It may not seem too surprising that one of the best-funded edtech startups in the past year of the pandemic has been a company that is building on Zoom’s success to add tools to run online courses. But the scale of his fundraising may raise some eyebrows.
Class has raised more than $ 165 million from various sources including GSV Ventures, Owl Ventures and Reach Capital since its inception almost a year ago. Last month, EdSurge caught up with its founder and CEO, Michael Chasen, to find out what he’s seen so far and where the company hopes to go next.
Chasen is a familiar figure in edtech: he co-founded Blackboard, one of the largest providers of learning management systems for colleges and schools, and served as its CEO for years. As he watched his own children adjust to online education during the pandemic, he felt that Zoom lacked features to allow teachers to manage standard classroom activities, such as attendance or achievement. quiz.
He knew that Zoom had a development kit, or SDK, that allowed other software to integrate on top of the video platform, so he decided to build those features into what became Class.
“Now you can use Zoom, but take attendance, hand out homework, give tests or quizzes, monitor those exams and talk one-on-one with the students,” he says. “We let you replicate the physical classroom in an online environment. “
When the business started, the plan was to start with higher education and Kindergarten to Grade 12 and then expand into the corporate learning market. But Chasen said Class has received so many incoming requests from the company that it has already done more than originally thought.
In corporate training, he said, “they moved these courses online and they found that the employees were more engaged with the live teacher. If you say to your employees: “You can take this management course, it’s at your own pace, it’s on your own”, half of them take it. Half of them don’t really care. If you tell them, “It’s at seven o’clock Wednesday night, there’s a teacher over there,” everyone introduces themselves. And they are more engaged. And now with Zoom you can really have a live lesson [remotely]. “
Most colleges were already providing at least some online training even before the pandemic hit. But Chasen says higher education has also offered many online courses asynchronously in the past, meaning students could take them on demand rather than showing up at a set time. But he said colleges are also getting ready to hold more live sessions in online courses and are looking for tools to do just that.
Class already has a well-funded rival to deliver a next-generation online classroom, a startup called Engageli that has raised more than $ 47 million in the past year. This company’s tool was designed from the ground up, while Class is an add-on to Zoom, meaning that institutions that want to use Class must also purchase a license for Zoom if they don’t already have it. made.
Chasen argues that standing on the shoulder of a rapidly growing video rig means it can deliver a more robust and secure experience. “Zoom has behind it a multibillion-dollar video and audio architecture to deliver these lessons or meetings live. I could never even build that, ”he said. “I was able to focus all of our development on actually adding teaching and learning tools to Zoom. I didn’t have to worry about the audio-video transcription or anything like that.
But if Zoom is already built, why does Class need all the investment money?
“Zoom is actually a very expensive platform to develop,” explains Chasen. Since it’s a downloadable app, his team had to create separate versions of Class for Windows, Chrome, Mac OS, and several mobile operating systems. This means that his development costs are nearly five times higher than if he were making software for the web. Currently, he estimates that there are between 80 and 100 people at Class working on “development and advisory services”.
While Zoom has grown in education since the start of the pandemic, there are still many schools and colleges that have already adopted a rival video platform, like Microsoft Teams or Google Classroom.
What did Chasen learn from his experience as a longtime CEO of Blackboard?
He said his biggest advantage is that he knows so many numbers in higher education and Kindergarten to Grade 12 based on his previous work, which has made it easier to form advisory groups and obtain comments as he developed Class.
At Blackboard, Chasen had a reputation for being a business shark, buying out competitors and pursuing rivals. And many professors and college executives criticized the company during this time for not feeling like a partner.
Chasen says he also learned from this experience.
“When I started Blackboard I was a lot younger and didn’t have a lot of experience,” he said. “I don’t think we were working as closely as we should have been with the institutions to get that feedback and get feedback along the way. In contrast, he says one of the first things he did at Class was to create advisory committees to get community input.
For now, Chasen sees many schools eager to return in person. But he said many districts have started or expanded virtual academies to provide options for students who do better online or need the online option.
He said he viewed Kindergarten to Grade 12 as a “long-term opportunity” as schools did little online education before the pandemic. Now many see it as something to keep in the mix of options going forward.