Yesterday we wrote about Coursemodo, a new platform that helps teachers engage students in the classroom through polls, quizzes and other interactions over their laptop, smartphone, tablet, or SMS. Today another student engagement platform, Top Hat Monocle, announced it has closed $8 million in Series A funding led by Emergence Capital Partners and iNovia Capital, with participation from SoftTech VC, Version One Ventures, and Golden Venture Partners. The Toronto- and San Francisco-based company, which raised $1.5 million in seed funding in November 2011, launched their product in 2010 and has been used by 65,000 students at over 150 global universities.
Top Hat Monocle CEO Mike Silagadze said today’s funding will go towards hiring, and amping up sales and marketing efforts in order to get to their goal of one million students using the platform in the next year or two (most of their current users are in the U.S., but the product can be used internationally). “A large portion of the funding is going towards sales and marketing,” he said. “As far as our product goes, it’s a market-ready product, so it’s definitely ready.” The company brought in $1.2 million in revenue during the 2011-2012 school year, and is set to quadruple that in the 2012-2012 academic year, with a goal of growing to 200,000 students by the end of the year.
The product initially began as a classroom polling system, but now is a more comprehensive classroom engagement platform. Professors can conduct polls and quizzes, run interactive demos, upload and share files with students, assign homework and review questions, and get answers automatically graded and tracked in the system’s gradebook. Similar to Coursemodo, students can use whatever device they have on hand – tablet, laptop, feature phone, smartphone – to interact with the platform, while professors can track progress and set up lessons on the web platform. The platform also integrates into a school’s learning management system, with support for tools like Blackboard and Desire2Learn. Professors can use the web-based back-end to track engagement and set up polls, as well as the desktop application that integrates with presentation tools like PowerPoint.
The platform is free for professors, and $20 per semester for students, or $38 for their full university career (the same pricing model as Coursemodo). Despite being an extra cost for students, Silagadze said 90 percent of students choose to buy a subscription when their professor is using the platform. “Traditionally the way you would sell to universities is to go top-down, you go to the big decision-maker at the top,” he said. “We go from the bottom up – we go from professors, to students, and then work our way up to the university-wide deployments.” Requiring students to use their mobile device over a clicker device doesn’t seem to be a problem – the company reports that less than 10 out of 65,000 students who wanted to use the platform didn’t have a mobile device.
The platform is currently in use by universities including Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and Virginia Tech. As for how it helps improve student engagement, the company says that it helps improve grades and student satisfaction ratings (the average is 8 out of 10 for students using the platform). In one case study, a professor saw attendance rates double, with grades increasing 5 percent compared to the previous year when they weren’t using the platform. Silagadze said right now they don’t have a focus on K-12 schools, but they plan to target that market eventually.
As for competitors, Silagadze said he knows the founders of Coursemodo, and that they “haven’t had a chance to test the product or figure out a lot of stuff that we had to figure out.” He said their biggest competitors are the companies that make the in-class clickers that inspired him to start the company years ago as an undergrad at the University of Waterloo, companies like iclicker. By focusing on the devices students already have in their pockets, and with a head start on some of the competition, the company looks poised to make a dent in the classroom response tool market. But convincing professors and students to get rid of a piece of hardware for a new piece of software could be a cost they’re not willing to incur.