Today Chicago-based elearning platform BenchPrep announced that it has raised $6 million in funding led by New Enterprise Associates (NEA), with participation from Revolution Ventures. The company, which offers test prep courses for web, iOS and Android, launched in July 2011 and has added over 100 interactive courses to date. Today’s funding follows funding from Lightbank in 2010, and co-founder Ashish Rangnekar said this injection of capital will go towards developing additional courses and expanding the user base. Right now the platform has 250,000 students using its apps to take over 100 courses, and Rangnekar said they hope to scale the platform to include 500 courses offered with a goal of one million users by the end of the 2012.
BenchPrep’s courses combine content like videos, ebooks, and study guides into courses, which are available for purchase within the BenchPrep apps. The prices range from $99.99 for an SAT prep course, to $149.99 for a firefighter exam prep course. The company, which was previously called Watermelon Express, has an existing base of publishing partners, which Rangnekar said they will be adding to over the next few months. Earlier this year they announced a partnership with the Princeton Review, and they have over 20 publishing partners in total, including McGraw Hill, Wiley and O’Reilly. “It’s a whole range of publishers, anyone in online learning and publishing for high school, higher ed or professional certifications,” Rangekar said in an interview. “Now we are at the point where schools and libraries are reaching out to us, and publishers are helping us with marketing.”
We’ve written extensively about online education startups, everything from video learning platform Udemy to Coursera, which offers post-secondary courses from schools like Stanford for free online. Rangekar said that when it comes to his competitors, they’re often competing against traditional education rather than each other. “We are at the very early stages of online learning,” Rangekar said. “Right now the competition is not us vs. them, the biggest competition is online education vs. offline education.”
He said that their main differentiator between elearning platforms like Udemy is that they’re focusing on content delivery and resources. “We are not reinventing the wheel by creating more content,” he said. He said courses like algebra, biology and calculus aren’t changing drastically, what’s changing is the way the content is being delivered to schools. “The problem is about the way the content is being delivered to schools, the problem is around the learning experience, and that’s the one single thing we’re focusing on.” And unlike platforms like Coursera, BenchPrep has a business model built in, aiming to provide their courses for around the cost of a textbook.
Along with focusing on expanding the available courses and scaling the user base, Rangnekar said the funding will also go towards offering personalized education. Right now the company is collecting data on which courses students are taking, which device they’re using, and a variety of other data points – they’ve released some of that data, announcing that two-thirds of the company’s users access courses on their mobile devices, and students average 78 BenchPrep sessions per month. Other elearning startups are also trying to personalize their platforms to students, with Udemy debuting a new version of its platform last week with a focus on personalized discovery.
Ultimately Rangnekar said that along with co-founder Ujjwal Gupta, he wants to help educators with adaptive learning, adjusting a student’s learning based on data points over the course of their academic career. “The big issue with adaptive learning has been that no one has access to a lot of actual student performance data,” he said. “We are collecting data for multiple publishers, for multiple subjects, at multiple grade levels, and most importantly for multiple devices, the amount and richness of data that we’re going to have in the next 12 months is mind-boggling to me.” If the company can continue to increase its base of publisher partners, courses offered and students taking those courses, it could be a major player in the online education space, and one of the companies to watch as adaptive learning takes off.