Online education: enhancing existing content versus starting anew?

By James Robinson , written on February 5, 2014

From The News Desk

Two foreign entrepreneurs closing major funding rounds; two opposing approaches to the online education space.

In one corner you have 21-year old British wunderkind and Stanford dropout George Burgess, whose startup Gojimo closed a $1 million-plus seed round through Index Ventures last week. In the other, all the way from Rio De Janeiro, there’s Marco Fisbhen, in his mid-30s, whose company Descomplica has built up the largest online classroom in Brazil in four years and announced an approximately $5 million series B funding round today, led by Social+Capital Ventures.

Gojimo and Descomplica are not in direct competition, of course, but the contrast of the two illuminates two very different ways into the online education space. As learning moves online: are entrepreneurs better placed simply adapting the medium and making traditional texts enhanced for the mobile platform, or creating new content that adapts itself to the new ways we interact with content on the Internet?

It was 2009, Burgess was 17 and in his final year of school. “It was the time of the first app gold rush. But there was nothing in there of any quality for students,” he says. Taking the bull by the horns at an admirably young age, he recruited his teacher to his new project, put a small friends and family round together and launched EducationApps, which released “hundreds” of single-subject apps and a popular run of apps in partnership with the BBC. His new company’s apps were download a quarter of a million times.

But Burgess felt like it could be improved upon. “It wasn’t quite the best user experience,” he says. He began at Stanford before taking a leave of absence to return to London and work up a prototype for Gojimo. The new company would unify the scattered approach of EducationApps under one roof, providing a “unified storefront” where students could purchase premium test prep content from Oxford University Press and McGraw-Hill in the UK and US. The idea got bites, so no more Stanford.

Fisbhen had been working as a teacher since he was 17. He began Descomplica in 2010, motivated by what he saw as a simple injustice, he says. In Brazil, studying at public universities is free but entrance is decided by an annual test taken by seven million students in late-October, early November each year. Study materials are expensive and higher-income families are more able to spend the money on their kids. Subsequently, test results skew heavily in their favor, leaving less financially comfortable families to pay more money for less reputable private universities.

He pitched the idea at a startup competition at the end of 2009 and placed second, leading to a $150,000 angel investment from a Rio de Janeiro-based VC group.

Before Descomplica launched for the 2011 academic year, Fisbhen says he employed two editors, bought a video camera and roped in as many teachers he could with the goal of making 1,000 short videos in six months.

It was an insane task, Fisbhen says. But in doing so, Descomplica has circumvented a vulnerability that Gojimo will face, moving onwards from its launch last week.

Burgess says he decided early on to start with premium content and work backwards. “We wanted to be careful about quality. A lot of test prep apps are not very good,” he says. The response to the idea of providing this content on a more mobile and engaging platform has been encouraging for him - major publishers have signed on, he’s gotten investment. He says that by the middle of 2014, Gojimo is hopeful of adding in more publishers. He is hoping to add an element of gamification in to the platform so friends can jostle over who scored what on what prep quiz and so on.

But the paid aspect of it all is “a bit of a barrier,” Burgess admits. Gojimo as it is configured is reliant on content from the publishers that publish the test prep it sells. “Our biggest threat is if the publishers don’t allow us this access,” he says. He’s already begun considering how his company would pivot if that day came, allowing user-generated test-content, and so on.

All the while, Descomplica has thrived on its DIY approach. In four-years its library has swelled to 7,000 videos. Fisbhen says that one of the biggest challenges facing the company now is making that content more searchable and intuitive to navigate. These short videos were made according to a simple maxim: the teacher looks straight into the camera, they stick to the point, but make it fun. Videos are a few minutes long, running as long as is needed to give a basic explanation of the subject.

Aided by some fortuitous assists from local philanthropist and businessman Pedro Villares and support from state governments, Descomplica is visited by one million students a month in peak season, all who pay a small monthly subscription fee equivalent to $3.50 USD. The approach has worked academically, too. Seventy percent of kids that studied for three months or more on the site scored above the national average, Fisbhen says.

Burgess is at the start of his journey with Gojimo. Fisbhen is CEO of a company that employs close to 100 people. But in the matter of enhancing existing content, versus creating your own, he’s able to potentially scale faster while being extremely vulnerable if cut off by publishers. Fisbhen and Descomplica are now most susceptible to the copycats they’ve seen to start to come at them. It remains to be seen whether Burgess and Gojimo can build himself into the same position of stability.

[image adapted from jdhancock]