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Monday, February 14, 2011

eLearning Startup Opportunities

I'm going to be moderating a CalTech MIT Enterprise Forum that looks at Entrepreneurial Opportunities in eLearning - basically where do we mutually see a good opportunity to create a successful eLearning Startup.

I've talked a bit about this in eLearning startups:

the startups in eLearning sit in smaller niches or by attacking tangential opportunities in eLearning. They are going after things like:

  • specialized tools and content that meet particular industry or audience needs
  • games and simulations
  • web 2.0 approaches that leverage distributed content creation, social aspects as part of learning, collaborative learning and editing.

and in Business of Learning, Future of Business of LearningFuture of Learning and the #LCBQ : What will the workplace learning technology look like in 2015, there are a lot more thoughts around where learning is heading from a business perspective. 

In the case of the CalTech MIT session, the attendees are mostly interested in where there's opportunity to do an eLearning Startup.  I'm very much looking forward to hearing from the speakers and panelists, but I thought I would use this as an opportunity to both respond to this month's #LCBQ (2011 Predictions) and to prepare for the session. 

Technology's Impact on Learning and Education is Greatly Underestimated

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

Roy Amara, Institute for the Future.

We are collectively underestimating the incredible impact that technology is going to have on education.  I've talked before about a world in which the Best Lecture is available to us anywhere.  This already is available.  Distance is really dead. 

If we are going to force students to sit through lectures, shouldn't they be the absolute best lecture?  Tell me how you are going to compete with Physics Lectures by Professor Lewin?  People will argue that Dr. Lewin's is not appropriate for all students or in all situations.  Agreed, but you can't tell me that the high school and college lectures going on around the world is the best way to educate students. 

Of course, should it even be a lecture?  How about if it was an interactive experience instead? 

With the death of distance, what does this mean for universities?  Should we all be taking online courses from the very best we can access?  How does a local university with a limited brand compare to an online degree from a much bigger brand?  Or compare to someone who aggregates content from various online sources?

What does this mean for high schools?  My daughter last year took an online summer school course taught by her high school teacher.  This year we are trying to find an online high school course (US history but not AP US history) taught by someone else.  It's hard to find that today, but there are dollars there ready to be spent.

If you doubt this impact, make sure you take a look at what's happening in things like SAT prep, Driver's Ed, Tutoring.  In places that are not controlled by government, there's incredible adoption of technology that has greatly shifted things online.


I'm excited to Rob Angarita co-founder of Cramster that is now part of Chegg on the panel.  Cramster helps students with homework by providing answers to textbook questions and interactive support - think little pieces of eLearning for helping students figure out those problems.  It also wires into an online community and tutoring services.  Chegg is basically Netflix for textbooks.  Rather than buy a textbook, you rent it for the semester.  It will make college bookstores obsolete - think Blockbuster - actually they just won't be called bookstores - they will be called a campus store - they will sell all sorts of other things and handle local fulfillment to the college market.

Of course, just like Netflix, Chegg is going to face a really interesting battle as books go digital.  Textbooks are going to go digital as well.  And when they go digital, there are going to be eLearning Startup successes like Cramster that can address specific needs.

In fact, more broadly publishers will need help to find ways to make their materials relevant in a digital world.  I'm working right now with two eLearning startups doing exactly that.  They are partnering with publishers to make their books come to life as interactive content and tools.


There are also a ton of smaller startups emerging that essentially focus on niche topics.  These can be one person shops that selling training to particular audiences.  I recently heard a podcast from a one-person operation that had a list of people in the world of real estate.  He would put out offers for an upcoming course that he would teach online.  If he got enough interest in the course, then he would actually make it happen.  If he didn't get enough interest he wouldn't offer it.  He was doing $400K per year as a one man shop with virtually no overhead.

For more about this: Long Tail Learning - Size and Shape

Aggregation, Curation and Social Signals

Of course, this also suggests that there are going to be big time opportunities for an eLearning Startup that aggregates offerings for particular audiences.  For example, my daughter wants to take that online high school course.  It can be from anyone as long as it gets her credit from her high school.  We'd like it to be a great experience from a well known brand.  What are my options?  As the number of options grow, the need for directories grows.  This is an eLearning Startup that someone should do immediately.

More broadly, addressing the issue of information overload for particular audiences is going to provide big time opportunity.  Aggregage does this for particular topics - allowing curators to bring in appropriate content and the wisdom of the crowd through social signals to filter to the best content.  This kind of approach (using curation and social signals) is big time opportunity for dealing with the increasing flow of information.  We'll see startups providing rating systems, filtering systems, etc.


With the death of distance, that also means that you have immediate access to people across the globe.  This greatly changes things like tutoring and language teaching.  You can now be working with a tutor or teacher from anywhere in the world.  We've seen quite a few successful eLearning Startups doing these.

But there will be a lot more in things like mentoring, matching,  getting quick help, micro-consulting.  Look at the success of eLance and Amazon's mechanical turk.  Quora (Q&A) is getting a lot of buzz - I'm still not sold, but it points out the continued interest in connecting people around questions, help, content.


I added this after I posted, but here's a great capture that will help you think about the market more generally and who the buyers are for your startup.eLearning-Buyers


Of course, during any gold rush the people who have the sure thing are the ones supplying the gold miners (shovels and jeans).  There are likely going to be lots of opportunities to be an eLearning startup providing tools.  Incumbents will definitely be tougher here.  But we still don't have a really good solution for niche content providers.  The real estate training company has cobbled together a solution.  Lot's of people have tried the marketplace, but white label has not been done well. 

There also will likely be tools around:

  • Creating performance support - Learning meets action.  See: Performance Support in 2015
  • Mobile
  • Augmented reality
  • Communication (leverage platforms, but in a learning context)
  • Virtual environments
  • Integration with Google Docs

And ????

Now it's your turn.  If you were going to do an eLearning Startup - where would you focus?  Or if you are doing an eLearning Startup - what is it?


Daniel Chun said...

Hi Tony.

I follow your blog all the way in Far East and your recent entry in E-learning startup caught my eye. I am a PhD Student in E-Learning (Lancaster) as well as a 20 year ICT veteran,(eg. a head programmer at a mobile data setup using Motorola MDI Datatac in 90's and I was trained in Ohio and launched CompuServe in HK in 93). I co-found a startup in HK being incubated by the HK Cyberport and recently launched its services called ClassBooking ; we are basically buidling a SaaS based tuition, class and activities management system for activity providers (much like OpenTable for F&B) ; the model is multi-sided and is based on a research framework I had published with a professor in KM. Different from traditional LMS which is mostly homogeneously deployed within a school, faculty or university. Our model is heterogeneous allowing smaller learning activities providers to benefit from the scale of using ICT.

Furthermore, this ecosystem is envisioned to play an important role in distribution of micro or mobile learning objects.

I hope this interests you, I have no expectations but thought that I shared with you some of the work-in-progress as startup in the orient.

I enjoyed your blogs and writing.

Thank you for your time and contribution.

Best regards
Daniel Chun
@Art Group Limited

Anonymous said...


I work for, which is an elearning ecommerce marketplace. We are a startup in the aggregation space that you mention!

We enable any content author to post their courses for sale in our marketplace, and our platform technology connects SCORM or AICC courses to any LMS. Buyers come to us to find diverse courses from multiple authors in one place. Buyers can purchase only as many seats as they need for each course and mix and match content from different authors.

We have a ratings and review system that enables the social signals and curation you mention as well. We're also connecting with elearning professionals to ask them to serve as "expert reviewers" to provide even more information to buyers. I encourage you to visit our site and take a look around!

Please don't hesitate to let me know if I can provide any further information.

Kelly Meeker

Tony Karrer said...

@Daniel and @Kelly - nice to connect with each of you. Are we connected on LinkedIn? If not, please drop me an invite.

Both of your startups sound very interesting and are good representatives of what's happening out there. Thanks for dropping the comment.

Anonymous said...

I currently work as Military Enrollment Advisor at Post University in Connecticut. I am also working on a Masters Degree in Education at the same University. Post is a small private, school with a lineage dating back to 1890. Threatened by closing on numerous occasions, the hierarchy here at Post was able to see the big picture, technology. In the late 90’s early 2000’s Post started offering online degree plans. Since that time, the program has grown to over 3,000 students all over the world taking classes online. A big part of that number is our military population.

I see on a daily basis how the world’s educational system is dramatically affected by technology. I am in constant contact with members of the military all over the world. Having a student sitting on campus taking the same course as a SGT in the Army stationed in Iraq, is a prime example of how “distance is dead”. All branches of service offer GI Bill and or Tuition assistance to it's members. With the new world of elearning, these students will be able to take advantage of these benefits more and more.

The ARMY in particular offers a portal to digitally track exactly how their soldiers are receiving an education. It tracks what schools they have attended, what courses they took, their course of study, their GPA, their available funds for tuition assistance, any academic holds they may have that will prevent them from having tuition assistance, their current level of education and personal information.

With all of the money and time that the government puts into education for its armed services, it is safe to say that elearning will be the overwhelming leader in military education.
Thank you for your time. I really enjoy your blog.

Ryan Tiscia
Post University

Anonymous said...

Hi Tony -

It's Eric Matas from and I keep wondering if an elearning consulting company could franchise. Then an elearning professional could tap into an existing company instead of starting their own completely from scratch. Part of the problem, I think, is that elearning can be provided from a distance, so we may not need a local store. What do you think? Is anyone trying this?

Tony Karrer said...

Eric - good question. I'm not sure what the franchisor would really offer the consultant (franchisee). One of the reasons that training / eLearning has remained so fragmented is that it's very easy to start up a consulting company.

But maybe I'm not getting what you are thinking?