With Schools Closed, Triangle Edtech Startups Help With Remote Learning

Co-Founders Jamey Heit (left) and Robin Donaldson of Durham-based Ecree are one of several Triangle-based edtech startups rising to meet the surge in demand for remote learning.

The novel coronavirus pandemic is making an impact on companies in nearly all sectors. One of the biggest ripples has been caused by the closing of universities and schools across the country due to concerns over the virus spreading, which has led to a surge in remote learning. That’s challenged edtech startups in the Triangle to adapt in new ways.

Raleigh-based Plasma Games, an edtech startup that creates video games for science learning in middle and high schools that we wrote about last June, has seen an exploding demand from all over the world, CEO Hunter Moore said. Dozens of countries and various states have contacted Plasma Games looking for its help in educating students and keeping them engaged in a period in which large groups of students are propelled into remote learning by necessity.

Unfortunately, many school systems don’t have any more money to spend this year. So the Plasma Games team made a decision—it has made its games free to all United States teachers.

“We donated our resource for free to teachers across the country,” Moore said. “Which, for a small edtech startup, that’s very risky. That’s dangerous. But again, I got into this to help, and right now is the biggest time of crisis and therefore the time I could help the most.”

The Plasma Games team includes Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer Christophe Renaud, far left, and Co-Founder and CEO Hunter Moore, back row, center.

With this increased demand, Plasma Games also hired about a half-dozen displaced workers, doing its own part to help out the uncertain economy. Moore said he hopes the coronavirus-induced time of need for remote learning wakes people up to fund more digital-learning resources.

Jamey Heit, the co-founder and CEO of Durham-based edtech startup Ecree (which we wrote about in November, 2018), said he thinks about the impending effects of Covid-19 multiple times every day. Durham-based Ecree provides technology that marks up academic papers for improvement to help students. Like Moore, Heit hopes this will spur change in a positive way for remote learning in the edtech space.

“This is one of those examples that crisis is the mother of invention,” Heit said. “This is probably not the way any of us would have wanted or expected to have to think through these big questions. But now that we have to face them and think them through, I see this as a real opportunity for education to make some important changes to adapt to the 21st century world and understand what can we provide in a digital space that can help augment what we do in our physical spaces, and really find the way to leverage the best of both those worlds.”

Within the past few weeks, Heit said Ecree has seen approximately three times its typical volume. About two weeks ago, Heit said Ecree became one of the first edtech companies to take down its paywall in light of coronavirus-induced educational concerns.

Like Ecree and Plasma Games, Raleigh-based startup LearnPlatform—which helps schools systems and educators evaluate and implement edtech tools; we wrote about them last month—also had felt the effects of the coronavirus. With the company now fully remote, Rectanus has launched a number of responses for customer needs, including providing free services for K-12 local education agencies and state education agencies through June 2020 based on their situations.

“We’re a platform for districts and states to make equitable, data-informed, safe edtech decisions,” Rectanus said. “That becomes even more necessary in a scenario where districts are transitioning to remote learning, especially overnight.”

One difficult task in remote learning is in creating virtual teachers, interacting with students and creating feedback loops, Heit said.

The LearnPlatform team. CEO Karl Rectanus is fourth from the left in the second row.

“That’s how we all learn,” Heit said. “It’s the difference between learning to play an instrument on your own and learning to play it with a teacher. If you have a teacher, you’re going to get better. If you try to do it on your own, you’re probably not going to get as good or even get started. So having a piece of technology that can mirror that engagement that teachers provide directly to students, that’s one of the key pieces that we’re able to provide in completing those feedback loops, which are so crucial to learning.”

An obstacle that remains for Plasma Games is in securing this funding from school systems and state governments that have often already created—and spent—their budgets for the school year. In the case of North Carolina, where Governor Roy Cooper vetoed the state budget that included funding for Plasma Games, the startup rolled out their game to 25 districts without being paid. When this funding finally comes through (fingers crossed), Moore believes that Plasma Games can be a global leader in digital learning.

Interested teachers should send an email to support@plasma.games. In fact all three startups want customers, teachers and students to know they are here to help.

As organizations that are part of a needed solution in a Covid-19 world, edtech startups may fare better than many other industries. Though while Rectanus recognizes that LearnPlatform is in a better position than the majority of other companies, he still noted the severe potential economic impact of the virus.

“I think the economic impact of this really can take a long time to recover from if there aren’t strong steps taken right now to flatten the curve,” Rectanus said. “Unless we take strong, decisive and collective action right now, I think the long term economic impact of this will be severely negative.”

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About Suzanne Blake 95 Articles
Suzanne profiles startups and innovation for GrepBeat. She is also a junior studying journalism and political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Reach Suzanne at suzanne@grepbeat.com.