sale.

In addition, the competition amongst these companies is going after an ever-smaller budget in the face of growing class sizes and insufficient teacher pay.

Plus, consumer learning platforms are a hub of collaboration, providing some freedom for teachers and students to share materials, both in conjunction with existing studies as well as supplemental.

This activity creates a lot of opportunities, especially as traditional classroom learning further becomes unbundled and focused on a more personalized approach.

Any thoughts on the assertion that fewer companies operating on the “freemium” model are receiving funding?

Matthew: The initial hype cycle around the “freemium” model occurred from around 2010 to 2015. Most companies are struggling to be successful with this model because they never figured out the “premium” aspect. They get so focused on obtaining lots of users, made possible with the “free” part of the offering, that when it comes to making money, they end up missing the mark.

Are there that many teachers and students able to pay for your offering? That is a big gamble. 

For “freemium” to work, the economic model has to make sense. For instance, beyond your free users, if you charge $1 for a subscription and you have to make $200 million dollars just to pay back your investors, then you have to sell 200 million seats to your product to break even. Are there that many teachers and students able to pay for your offering? That is a big gamble. In fact, that’s why we’re seeing a trend in traditional edtech companies moving towards corporate usage models to yield a larger pool of customers.

Learning and education technology can take its cues from the broader consumer technology landscape which has seen the same challenges (and success stories) with freemium models. For every YouTube or Spotify who has found a sound business model and long-term success with the freemium approach, there are hundreds who have struggled or failed.

To have a freemium business requires thoughtful planning and execution on creating a premium offering that meets the market need.

In light of all the money pouring into edtech, how might companies help schools, districts, and teachers?

Matthew: Sadly, it still has to be said—teachers should be more properly compensated and equipped in the classroom. We’ve seen countless teacher strikes occur throughout the country in a campaign for higher wages and improved classroom conditions.

In fact, the Learning Policy Institute found that 90 percent of open teaching positions are created by teachers who leave the profession, as opposed to schools proactively hiring staff to minimize the teacher-student ratio. Students are naturally feeling the effects of this too—when asked where they would direct funds if their schools had more money, almost three in four (72 percent) would put it towards their teachers’ salaries, indicating an overall understanding, and sense of empathy, for keeping educators properly compensated.

As a society—school district decision makers, legislatures, leaders of tech companies, parents, etc.—we all need to look out for our educators and support them.

Technology can certainly aid teachers in providing an engaging classroom experience and helping with administrative tasks, as long as we don’t use technology as an excuse to mute other necessary resources or minimize the teacher’s important role in developing young people.

We will be remiss in our actions if we take educators for granted. Our children’s futures deserve a more thoughtful approach from us.

Technology enhances academia, but not at the expense of siphoning off district budgets or trying to support a norm where an individual teacher is forced to teach hundreds of students because “technology will do the rest.”

We will be remiss in our actions if we take educators for granted. Our children’s futures deserve a more thoughtful approach from us.

What are the biggest challenges to being in edtech? Where’s edtech heading in 2019?  

Matthew: The reality is, anything tech related is and will continue to be overshadowed by the issues of teacher pay and class size. Technology is important but until we address these fundamental needs, students won’t get the full benefits of their education.

And technology companies trying to provide enhancements for the education sector need to think about how to create great solutions while understanding their consumers have a lot they are juggling, in terms of little time and money. If our collective goal is to help education be its best, then we have to look at the responsibility we are signing up for and make choices that benefit teachers and students, not burden them.

That said, there are promising technology trends across all three education technology categories that we’ll likely see play an increasingly bigger role. In traditional edtech, open education resources (OERs) are making information freely available to teachers and parents. Credentialing-as-a-service companies are paving the way for employers to accept micro-credentials, especially as the cost of higher ed is skyrocketing and having an expertise can be valuable.

As for consumer learning companies, they are growing as learners continue to seek out their own tools and materials to supplement their classes. With fierce competition in education and jobs, attitudes towards consumer learning as a whole are evolving and embracing these helpful tools, especially as learners see positive results.

What is your definition of innovation? How does this relate to edtech? What are a few great examples?

Matthew: Innovation is uncovering new ideas to solve a problem that people are having right now. Innovation isn’t always technology driven of course, but it’s an enabler for great ideas, especially at mass scale.

Education in particular, has greatly benefited from innovative discoveries. Think about the printing press and movable type invented in 1450. This was a game changer that made information accessible to people in a way that was unprecedented.

And what do I still argue is one of the most transformative technologies in the history of education?

The pencil, invented in 1564.

This simple but powerful technological advance put the power of creation literally in everyone’s hand. It made learning participatory, it made practice and personal exploration possible.

Fast forward to recent developments, and we can be thankful for high speed internet and affordable devices, both which took the idea of movable type and limitless participatory creation to a whole new level. Now anyone with a smartphone and a 3G connection can access the world’s information and have resources unprecedented throughout history.

These capabilities won’t replace people, but are amplifying them in a way that helps increase teachers’ effectiveness and students’ engagement.

Next is the growth of machine learning and artificial intelligence, allowing for personalization and a level of understanding that historically were only possible through face-to-face human interaction.

These capabilities won’t replace people, but are amplifying them in a way that helps increase teachers’ effectiveness and students’ engagement. 

What do you believe is the state of education today?

Matthew: The state of education today is fixated on the idea that technology will fix everything that’s wrong with the system. There are industry rumblings like “Artificial Intelligence will transform the education system” or “Immersive technology will reshape learning forever.” The truth is: technology alone isn’t the answer.

Plus, the issues affecting the educational system, especially at the school district and classroom levels—budget, staffing and training gaps, lack of material resources in many regions – are complex. Devices like tablets or Chromebooks, or the next hot social learning app, aren’t a solution on their own. We’ve gone so far down the innovation rabbit-hole that we’ve overlooked the fact that technology is only as strong as the people driving it.

We need to bridge the gap between technology and human capital in order to provide students the education they deserve, and teachers the resources they deserve.

What is technology’s role in education?

Matthew: Certainly, technology is paramount for propelling education forward and preparing students to thrive in the future workplace. In my opinion, technology’s role in education today is about making learning effective and engaging. Technology can and should enable the tools teachers and students need to accomplish things like effective, individualized learning.

With the right digital tools, educators can create and/or curate specific content for students’ personalized learning plans so they can grasp topics at their own pace. The reality is, technology is increasingly at students’ fingertips, creating a greater need to connect the classroom to the digital world.

The more we can connect with students where they are today, and more importantly, where they want to be in the future, the better we serve their learning needs.

What other tech trends do you see impacting education in the coming years that will keep taking it up a level?

Matthew: We’ll see artificial intelligence and machine learning change how we approach learning and measure success. From the advent of digital assistants like Google Home and Alexa interacting in the classroom, to automated content review for grading and evaluation, we will find AI moving from theory to implementation in the future.

Anything else you’d like to leave us with, until we chat again?

Matthew: This year we’ll increasingly see students seek their own resources for learning. This is why consumer learning tech companies that serve as supplemental resources to help students learn at their own pace, in conjunction with their existing studies, are—and will continue to be—attractive to investors.

Additionally, while investing in education innovation is paramount, we similarly need to focus on investing in human capital—the people primarily leveraging these technologies.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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