Echo360 rolls out "TiVo for the classroom," aims to improve learning outcomes and reduce dropout rates

By Michael Carney , written on October 3, 2014

From The News Desk

Depending on when you graduated college, technology may have played little to no role in your studies. Whether you took notes in a composition notebook, or at best typed them using a laptop word processor, and whether you did research at the library, or using Google, trust me when I tell you that today’s students live in an entirely different world.

One company helping to broaden this divide is Echo360. For the better part of eight years, the Dulles, VA company has been helping universities capture live lectures on video, content that is later made available to students for review. As I wrote previously, the technology could make note-taking and class attendance obsolete. Echo360 has grown to support over 2 million students across 600 schools in 30 countries, and now serves 10 million capture views per month.

But earlier this week, Echo took a major leap beyond simply lecture capture by introducing a comprehensive cloud-based learning platform that supports lecture capture, content management – including syncing with slide presentations – in-lecture note-taking, student engagement via polls and quizzes, and learning analytics. Dubbed the Active Learning Platform, Echo360 believes that the newest version of its platform will improve learning, reduce dropout rates, and make higher education all around more efficient and effective.

“The first thing I should get out of the way is that we believe in teachers (and professors). We’re not trying to preempt educators,” says Echo360 EVP of Product Bill Holding. “We believe that regardless of how education continues to evolve, teachers will continue to play an essential role. But we believe that the tools available to these teachers and their students can get a lot smarter and a lot more efficient and can make everyone’s lives easier.”

There’s a macro-trend underlying the need for better education tools. That is, classroom sizes are growing rapidly amid budget constraints at most colleges, leaving students with less one-on-one attention from professors, and professors with less ability to monitor and react to student progress.

Echo360’s real-time polling and quizzes will be a major improvement in the ability of these professors to take the pulse of their classroom and see where students are confused and where they are keeping up. And with the chat and Q&A features students will be able to get real-time answers to their questions both from classmates and teaching assistants. More importantly all this content, as well as any slide presentations, handouts, and the lecture video will be available after class for future review. The result is that students can learn at their own pace by revisiting difficult material, reviewing study guides, asking peer-to-peer questions, and even building digital study groups.

Perhaps the coolest feature in this learning Swiss army knife is that notes taken during class are synced to the above content, so that a student can easily reference the exact slide that was being shown and what the professor was saying at the front of the room at any given moment. Between lectures, professors get access the detailed analytics, detailing each student’s in-class participation, frequency of review, quiz performance, and so on. The idea is to keep students from unnecessarily falling through the learning cracks. Echo360 calls it “predictive analytics," but it might be more accurately described as flunk forecasting. This real-time data will also help teachers avoid robotically following disconnected lesson plans, raising awareness and allowing them to instead respond more immediately to the needs of the classroom.

With all of these new bells and whistles, there is certainly the risk of information overload for both students and teachers. And both will need to develop and master new workflows to take advantage of all the platform has to offer. But Echo360 has gone to great lengths to make this transition as easy as possible, and to make using each component of the system optional. For professors, all that is required is that they upload a slide presentation in advance of the lecture and press start on the video recording. For students, use of the platform is entirely voluntary (except for quizzes that the professor might mandate).

In terms of the competitive landscape, there are other companies that offer each of the individual features present in the Active Learning Platform. There are a handful of lecture capture players, although none as big as Echo360. There are other live polling and quiz platforms, and plenty of options for cloud based document management and note-taking. But where Echo360’s latest offering excels is in seamlessly tying these tools together in an intuitive and additive experience. The company says it hired top user interface designers from the gaming and consumer Internet industries, a fact that shows in the final product, which is quite elegant.

“One thing that we’ve learned is that integration is a key factor in engagement,” Holding says. “The less students have to toggle back and forth between tabs and applications, the better we can capture their attention and the better they retain the information being delivered.”

There are a few non-obvious outcomes that stem from use of the Active Learning Platform. One, students now have a comprehensive and organized personalized study guide for use at the end of a semester or for future reference. A potentially troubling caveat is that, currently, once a student graduates she loses access to this information. But the company is already working on an update that will make it possible to export synced copies of all notes and slide presentations as PDFs. The company declined to specify a timeline for this next update, but did note that historically, updates come once per quarter. (They’ve got nine months until the next graduation season rolls around.)

It’s not just students who walk away with new digital assets. Universities also wind up with a comprehensive course modules that can be used to create future online or distance learning programs. One question that remains to be answered in this regard is what ownership to teachers have over their IP? According to Echo360, the answer depends on the university and the individual employment contracts of each teacher. But anyone who relinquishes control of this IP could be hesitant to package up their course in a tidy digital bow and hand it to their employer for fear of finding themselves out of a job, replaced by a collection of videos and slide presentations.

Echo360 is available to colleges and universities today on a recurring annual license basis, with prices varying according to the number of students using the platform. In the future the company hopes to expand into high schools, a prospect that is far more realistic following the move away from an on-premise product to the new cloud-based offering. Echo360 also may eventually pursue a freemium model that sees students pay for more advanced features, Holding adds.

“We believe there’s an opportunity to charge students. LectureTools had a student-pay model before we acquired them,” he says. “We’re not opposed to that. We think there’s room for a hybrid model.”

The company has raised a total of $58.6 across five rounds of funding, with backers including, most significantly, Steve Case’s Revolution Ventures. After seven years, you could forgive outside observers for asking whether an exit (perhaps an IPO) could be on the horizon for the company. But Holding says that is very much not the focus. Instead, the company is focused on helping its existing customers succeed and on getting the Active Learning Platform in front of as many new customers as possible.”

“Schools don’t have to upgrade any existing capture hardware – this is meant to be a software upgrade only,” Holding says. “Education has its own cadence, so won’t force anyone to upgrade soon. But this is where we’re headed, going forward. It will take time to get all of our existing customers to upgrade, but we think we’ve dangled a pretty big carrot. We’ve created a sort of TiVo for the classroom.”