As cross-dressing sensation Conchita Wurst belted out her Eurovision Song Contest-winning tune across a room filled with Europe’s hottest tech start-ups, I knew it could only mean one thing: the Europas annual awards evening had officially begun. From Berlin came Babbel, who have become one of the world’s leading language learning platforms. Used in 190 countries, with over 25 million app downloads to date, they swept to victory in the education category in exuberant style. However Busuu, Babbel’s nearest rival both in market and geography, reached a staggering 50m users this year, proving that Europe has truly emerged as the home of social language learning.
Earlier this month Pearson launched its new Global Scale of English or short GSE. According to Pearson English
“there has never been a globally recognised standard in English – no single way of recognising and quantifying the level of an individual’s English”
which is, of course, something the company aims to change with its new product.
Today the three winners of the EdTech 20 2014 were announced at EdTech Europe, a one day summit bringing together key figures in the European edtech scene as well as from abroad.
Judged by an industry-leading panel, including representatives from TSL, Pearson and Emerge Education, the European EdTech 20 ranks firms based on criteria including; innovation, scale, market impact and revenue growth in Europe over the past year. This year’s EdTech 20 have been selected out of more than 100 entries from 15 countries.
EdTech Europe announced its second annual EdTech 20 list. The EdTech 20 2014 were judged by a jury of industry experts in terms of innovation, scale, market impact and revenue growth over the past year and selected out of more than 100 entries from 15 countries.
The three winners of this year’s EdTech 20 will be announced at the EdTech Europe event in London next week.
This column was first published in EducationInvestor Volume 6, Issue 3 April 2014.
As an EDUKWEST reader you’re entitled to subscribe to EducationInvestor magazine at a discount. Sign up here, and you can receive 13 issues for the price of 10.
When it comes to language, Europe is in a unique position. In a small geographical area, connected by a common market and to some extent common culture, we have access to nearly all the world’s most important languages: English, of course, but German, Spanish, Portuguese and French all play major roles in global trade, too. And the European Commission is keen to get people learning: a year ago, it announced the lofty goal of making every European speak at least three languages, calling this multilingualism strategy “mother tongue plus two”.
Here is our new weekly rundown of EdTech Startup News beyond funding, IPOs or mergers and acquisitions.
This week we cover busuu’s distribution partnership with Pearson English, Scoop.it’s new knowledge management product for companies and FarFaria, a new Android app.
Our friend Edward Baker of Edmix put together an EdTech Startup Pavillion for Bett Show in London again this year.
I interviewed Ed back in December prior to the Bett and if you’re interested to learn more about what he and Edmix do, I invite you to read the interview.
At the EdTech Startup Pavillion I got a glimpse what UK-based education startups are building. I mostly spoke with founders who develop for teachers and schools which is not surprising as this is the biggest visitor group BETT attracts each year. I also saw quite some startups in the video vertical, ranging from the player/platform itself, over a YouTube-esque solution for teachers with additional analytics and also video in a more professional context to train employees.
Apparently the choice of making tutoring the subject of our first EDUKWEST Live event last week was a very good one. Having been somewhat forgotten over the past couple of years it now makes an impressive comeback in the edtech news cycle.
To give you just one prominent example that was covered by even general tech blogs: Wyzant which raised $21.5 million late last year now acquired the remains of Tutorspree. But I’ll get into that story later this week.
Today I want to focus on Cambly, a new platform that connects English and Spanish learners through video chat. Sure, this sounds very familiar as startups like Colingo and Verbling are essentially fishing in the same pond.
Yesterday Duolingo released a new promo video on its YouTube channel. Marketing and feel-good / world-changing agenda aside, the spot has a pretty telling message: Language, free at last. (emphasis mine).
I also just got an email stating that
“Since its launch 15 months ago, Duolingo has reached 10 million students and become the most popular way to learn languages online. No ad campaign, no gimmicks; just your support and a mission of free language education for the world.”
Looking a few years back the premise of language learning startups like Livemocha, busuu and babbel.com was to make language learning more affordable compared to their chosen nemesis Rosetta Stone. Since then Livemocha’s newsletter has turned into a sales channel for Rosetta Stone after the acquisition, promoting RS products at 60% off.
As a funny side note: if you follow the link to Livemocha’s YouTube channel on the bottom of the email, you will still find the legendary Livemocha spot with the (infamous) yellow boxes.
But back to Duolingo. If you talk to folks in the language learning industry you notice that most (all) of them are not happy about the new competitor. How can you compete with a free product that also seems to work quite well according to a study.
What Duolingo does is essentially disrupting the former disrupters or at least establishing itself as the third alternative method. busuu’s success is clearly its global community of language learners and babbel.com has chosen a more technology based approach similar to Rosetta Stone.
Now, of course we all know that there is no free lunch and, to use another catch phrase, if the product is free you are the product. Duolingo is selling this over a call to join a movement, giving your language learning a bigger purpose
“With Duolingo there is no tuition or subscription fee. It’s 100% free. Instead students like us give back by helping to translate websites, news and Wikipedia articles. It gives our personal language learning journeys a bigger purpose.”
I can see why many folks in the space see this storytelling as misleading. In fact Duolingo users are Mechanical Turks but instead of getting paid a couple of cents per task, they get “free” language lessons in return. Sounds good but they should also know how much their work is actually worth and whether language lessons, as good as they might be, are an adequate recompense.
The new spot is definitely a step-up from the first one that was more toned down yet also mentioned the business model behind Duolingo, adding the layer of being part of a global movement to better the world through language learning.
I also think people underestimate the power behind such global communities. Just recently Viki, the online community around translating and adding subtitles to popular TV shows, got acquired by Rakuten. One of the rumored bidders was Google.
Since I first heard about Duolingo and its concept I was pretty sure that the startup is one of the upcoming acquisitions by Google. Not only did Google acquire Luis von Ahn’s first startup reCAPTCHA but if Duolingo can prove that a global community can offer nearly instant translation of every web page, Google just has to write that check as it perfectly fits the overall strategy that we can see with Google Glass, Google Translate and other related services.
And if you think about it, von Ahn also took a site out of Google’s playbook in terms of the business model. Give the users a great service for free and make money based on their data and content.
This week busuu made the news having achieved 20 million downloads. And while this surely is a nice number we all (should) know that vanity numbers alone don’t say anything about your business. Just ask Livemocha. Luckily busuu has more to offer than the glitzy baits that get you on TechCrunch.
If you look deeper into the press release you should notice something that is far more interesting.
The general shift to mobile learning is further demonstrated by the fact that busuu users now complete 33% more exercises via the app than online.
There has been written a lot about learning sprints and mobile learners but having hard data to prove that people are actually learning and completing tasks on their mobile devices is pretty fascinating.
If you take the time and look at people during their commute in public transport you will notice that over the years the number of people looking down on a smartphone of some sort has risen dramatically. It has become a somewhat personal zone of privacy in an increasingly noisy and hectic environment. And this is what makes it perfect for learning sprints.
You know exactly how much time you’ll have to spend and frankly, there is nothing much you could do otherwise. I mean talking to people? Come on. Hence people either check their email; social media or catch up with the latest news. And while some people add a round of Words with Friends (is this still a thing?) or any other popular mobile game, some actually use this time bubble to learn a language.
It really is a perfect learning environment. Nothing that may distract you and a fixed amount of time to complete a task. When you are doing the same thing at home in front of your computer, a lot can and will happen to interrupt the learning from spouses to children and pets. But don’t write off learning on a computer just yet.
I asked busuu’s co-founder and CEO Bernhard Niesner whether there was a difference in the time people spend learning on mobile devices compared to computers and he told me that the session time on a computer is twice as high than on mobile devices. On the other hand, busuu now has more users that learn with its mobile products.
Learners now can also further personalize their learning experience by setting their own goals. Niesner told me that for now most users choose the beginner levels which might indicate that people find language learning more entertaining when they are not drilled too hard.
This of course leads to the inevitable question of how serious most people are about learning a foreign language and what most learners feel is good enough, but I guess this has always been the case. For the vast majority language learning was a tedious task. Now startups like bussu, babbel.com, MindSnacks and others turned the basics into an enjoyable, game like experience.
More serious learners will always go deeper and probably prefer learning on a computer where it is easier to type, interact with more complex tasks or set up a video call with a language partner. Mobile learning is an essential part of the overall process, it can be an “entry drug” but for now it won’t replace the web based experience.