Can Duolingo destroy the TOEFL?

A few months ago, Duolingo launched their Test Center, which tests users on their English proficiency. The idea is that their Test Center can accurately determine a user’s command of English after a 20 minute exam taken on a mobile device or web browser. Duolingo offers this as an alternative to the TOEFL, which most non-native English speakers have to take at some point to prove their ability to understand English. Why are they tackling this problem? Well, the TOEFL happens to be the only widely accepted English proficiency test so anyone that needs to prove their English abilities must take it. It costs over $200 to take, is administered in special facilities often far from the test taker’s home, and can also take months to calculate the results. However, none of these reasons have hurt the popularity of the test because it is still the only recognized English proficiency test. On the other hand, Duolingo’s test can be taken for $20 (free for a limited time), from home, and the results can be calculated within 48 hours.

The test must be taken with a phone or computer that has a front facing camera to prevent test fraud. Duolingo will monitor the sounds and video to make sure no one else is taking the test for the person signed up. I’m worried that if this Test Center does gain in popularity and become recognized as a valid test of English Proficiency, wouldn’t hackers from all over the world be jumping on the chance to sell a program that can help you cheat on the test? I guess Duolingo can try to solve that issue when it arises, but at least the test seems secure for the time being.

The biggest challenge Duolingo will face now is getting companies and universities to recognize the validity of this test and accept it as a way of proving English abilities. It looks like they’re already starting to make that case – by proving the correlation between the Duolingo test results and the TOEFL results. Until it is widely accepted as an accepted way of proving English skills, the price to take the TOEFL will remain artificially high and the test will continue to be cumbersome.

Check out the video below for an overview of the test.

Udacity announces nanodegrees

Udacity and AT&T recently collaborated to create a series of ‘nano’ classes designed for the working professional to pick up new skills without having to take time off. Read the full release here.

nanodegrees allow anyone to sign up for a class and learn the skills needed to become an entry level front-end web developer, back-end web developer, iOS mobile developer, Android mobile developer, or data analyst in 6-12 months. At first, this sounds similar to several initiatives already available online. The Verified Certificate through edX or the Signature Track at Coursera both offer certificates that carry more weight than their regular certificates of completion. Udacity’s new degree also runs into the same pitfalls as its competitors: The cerfiticates do not seem to valued by employers and do not offer a significant advantage to the free courses offered.

However, the nanodegree has one big advantage over certificates from other online educators: its partnership with AT&T. The telecommunications company is offering 100 paid internships to students who complete the course. Students know that there is at least ONE corporation that takes these certificates seriously and will hire based on their completion. I hope more companies will follow suit, but corporations want to be leaders and innovators, not followers, so I worry that bureaucracy will prevent additional partners as nanodegree is seen as “AT&T’s initiative”.

Either way, this is a big step forward for online education. An online degree finally has the ability to land you an internship with a legitimate corporation!

The New York Times also printed an article about nanodegrees which details more of the effectiveness of MOOCs in general rather than the actual nanodegree.

First Quarter In the World of EdTech

Last month, I wrote about the dramatic increase in EdTech investments from VC firms.  To recap, the average amount invested in EdTech companies between 2002-2011 was $260 million per year. That figure surged over $1 billion in the last two years.

TechCrunch wrote an article detailing the state of EdTech. Amazingly, EdTech firms have raised over $500 million in just the first quarter of 2014.  This chart does a great job of showing the trend within the space.

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The article also suggests that the Common Core Standards Initiative has increased venture investments.  Due to the high adoption rate among state school boards, my guess is venture capital firms have realized that if one of these startups can gain momentum in their market, they could also easily spread across the 44 states that have adopted Common Core.  The problem is, schools and even higher education institutions have always been slow in the adoption of technology. School districts have little incentive to innovate and try new things because there is virtually no competition. Most public school students don’t have the option of going to another school, so the school districts are never in danger of losing their customers. Worse yet, school funding is usually limited and getting support for riskier ventures is never easy. For this reason, I have always been more interested in educational startups without these barriers. In my opinion, companies like Udemy and Tynker will be the ones that revolutionize education and disrupt the industry.

The year started off with a bang for educational technology. I’m excited to see what other game changing technologies will emerge in the next few months.

Common Core in Schools

The Common Core Initiative has been in the media a lot recently and not always for the right reasons. Many states have begun rolling out the curriculum but more and more reports are being published highlighting the messy process and slow progress. Teachers unions have called the roll out sloppy while others have raised their concerns over the fundamental need for the Initiative. If you haven’t been following, Common Core is basically a set of national guidelines for what a student in any state in the U.S. should learn by the time they graduate high school. The program hopes to maintain a standard of what students are expected to learn at each grade level so that our education system can have less variability between schools.  There have been lots of complaints about how the teachers aren’t being trained fast enough to teach the Common Core standard and how the teachers are being unfairly judged based on their students’ performance on the standardized test.  Still, states are moving forward to push the Common Core into their schools amid the resistance.

Avid supporter Bill Gates recently wrote an article dispelling some myths.

Myth: Common Core was created without involving parents, teachers or state and local governments.

In fact, the standards were sponsored by organizations made up of governors and school officials. The major teacher unions and 48 states sent teams, including teachers, to participate. The Gates Foundation helped fund this process because we believe that stronger standards will help more students live up to their potential. More than 10,000 members of the general public commented on the standards during drafting. Each of the 45 states that have adopted them used the same process used to adopt previous standards.

Myth: Common Core State Standards means students will have to take even more high-stakes tests.

Common Core won’t necessarily add to the number of annual state tests students take. States will introduce new math and language arts tests based on the standards to replace tests they give now. Most states are taking a cautious

approach to implementing the new tests, giving teachers and students time to adapt before scores lead to serious consequences. What’s more, unlike some of today’s tests, the new tests will help teachers and students improve by providing an ongoing diagnosis of whether students are mastering what they need to know for success after graduation.

Myth: Common Core standards will limit teachers’ creativity and flexibility.

These are standards, just like the ones schools have always had; they are not a curriculum. They are a blueprint of what students need to know, but they have nothing to say about how teachers teach that information. It’s still up to local educators to select the curriculum.

In fact, the standards will give teachers more choices. When every state had its own standards, innovators making new educational software or cutting-edge lesson plans had to make many versions to reach all students. Now, consistent standards will allow more competition and innovation to help teachers do their best work.

Americans want students to get the best education possible. We want schools to prepare children to become good citizens and members of a prosperous American economy. The Common Core standards were carefully conceived with these two goals in mind. It would be a shame if myths and misunderstandings got in the way.

Bill Gates isn’t just talking though, he recently gave $150 million to help fund the development of the Common Core. You can find the full list of recipients of the funding here.

What do you think of this whole Common Core mess? Are teachers being overly resistant? Could this mess have been avoided? Let me know in the comments!

Uh oh!

I was looking around on the MySQL database and accidentally deleted all the links! Not sure how it happened yet but I’m working hard to fix it. Sorry!!


Edit: 2:00AM. Finally got it fixed. Tried to desperately undo the accidental deleting that I had done, but I didn’t have anything backed up. Protip: Learn the basics of MySQL before you start messing with it.

2013 in review and Ed Tech trends for 2014

I came across an interesting article today about educational trends in 2014. Some were obvious while others were a bit surprising.  The writer Victor Hu is an Ed Tech investment banker at Goldman Sachs, so I assume he has his nose to the ground and has a great deal of knowledge of the industry. However, I do wonder just how much Ed Tech business there is for a firm like Goldman to try and win. It’s not exactly a multi-billion dollar industry like Oil & Gas is… But that’s beside the point. Here are a few snippets from his article.


“In higher ed, aggregate student debt has ballooned past a trillion dollars, while unemployment and underemployment continue to plague the 54% of students who manage to graduate in 6 years (not to mention the 46% who do not). Colleges and universities face shrinking public funding, declining enrollment and contracting endowment returns – and in some cases deeper, more existential questions.”

Student debt has been a serious problem that has grown out of control in the past decade. Forbes wrote an article recently that really opened my eyes to just how bad it was. It states that two out of every three students graduate college with some type of debt, and one in ten graduate with over $40,000 of loans. That’s insane! Even community college, which traditionally has allowed students to more easily graduate with less debt, saw ~40% of their students graduate with loans outstanding. Students are getting saddled with increasingly heavier burdens and I haven’t heard of many effective initiatives to slow this trend.

Victor also writes about universities facing declining enrollment and shrinking funding. One news story came to mind immediately. The Wall Street Journal ran an article detailing The Thunderbird School of Global Management’s problems with lower endowment and fewer students.  The school is on the verge of bankruptcy and has decided to try to sell their campus to a for-profit college operator.  When most people think of for-profit college, names likes DeVry and University of Phoenix come to mind…not exactly the first-rate institutions that alumni of the school want to be associated with. Still, this is as problem faced to a lesser extent by many schools. As job placement worsens and student debt grows, students are beginning to find other ways of securing a job and starting a career.


 ”The private markets have never been more robust, with new generations of edupreneurs and investors partnering to tackle some of education’s most intractable problems.”

It’s good to hear my thoughts confirmed. Victor sees much more of the market than I can, but even I was able to figure out that 2013 was a good time for EdTech entrepreneurs to build a business and raise capital. Which leads us to one of his trends for 2014:


After averaging around $260 million for the ten years ending in 2011, venture and growth investment in education technology and services spiked to over a billion dollars in 2012, and surpassed that figure again in 2013, prompting many in the industry to cry “bubble” with reference to the first edutech crash in the aftermath of the original Internet implosion.

The difference this time, however, is that many of the companies tapping the private markets have proven product-market fit, and some have already achieved meaningful scale. The majority of edutech companies raising sizeable growth rounds recently have demonstrated the ability to serve their market segments in sustainable ways. Expect the capital trend to continue in 2014 as more and more companies seek to apply software and internet technology to transform different parts of the education value chain.

This was surprising to me. Kind of. I’ve only covered this industry for the past few years so I probably entered around the time of the up-swing. It is amazing to hear that between 2002-2011, the average yearly investment in this industry was only $260 million. In a matter of 2 years, that number has grown 5x. Hard to tell whether EdTech is a bubble right now (maybe all of tech is a bubble), but either way, hopefully these companies can use that money to make a real difference in the classroom.


Online education has been around for decades, but historically has been the domain of smaller education market segments, nontraditional learners and non-elite institutions.

We have now passed the inflection point, and online is ready to go mainstream in every part of the education continuum in 2014.

Next year, we’ll be five years into the famous prediction by disruptive innovation gurus Clay Christensen and Michael Horn that online education will account for half of all high school courses delivered by 2019. In higher ed, elite universities have joined in, likely causing any institution who has not yet implemented an online strategy to race to do so. In the meantime, a variety of online learning platforms have proliferated, with diverse content and monetization strategies. After causing a media swoon in 2012, MOOCs have moved quickly beyond Gartner’s “peak of inflated expectations”; some have already plunged into the “trough of disillusionment,” and others are beginning the long, steady climb up the “slope of enlightenment” toward product and business model sustainability.

Obviously the most interesting portion of the article for me personally.  I think it’s interesting how people have predicted the “peak” and “trough” of online education. A few years ago, the internet was littered with praise of the MOOCs and initiatives to globalize education and remove the traditional barriers. This year, I saw tons of articles about how online education was a failure and how hard it was to actually learn through a MOOC course. I’ve dabbled with MOOCs also and if you look through my edX profile, you’ll see many classes that I failed to complete. Work got busy, the class wasn’t a top priority for me, I fell too far behind and forgot about it. I’m sure it happens to many of us. Still, this resource has undoubtedly helped millions of people already from all over the world (remember that Mongolian kid who took MIT’s Circuits and Electronics course?) With time, these MOOCs will evolve into more engaging, thoughtful classes.

Victor brings up a great point about the online learning platforms with diverse content and monetization strategies. Obviously, the number of learning platforms is incredibly broad; just look at the homepage of No Excuse List.  But have you ever thought about how diverse the monetization strategies are?  There’s the traditional subscription program from sites like Lynda, the pay-per-class structure from sites like Udemy and General Assembly, or the enrollment programs that give you one-on-one time with mentors like bloc.  Ebook writers often allow you to read the book online for free, but charges money if you want to download it.  I wonder if there’s one type of monetization plan that will become the standard in 2014.

Looking back, 2013 was an incredible year for EdTech. It has been building momentum for years now, but I didn’t expect it to explode like it did. Let’s hope it continues in 2014.

Mongolian Teen Pursues His Dreams

Found this inspiring story through Alex’s Ohanian’s book’s blog. He recently published a book called Without Their Permission where he shares “his ideas, tips and even his own doodles about harnessing the power of the web for good”. I’m going to pick it up soon!

The New York Times writes about a student by the name of Battushig Myanganbayar from Mongolia who pursued his passion for electronics through MIT’s OpenCourseWare.

Battushig has the round cheeks of a young boy, but he is not your typical teenager. He hasn’t read Harry Potter (“What will I learn from that?”) and doesn’t like listening to music (when a friend saw him wearing headphones, he couldn’t believe it; it turned out Battushig was preparing for the SAT). His projects are what make him happy. “In electrical engineering, there is no limit,” he said. “It is like playing with toys.” He unveiled Garage Siren in August 2012, posting instructions and a demonstration video on YouTube. The project impressed officials at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — where Battushig planned to apply for college — but at that point they were already aware of his abilities. Two months earlier, Battushig, then 15, became one of 340 students out of 150,000 to earn a perfect score in Circuits and Electronics, a sophomore-level class at M.I.T. and the first Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC — a college course filmed and broadcast free or nearly free to anyone with an Internet connection — offered by the university.

Read the full story here.

This is just an incredible example of how MOOCs are changing education. Barriers that were insurmountable 10 years ago are suddenly much easier to overcome. The Principal of school was instrumental in helping Battushig learn the material, but without online education, Battushig’s road to success would have been much more challenging.  As online education continues to grow, I can only imagine this type of story will become more and more common.


Bill Gates on the Future of EdTech

Recently, Bill Gates had a Q&A session Education Week (@EducationWeek). The interview was about his latest investment in educational tools review site, Graphite.

Below is an excerpt that I found interesting:

Per @melanieawelsh, one of dozens of @EducationWeek followers who submitted questions for you via Twitter, how do you see the role of online learning in K-12 education evolving over the next decade? 

When you see a very effective teacher at work in the classroom, something magical happens that can’t be replaced by a strictly online experience.

Today, online learning is great for especially motivated students who are driven to learn things outside of school. It lets them supplement what they’re learning in class and seek out new things that maybe the teacher doesn’t have time to get into. That’s exciting, and I’m a big supporter of it. I take a lot of online courses myself. But we need tools and programs that work for every student, not just the super-motivated.

Software can figure out what a student knows about a subject and, with infinite patience, tailor exercises that focus on where they need to improve, even giving personalized hints and encouragement. As hardware like tablets and intelligent whiteboards gets cheaper and more widely available, that can help, too.


You can read the rest of the interview here.

Edcuational Technology News resources

Today I wanted to share with you some resources on Educational Technology news. Although this industry has seen rapid growth over the last five years, there still aren’t many publications that focus on EdTech. Here are a few of the ones that I follow to make sure I’m up to date.

EdSurge - Backed by the Bill and Medlina Gates Foundation and The Washington Post, EdSurge sends out a daily newsletter containing the latest news in a variety of topics. They cover news, new products, upcoming EdTech conferences, recent start-up investments, and even jobs. This is the most comprehensive EdTech news source that I’ve found so far. No Excuse List was actually featured on the newsletter last year, so I’m very grateful.

OLDaily - Another daily / weekly newsletter from Stephen Downes, a researcher for the National Research Council of Canada specializing in online learning and new media. His newsletters consists of links to interesting articles that he finds throughout the day.

Ed Tech Magazine - Online magazine that splits its content between K-12 and Higher Education. It’s updated almost daily with new articles from its staff of freelance writers.

Most of the edX, OpenCourseWare type sites also have news updates from their blog. However, I find it most efficient to just follow them on twitter. Here’s a few people that I follow on twitter dedicated to Ed Tech:

@MITOCW - MIT OpenCourseWare
@edXOnline - edX
@techreview - MIT Tech Review
@EdSurge - EdSurge
@marcparry - Marc Parry, reporter for Chronicle of Higher Ed.
@nsvf - NewSchools Venture Fund is an investment firm that focuses on EdTech is a site you need to check out!

I’m almost embarrassed at how long it took for me to add Saylor to NoExcuseList because it epitomizes the kind of site we want to share.

A few months ago, I spoke with Sean Conner(@SeanGConnor), Saylor’s Community Engagement Manager, and this was his quick description of Saylor:

Briefly, we hire professors, Ph.D. candidates, and professionals to build college-level courses that mirror a four-year undergraduate curriculum. We aggregate content from many available sources, and supply original content to fill in the gaps. Over three years we’ve put around 250  courses online. Important to your readers, probably: our courses are totally free, self-scheduled, and come with employer-verifiable certificates.


I found that the Saylor Foundation does a great job mirroring the university curriculum.  By selecting one of the many majors (Math, Biology, Art  History, Business Administration, Economics, etc), you will be given an outline of the classes to take to complete the major. Most majors begin with 3-5 prerequisite classes before moving toward the more advanced material.  Every course has units pulled from different resources on the web. One unit may tell you to read lecture notes from a Stanford class while the next unit links you to one of the videos found on KhanAcademy. Every course also has final exam to test your comprehension of the material.  The best part of Saylor is that they hire certified professors to build these courses to ensure you get the education you’re looking for.

With the 289 classes Saylor is currently offering, you’ll definitely find something interesting to learn.