Bay Area tech for education sees boom amid scramble for online learning

Bay Area tech for education sees boom amid scramble for online learning

People are turning to online resources in record numbers, and the education-technology industry — heavily centered, like much of tech, in the region — is trying to keep services online under heavy usage, while supporting a wave of users largely unfamiliar with internet learning.

“As human beings, unless needed, we don’t want to change too much, but this has definitely catapulted everyone into it,” said Jennifer Gu,chief operating officer of IXL Learning. “There’s no choice. You have to embrace technology. The traditional paper, textbook, classroom, whiteboard doesn’t work. You have to use technology to mitigate the distance.”

IXL, a San Mateo firm that offers personalized curricula and real-time analytics for kindergarten through 12th-grade students, poses questions to students in its software. It was serving about 89 million questions a day at the beginning of March. During the first week of April, those numbers jumped to 113 million a day.

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Coursera of Mountain View is seeing registrations increase 300% compared with this time last year. Udemy of San Francisco reported a 125% leap in the number of instructors creating courses compared with March 2019.

Khan Academy, a Mountain View nonprofit, has seen online traffic nearly triple, registrations by students and teachers grow sixfold, and registrations by parents grow by a factor of 20.

This is likely just the beginning for local education-tech ventures, as people come to terms with the fact that California’s 1,000 school districts serving more than 6 million students aren’t reopening anytime soon. Navigating remote learning is moving from novelty to necessity.

“Schools are closed but classes are in,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said last week. “Just because campuses are closed does not mean that we cannot accelerate learning in the state of California.”

To help remote learning, San Francisco Unified plans to distribute more than 5,000 digital devices by the start of next week. San Francisco also is installing 25 Wi-Fi hotspots in high-need areas that will serve 100 users apiece, to help those who don’t have broadband at home or who lack the bandwidth to serve everyone in the household.

Google will provide thousands of Chromebooks to students and at least three months of free internet access at 100,000 sites across the state.

“Every student in San Francisco needs to be able to stay connected to their teachers and classmates and keep learning as they stay home with their families during this time, regardless of where they live or if their family can afford to pay for high-speed internet,” Mayor London Breed said.

More InformationTop Bay Area online learning companies

Coursera, Mountain View

Offers online courses from top universities.

Khan Academy, Mountain View

Provides instructional videos and interactive lessons on a wide range of subjects.

IXL Learning, San Mateo

Teaches online subjects through curricula structured as a series of questions.

MasterClass, San Francisco

Features classes taught by celebrities for a monthly subscription fee.

Quizlet, San Francisco

Teaches common school subjects through interactive tools and games.

Springboard, San Francisco

Offers part-time online boot camps to prepare people for tech jobs.

Udemy, San Francisco

Hosts skill-oriented courses for adult learners and students.

Source: Chronicle research

Once online, students and teachers are turning to experts in tech ed.

Khan Academy offers free lessons in math, sciences and humanities in multiple languages, as well as free tools for parents and teachers to track student progress.

Before the school closures, Khan Academy served about 18 million students per month. Since the start of the pandemic, the company has created recommended daily schedules for children ages 2-18 and produced seminars for parents and teachers.

“In a time like this, it’s so easy to feel helpless,” said CEO Sal Khan, who founded the organization in 2005. “We are all helpless on certain dimensions. I feel fortunate, and I believe our team feels fortunate, that we have a role to play to help people through this. The No. 1 concern right now is health. No. 2 is economics. A close No. 3 is: What do we do with these kids who should be learning right now?”

Coursera is dealing generallywith an older audience, with 53 million learners mostly seeking professional certificates and post-high school degrees.

Arunav Sinha,head of global communications at Coursera, said the site is seeing an explosion in interest in courses about well-being, mental health and public health. The company is making all college courses free through at least July 31.

A Coursera class on well-being taught by Yale Professor Lori Santos got 1 million registrations last month.

“This will accelerate the trend of online learning by many years,” Sinha said. “It was already heading in that direction, but the acceptance of institutions will increase much more rapidly now. ... What started as a short-term response to the crisis will result into an enduring digital transformation” of higher education.

Perhaps no company embodies that trend more than Udemy, which provides a marketplace of more than 150,000 online courses, from challenging business ideas to free-wheeling ukulele lessons. Udemy’s investors recently valued it at $2 billion.

Shelley Osborne, Udemy’s vice president of learning, teaches courses on working from home. She also is using the site to learn how to bake sourdough bread and play the guitar.

“This is a really important opportunity for individuals to think about how they’re supporting themselves and how they can have success,” Osborne said. “As we see the shift to people staying home more and going online more, the ability to both teach and learn online is the most important it’s ever been.

“Online learning is truly mainstream now. It’s been moving that way for a long time, but based on what we’re seeing right now, we think it’s likely that these shifts will remain even after we return to some level of normalcy.”

Rusty Simmons is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @Rusty_SFChron