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February 23, 2019
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Sebastian Thrun initiates aggressive plan to transform Udacity

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“I’m a fighter. I believe in our people, I believe in our mission, and I believe that it should exist and must exist.”

Sebastian Thrun is talking animatedly about Udacity, the $1 billion online education startup that he co-founded nearly eight years ago. His tone is buoyant and hopeful. He’s encouraged, he says over an occasionally crackly phone call, about the progress the company has made in such a short time. There’s even a new interim COO, former HP and GE executive Lalit Singh, who joined just days ago to help Thrun execute this newly formed strategy.

That wasn’t the case four weeks ago.

In a lengthy email, obtained by TechCrunch, Thrun lobbed an impassioned missive to the entire company, which specializes in “nanodegrees” on a range of technical subjects that include AI, deep learning, digital marketing, VR and computer vision.

It was, at times, raw, personal and heartfelt, with Thrun accepting blame for missteps or admitting he was sleeping less than four hours a night; in other spots the email felt like a pep talk delivered by a coach, encouraging his team by noting their spirit and tenacity. There were moments when he exhibited frustration for the company’s timidness, declaring “our plans are ridden of fear, of trepidation, we truly suck!” And moments just as conciliatory, where he noted that “I know every one of you wants to double down on student success. I love this about us.”

Thrun has sent spirited emails before. Insiders say it’s not uncommon and that as a mission-driven guy he often calls on employees to take risks and be creative. But this one stood out for its underlying message.

If there was a theme in the email, it was an existential one: We must act, and act now or face annihilation.

“It was a rallying cry, to be honest,” Thrun told TechCrunch. “When I wrote this email, I really wanted to wake up people to the fact that our trajectory was not long-term tenable.”

“I can tell you that I woke up the troops, that is absolutely sure,” he said later. “Whether my strategy is sound, only time can tell.”

Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017 at Pier 48 on September 19, 2017 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

Thrun said the past month has been transformative for the company. “It was a tough moment when I had to look at the business, look at the financials, look at the people in the company,” Thrun said, adding, “And the people in the company are amazing. I really believe in them, and I believe that they’re all behind the mission.”

A tough year

Part of Udacity’s struggles were borne out of its last funding round in 2015, when it raised $105 million and became a unicorn. That round and the valuation set high expectations for growth and revenue.

But the company started hitting those targets and 2017 became a breakout year.

After a booming 2017 — with revenue growing 100 percent year-over-year thanks to some popular programs like its self-driving car and deep learning nanodegrees and the culmination of a previous turnaround plan architected by former CMO Shernaz Daver — the following year fizzled. Its consumer business began to shrink, and while the production quality of its educational videos increased, the volume slowed.

“In 2018, we didn’t have a single a blockbuster,” Thrun said. “There’s nothing you can point to and say, ‘Wow, Udacity had a blockbuster.’ “

By comparison, the self-driving car engineering nanodegree not only was a hit, it produced a successful new company. Udacity vice president Oliver Cameron spun out an autonomous vehicle company called Voyage.

Udacity CEO Vishal Makhijani left in October and Thrun stepped in. He took over as chief executive and the head of content on an interim basis. Thrun, who founded X, Google’s moonshot factory, is also CEO of Kitty Hawk Corp., a flying-car startup.

His first impression upon his return was a company that had grown too quickly and was burdened by its own self-inflicted red tape. Staff reductions soon followed. About 130 people were laid off and other open positions were left vacant, Thrun said.

Udacity now has 350 full-time employees and another 200 full-time contractors. The company also has about 1,000 people contracted as graders or reviewers.

An emphasis, when I rejoined, was to cut complexity and focus the company on the things that are working,” he said. 

One area where Udacity seemed to excel had also created an impediment. The quality of Udacity’s video production resulted in Hollywood-quality programming, Thrun said. But that created a bottleneck in the amount of educational content Udacity could produce.

Udacity’s content makers — a staff of about 140 people — released nearly 10 nanodegrees in 2018. Today, as a result of cuts, only 40 content creators remain. That smaller team completed about five nanodegrees in the first quarter of 2019, Thrun said.

Last year, it took between 10 to 12 people, and more than $1 million, to build one nanodegree, Thrun said. “Now it’s less than 10 percent of that.”

The company was able to accomplish this, he said, by changing its whole approach to video with taping, edits and student assessments happening in real time.

Udacity, under Thrun’s direction, has also doubled down on a technical mentorship program that will now match every new student with a mentor. Udacity has hired about 278 mentors who will work between 15 and 20 hours a week on a contract basis. The company is targeting about 349 mentors in all.

Students are also assigned a cohort that is required to meet (virtually) once a week.

Thrun described the new mentor program as the biggest change in service in the entire history of Udacity. “And we literally did this in two weeks,” he said. 

The strategy has met with some resistance. Some employees wanted to test the mentorship program on one cohort, or group of students, and expand from there. Even since these recent changes, some employees have expressed doubts that it will be enough, according to unnamed sources connected to or within the company.

Even Thrun admits that the “fruit remains to be seen,” although he’s confident that they’ve landed on the right approach, and one that will boost student graduation rates and eventually make the company profitable.

“If you give any student a personalized mentor that fights for them, and that’s the language I usually use, then we can bring our graduation rate, which is at about 34 percent to 60 percent or so,” he said. “And for online institutions 34 percent is high. But we have programs in that graduate more than 90 percent of our students.”

Udacity doesn’t share exact numbers on post-graduation hiring rates. But the company did say thousands of Udacity alumni have been hired by companies like Google, AT&T, Nvidia and others in the U.S., Europe, India and China.

In the U.S. and Canada, graduates with new jobs reported an annual salary increase of 38 percent, a Udacity spokesperson shared.

Indeed, Udacity has had some successes despite its many challenges.

Bright spots

Udacity has continued to increase revenue, although at a slower rate than the previous year-over-year time period. Udacity said it generated $90 million in revenue in 2018, a 25 percent year-over-year increase from 2017.

Udacity had informally offered enterprise programs to clients like AT&T. But in September, the company made enterprise a dedicated product and hired a VP of sales to bring in new customers.

Udacity has added 20 new enterprise clients from the banking, insurance, telecom and retail sectors, according to the company. There are now 70 enterprise customers globally that send employees through Udacity programs to gain new skills.

It continues to expand its career services and launched 12 free courses, built in collaboration with Google, with nearly 100,000 enrollments. It has also funded more than 1.1 million new partial and full scholarships to its programs for students across North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. About 21% of all Udacity Nanodegree students in the Grow with Google program in Europe have received job offers, according to Google.

The company also has a new initiative in the Middle East, where it teaches almost a million young Arab people how to code, Thrun said, an accomplishment he says is core to his mission.

Udacity isn’t profitable yet on an EBITDA basis, Thrun shared, but the “unit economics per students, and on a gross margin basis, are good.”

Now, it comes down to whether Thrun’s push to become faster, more efficient and nimble, all while investing in student services and its enterprise product, will be enough to right the ship.

“I really believe if you can get to the point that students come to us and we bend over backwards to ensure their success, we will be a company that has a really good chance of lasting for a lifetime,” he said. 

And if it doesn’t work, then we’ll adjust, like any other company. We can always shift.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

LittleBits lays off employees as it shifts focus toward education

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New York City open-source maker startup LittleBits began to lay off staff last month, TechCrunch has learned. The loss of jobs comes as the company looks to shift more focus toward the K-12 market.

Education-specific offerings have been lucrative for the company in its eight-year existence, but recent products have found the company embracing licensed products, courtesy of its involvement with Disney’s hardware accelerator.

LittleBits confirmed the layoffs as part of an internal restructuring, in a statement offered to TechCrunch.

“The true potential that littleBits provides teachers, parents, and the children is far beyond your standard ‘off the shelf’ gift or toy. In order to have the greatest impact in shaping the next generation of Changemakers, we are prioritizing our business around the K-12 education market,” the company says. “As you can imagine, the education market’s needs are vastly different than that of retail. Given this, we had to re-shape our internal structure, which ultimately led to a reduction in staff.”

It has yet to offer a specific number, but TechCrunch believes the number to be around 15. Not huge in the grand scheme of things, but no doubt a hit to a staff of this size, which numbered around 100, after its acquisition of DIY Co, last summer. That acquisition, LittleBits’ first, will no doubt play a role in the restructuring, going forward.

It’s hard not to see echoes of the difficult decision Sphero made roughly this time last year. The robotics startup went all-in on licensed Disney brands like Star Wars and Marvel, but ultimately pivoted to an education-only focus, after a disappointing holiday season. Education, on the other hand, can prove a lucrative and stable path forward, as schools and districts tend to buy products in bulk. 

Another thing both Sphero and LittleBits have in common is a knack for truly innovative tech products that could do extremely well in the educational space with the right positioning.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Apple unveils new in-store sessions covering photography, Garage Band, health and more

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Apple is launching 58 new Today at Apple sessions to beef up its in-store education offerings for people who want to explore Apple’s products. The sessions, which cover video, photography, accessibility, coding, music, health and more, are free to attend and available at all of Apple’s retail stores across the world.

For the unveiling, Apple brought a group of reporters to its Apple Park campus in Cupertino last week. Throughout the day, Apple took us through sample Today at Apple sessions across Apple’s three categories: Skills, Walks and Labs. Skills are quick, thirty-minute sessions designed to teach you new techniques, Walks are actual physical walks with certain Apple products and services and Labs are 90-minute sessions where you create a project.

“So I think of Skills, Walks, Labs almost as, you know, Spanish 1, Spanish 2, Spanish 3,” Apple SVP of Retail Angela Ahrendts told a group of reports at Apple’s spaceship campus last week. “I mean, most things have green diamond, blue diamond, red, black diamond, I mean, there’s always levels.”

When Today at Apple first launched, it was a bit more open. Now, it’s a lot more structured, Ahrendts said.

Beats, art and jump-cuts

First up, I participated in a Garage Band Skills session, where we learned how to quickly create a beat using the beat sequencer. This session is geared toward people who are new to Apple’s tech and may need an introduction to the product or the software.

That is designed to prepare you for the next level of sessions, Walks. At Apple’s campus, we did a photo walk using the iPad Pro with Pencil and digital illustration app Procreate. The task at hand was to walk around Apple’s spaceship campus, snap photos of colorful scenes, capture that color in Procreate and then use the app’s numerous drawing tools to create a portrait. Here’s my masterpiece.

Walks, Apple Senior Director Karl Heiselman said, has been the most popular type of session.

“We think the reason why they’re so popular is you can’t do them on the Internet,” he said.

Last, but not least, we did a Lab where we learned how to create jump-cuts in the Clips app.

All of these sessions are entirely free to attend. Since launching Today at Apple almost two years ago, Apple has hosted 18,000 sessions per week. Millions of people have attended the sessions, so far, but it’s hard to get a totally accurate number, Ahrendts said.

“If you sign up, we have a number but the minute the session starts around the big screen, usually three times more people, you know, kind of hover over it,” Ahrendts said.

Apple’s in-store sessions are a way for the company to build brand loyalty and differentiate itself from the likes of Google and other hardware companies. While Apple’s online store is geared toward purchasing products and receiving customer support, its retail stores are designed to be focused on people and their experiences, Ahrendts said.

“If you’re taking the time to come into a store, we’re assuming you want a much more human experience,” she said.

Today is the biggest launch of sessions to date, with Ahrendts likening the update to its in-store sessions to updates to Apple’s digital software, “but you could assume there will always continue to be updates on our store software forever.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

pi-top’s latest edtech tool doubles down on maker culture

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London-based edtech startup, pi-top, has unboxed a new flagship learn-to-code product, demoing the “go anywhere” Pi-powered computer at the Bett Show education fare in London today.

Discussing the product with TechCrunch ahead of launch, co-founder and CEO Jesse Lozano talked up the skills the company hopes students in the target 12-to-17 age range will develop and learn to apply by using sensor-based connected tech, powered by its new pi-top 4, to solve real world problems.

“When you get a pi-top 4 out of the box you’re going to start to learn how to code with it, you’re going to start to learn and understand electronic circuits, you’re going to understand sensors from our sensor library. Or components from our components library,” he told us. “So it’s not: ‘I’m going to learn how to create a robot that rolls around on wheels and doesn’t knock into things’.

“It’s more: ‘I’m going to learn how a motor works. I’m going to learn how a distance sensor works. I’m going to learn how to properly hook up power to these different sensors. I’m going to learn how to apply that knowledge… take those skills and [keep making stuff].”

The pi-top 4 is a modular computer that’s designed to be applicable, well, anywhere; up in the air, with the help of a drone attachment; powering a sensing weather balloon; acting as the brains for a rover style wheeled robot; or attached to sensors planted firmly in the ground to monitor local environmental conditions.

The startup was already dabbling in this area, via earlier products — such as a Pi-powered laptop that featured a built in rail for breadboarding electronics. But the pi-top 4 is a full step outside the usual computing box.

The device has a built-in mini OLED screen for displaying project info, along with an array of ports. It can be connected to and programmed via one of pi-top’s other Pi-powered computers, or any PC, Mac and Chromebook, with the company also saying it easily connects to existing screens, keyboards and mice. Versatility looks to be the name of the game for pi-top 4.

pi-top’s approach to computing and electronics is flexible and interoperable, meaning the pi-top 4 can be extended with standard electronics components — or even with Littlebits‘ style kits’ more manageable bits and bobs.

pi-top is also intending to sell a few accessories of its own (such as the drone add-on, pictured above) to help get kids’ creative project juices flowing — and has launched a range of accessories, cameras, motors and sensors to “allow creators of all ages to start learning by making straight out of the box”.

But Lozano emphasizes its platform play is about reaching out to a wider world, not seeking to lock teachers and kids to buying proprietary hardware. (Which would be all but impossible, in any case, given the Raspberry Pi core.)

“It’s really about giving people that breadth of ability,” says Lozano, discussing the sensor-based skills he wants the product to foster. “As you go through these different projects you’re learning these specific skills but you also start to understand how they would apply to other projects.”

He mentions various maker projects the pi-top can be used to make, like a music synth or wheeled robot, but says the point isn’t making any specific connected thing; it’s encouraging kids to come up with project ideas of their own.

“Once that sort of veil has been pierced in students and in teachers we see some of the best stuff starts to be made. People make things that we had no idea they would integrate it into,” he tells us, pointing by way of example to a solar car project from a group of U.S. schoolkids. “These fifteen year olds are building solar cars and they’re racing them from Texas to California — and they’re using pi-tops to understand how their cars are performing to make better race decisions.”

pi-top’s new device is a modular programmable computer designed for maker projects

“What you’re really learning is the base skills,” he adds, with a gentle sideswipe at the flood of STEM toys now targeting parents’ wallets. “We want to teach you real skills. And we want you to be able to create projects that are real. That it’s not block-based coding. It’s not magnetized, clipped in this into that and all of a sudden you have something. It’s about teaching you how to really make things. And how the world actually works around you.”

The pi-top 4 starts at $199 for a foundation bundle which includes a Raspberry Pi 3B+,16GB SD card, power pack, along with a selection of sensors and add-on components for starter projects.

Additional educational bundles will also launch down the line, at a higher price, including more add ons, access to premium software and a full curriculum for educators to support budding makers, according to Lozano.

The startup has certainly come a long way from its founders’ first luridly green 3D printed laptop which caught our eye back in 2015. Today it employs more than 80 people globally, with offices in the UK, US and China, while its creative learning devices are in the hands of “hundreds of thousands” of schoolkids across more than 70 countries at this stage. And Lozano says they’re gunning to pass the million mark this year.

So while the ‘learn to code’ space has erupted into a riot of noise and color over the past half decade, with all sorts of connected playthings now competing for kids’ attention, and pestering parents with quasi-educational claims, pi-top has kept its head down and focused firmly on building a serious edtech business with STEM learning as its core focus, saving it from chasing fickle consumer fads, as Lozano tells it.

“Our relentless focus on real education is something that has differentiated us,” he responds, when asked how pi-top stands out in what’s now a very crowded marketplace. “The consumer market, as we’ve seen with other startups, it can be fickle. And trying to create a hit toy all the time — I’d rather leave that to Mattel… When you’re working with schools it’s not a fickle process.”

Part of that focus includes supporting educators to acquire the necessary skills themselves to be able to teach what’s always a fast-evolving area of study. So schools signing up to pi-top’s subscription product get support materials and guides, to help them create a maker space and understand all the ins and outs of the pi-top platform. It also provides a classroom management backend system that lets teachers track students’ progress.

“If you’re a teacher that has absolutely no experience in computer science or engineering or STEM based learning or making then you’re able to bring on the pi-top platform, learn with it and with your student, and when they’re ready they can create a computer science course — or something of that ilk — in their classroom,” says Lozano.

pi-top wants kids to use tech to tackle real-world problems

“As with all good things it takes time, and you need to build up a bank of experience. One of the things we’ve really focused on is giving teachers that ability to build up that bank of experience, through an after school club, or through a special lesson plan that they might do.

“For us it’s about augmenting that teacher and helping them become a great educator with tools and with resources. There’s some edtech stuff they want to replace the teacher — they want to make the teacher obsolete. I couldn’t disagree with that viewpoint more.”

“Why aren’t teachers just buying textbooks?” he adds. “It takes 24 months to publish a textbook. So how are you supposed to teach computer science with those technology-based skills with something that’s by design two years out of date?”

Last summer pi-top took in $16M in Series B funding, led by existing founders Hambro Perks and Committed Capital. It’s been using the financing to bring pi-top 4 to market while also investing heavily in its team over the past 18 months — expanding in-house expertise in designing learning products and selling in to the education sector via a number of hires. Including the former director of learning at Apple, Dr William Rankin.

The founders’ philosophy is to combine academic expertise in education with “excellence in engineering”. “We want the learning experience to be something we’re 100% confident in,” says Lozano. “You can go into pi-top and immediately start learning with our lesson plans and the kind of framework that we provide.”

“[W]e’ve unabashedly focused on… education. It is the pedagogy,” he adds. “It is the learning outcome that you’re going to get when you use the pi-top. So one of the big changes over the last 18 months is we’ve hired a world class education team. We have over 100 years of pedagogical experience on the team now producing an enormous amount of — we call them learning experience designers.”

He reckons that focus will stand pi-top in good stead as more educators turn their attention to how to arm their pupils with the techie skills of the future.

“There’s loads of competition but now the schools are looking they’re [asking] who’s the team behind the education outcome that you’re selling me?” he suggests. “And you know what if you don’t have a really strong education team then you’re seeing schools and districts become a lot more picky — because there is so much choice. And again that’s something I’m really excited about. Everybody’s always trying to do a commercial brand partnership deal. That’s just not something that we’ve focused on and I do really think that was a smart choice on our end.”

Lozano is also excited about a video the team has produced to promote the new product — which strikes a hip, urban note as pi-top seeks to inspire the next generation of makers.

“We really enjoy working in the education sector and I really, really enjoy helping teachers and schools deliver inspirational content and learning outcomes to their students,” he adds. “It’s genuinely a great reason to wake up in the morning.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

Byju’s buys Osmo for $120M to add blended learning to its $4B digital education business

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Weeks after it raised a massive $540 million funding round, Indian education unicorn Byju’s is on the M&A path. The company announced today it has snapped up U.S-based Osmo, a startup that develops apps for kids that use offline input, in a deal worth $120 million.

Osmo has raised over $30 million from investors that include Mattel, Sesame Workshop, Upfront Ventures, K9 Ventures and Accel. They were offered a cash option but elected for an all-stock payout, Osmo CEO Pramod Sharma told TechCrunch in an interview. That, he added, is a “validation of the level of confidence” that they have in Osmo combining its resources with Byju’s, which is valued at nearly $4 billion from that recent funding round that featured Naspers, Tencent and others.

Founded by former Googlers Sharma and Jerome Scholler, the Osmo service was launched at TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield in 2013, when it was initially called Tangible Play. The company combines the benefits of digital and offline learning using a dozen or so apps that tie into customized hardware, that’s a base designed for iPads or Amazon Kindle Fire tables alongside a red reflector and game pieces — as pictured above.

The result is ‘blended learning’ apps that integrate offline activities, varying from drawing to math, spelling and even making pizza, to help children aged between 5 and 12 learn. Currently, Sharma said, it is used in around 20,000 schools and it has reached around a million families, 90 percent of which are in the U.S.

That puts it squarely into the bracket of companies that Byju’s founder Byju Raveendran told TechCrunch that his company was seeking to snap up using its newly-acquired war chest.

In an interview announcing the fund last month, Raveendran said he wanted “product-based acquisitions that will be value-adds on top of our core product.”

Byju Raveendran founded Byju’s as an offline learning center business in 2008, today it is worth nearly $4 billion thanks to a thriving digital education business with over a million paying customers. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

In that respect, Osmo is an ideal complement to Byju’s existing business, which covers educational courses for grades 4-12 using a combination of videos, games and other materials and counts. It currently counts 30 million registered students to date and 1.3 million paying users with a specific focus on India. But, with its new funding in the bank, it is preparing a new service that will offer a number of courses in English for children aged 3-8 based across the world.

Raveendran and Sharma said that the immediate plan post-acquisition will see a huge increase in content for the Osmo platform, while the price of the hardware — which currently ranges from $99-$189 — may also be reduced to help grow the audience beyond its current base.

“For us to grow, we need to invest in content,” Sharma said. “We have a lot of ideas [and] have proven a set of interactions, [but] a lot can be expanded with more content and levels. We’ve proven this is a compelling platform for learning, and we are nowhere close to scaling it… our goal is to get it to every child.”

Osmo offers three different packages to customers wishing to buy its equipment for children

Echoing those comments, Raveendran said Osmo can “reach its maximum potential” with more content while he stressed that there is plenty of cross-pollination potential between the two companies.

“We’re asking: ‘How can we bring some of the offline learning kids do, is there a way to capture that back onto the app and personalize the learning experiences further?’” he said. “There’s overlap between Osmo users and the products we are building [so] how we can use that for multiple education use scenarios, even possibility for higher grades?”

Ten-year-old Byju’s started out in offline learning before moving into digital courses in 2015. Its push online has seen it do a number of deals and Osmo represents its fourth acquisition. But beyond being its most expensive, Raveendran hailed the acquisition as his company’s “most important” deal to date.

“We have video as a format, games as a format, and we think of Cosmo like a format… we could have thousands of supported apps,” he told TechCrunch by phone. “Education is not purely an online experience, especially for younger kids [so] the potential is huge if there’s a clear online-to-offline application.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

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