As the pandemic rages on, an ed-tech accelerator designed to support women- and minority-owned businesses is seeing a wave of new companies focused on transitioning beyond high school and college and bringing artificial intelligence or machine learning to education.
The University of Southern California’s Center for Engagement-Driven Global Education program, and the companies in its third class have been forced to pivot because of the barriers imposed by COVID.
The program has always had a strong virtual component, said Doug E. Lynch, a senior fellow at USC’s Rossier School of Education and the accelerator’s director.
The program has always been run virtually to incentivize women and minority founders who would find it difficult to pick up and move to California to participate, said Lynch.
Even so, the process for companies making a case to enter the program had to be adjusted to accommodate social distancing.
“We’ve had to create several virtual pitching events, but we do that anyway,” Lynch said. “We run pitch events for women founders and pitch events for founders of color that are virtual, that attract investors, but [the structure this year] was something different. In years past, people descended on USC, and there are some benefits to being able to bump into people in the hallway.”
Still, the accelerator’s participants appreciate the opportunity to participate, even without getting to go pitch at USC.
The program mostly supports companies run by women and minorities, whose path to securing funding might normally run into obstacles, said Anna Ivey, the co-founder of CommonCoach, one of the companies in this year’s class.
“I’m a female founder of a certain age,” said Ivey, who is a former University of Chicago Law School dean of admissions. “I’m not a young techie guy in a hoodie, I never have been, but that is typically who gets funded and who typically gets ed-tech media coverage, even when they have no subject matter expertise in higher ed or admissions.”
Lynch explained that one of the commonalities among this year’s cohort – an emphasis on transitions – might be related to the uncertainty COVID-19 has caused.
“This might be a reflection of the agita and the uncertainty around the economy,” he said. “I’m going to go to college, will I get a good job? Should I go to college? Should I go directly to work? How do I get skills for jobs?”
The companies that Lynch categorized as focusing on life transitions include OpenLab, Cirkled in, Fluid Education, CommonCoach, Hughes Who Technologies Studio, Key Learning, Scholarships360 and 1Up Career Coaching.
- OpenLab is a laboratory simulation that uses Virtual Reality to teach students the skills and practices they will need to work in a research laboratory.
- Cirkled In is a portfolio platform that helps students to show colleges a profile of themselves that is more complete than just their test scores.
- Fluid Education matches students with educational and vocational opportunities and institutions with workforce development opportunities.
- CommonCoach is a browser plugin that guides students through the Common Application.
- Hughes Who Technologies Studio provides STEAM workshops for children and apprenticeships in the game industry for at-risk young adults.
- Key Learning is an app that helps refugees learn vocational skills.
- Scholarship360 connects students with scholarships.
- 1Up Career Coaching provides underserved professionals with coaching and networking opportunities to advance their careers.
Ivey explained that her company is focusing on the transition between high school and college because of how inequality affects the higher education admissions process.
“Not everyone has parents who went to Princeton or have school-based counselors who have the bandwidth to help them with every single question and essay in the application,” she said. “There are all these wonderful digital tools out there that sit adjacent to the application. There are college match tools and scholarship search tools and there are tools for processing transcripts and recommendations.”
But there hasn’t been a digital tool that helps students with the application itself.
“We are basically solving that last–mile problem,” she said.
The other common thread among this year’s cohort is the use of artificial intelligence. Lynch said that companies are experimenting with “using AI to personalize curriculum, using AI to better do formative assessments and using AI to better manage” programs.
Among the companies in this year’s class focused on AI or machine learning:
- Jakapa provides periodic benchmark assessments to help students improve their soft skills.
- Prenostik uses machine learning to help STEM students succeed in online learning.
Other companies in the cohort are AutoCognita, Breakthru and Royal Way.
- Autocognita is an app-based literacy program aiming to help both adults and children learn to read.
- Breakthru is a digital add-on that helps people build healthier relationships and improve their emotional and mental wellness.
- Royal Way adapts virtual reality for learning.
Ivey said the program is opening doors for ed-tech companies that tend to get overlooked, despite the knowledge and specific skills they bring.
“It’s wonderful to be part of an accelerator that focuses on non-traditional founders, and understands that we have a wealth of expertise and experience for solving problems that need solving,” Ivey said. “In this particular accelerator, we are not the outliers.”
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