Amira Learning raises $11M to put its AI-powered literacy tutor in post-COVID classrooms

School closures due to the pandemic have interrupted the learning processes of millions of kids, and without individual attention from teachers, reading skills in particular are taking a hit. Amira Learning aims to address this with an app that reads along with students, intelligently correcting errors in real time. Promising pilots and research mean the company is poised to go big as education changes, and it has raised $11M to scale up with a new app and growing customer base.

In classrooms, a common exercise is to have students read aloud from a storybook or worksheet. The teacher listens carefully, stopping and correcting students on difficult words. This “guided reading” process is fundamental for both instruction and assessment: it not only helps the kids learn, but the teacher can break the class up into groups with similar reading levels so she can offer tailored lessons.

“Guided reading is needs-based, differentiated instruction and in COVID we couldn’t do it,” said Andrea Burkiett, Director of Elementary Curriculum and Instruction at the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System. Breakout sessions are technically possible, “but when you’re talking about a kindergarten student who doesn’t even know how to use a mouse or touchpad, COVID basically made small groups nonexistent.”

Amira replicates the guided reading process by analyzing the child’s speech as they read through a story and identifying things like mispronunciations, skipped words, and other common stumbles. It’s based on research going back 20 years that has tested whether learners using such an automated system actually see any gains (and they did, though generally in a lab setting).

In fact I was speaking to Burkiett out of skepticism — “AI” products are thick on the ground and while it does little harm if one recommends you a recipe you don’t like, it’s a serious matter if a kid’s education is impacted. I wanted to be sure this wasn’t a random app hawking old research to lend itself credibility, and after talking with Burkiett and CEO Mark Angel I feel it’s quite the opposite, and could actually be a valuable tool for educators. But it needed to convince educators first.

Not a replacement but a force multiplier

“You have to start by truly identifying the reason for wanting to employ a tech tool,” said Burkiett. “There are a lot of tech tools out there that are exciting, fun for kids, etc, but we could use all of them and not impact growth or learning at all because we didn’t stop and say, this tool helps me with this need.”

Amira was decided on as one that addresses the particular need in the K-5 range of steadily improving reading level through constant practice and feedback.

“When COVID hit, every tech tool came out of the woodwork and was made free and available,” Burkiett recalled. “With Amira you’re looking at a 1:1 tutor at their specific level. She’s not a replacement for a teacher — though it has been that way in COVID — but beyond COVID she could become a force multiplier,” said Burkiett.

You can see the old version of Amira in action below, though it’s been updated since:

Testing Amira with her own district’s students, Burkiett replicated the results that have been obtained in more controlled settings: as much as twice or three times as much progress in reading level based on standard assessment tools, some of which are built into the teacher-side Amira app.

Naturally it isn’t possible to simply attribute all this improvement to Amira — there are other variables in play. But it appears to help and doesn’t hinder, and the effect correlates with frequency of use. The exact mechanism isn’t as important as the fact that kids learn faster when they use the app versus when they don’t, and furthermore this allows teachers to better allocate resources and time. A kid who can’t use it as often because their family shares a single computer is at a disadvantage that has nothing to do with their aptitude — but this problem can be detected and accounted for by the teacher, unlike a simple “read at home” assignment.

“Outside COVID we would always have students struggling with reading, and we would have parents with the money and knowledge to support their student,” Burkiett explained. “But now we can take this tool and offer it to students regardless of mom and dad’s time, mom and dad’s ability to pay. We can now give that tutor session to every single student.”

“Radically sub-optimal conditions”

This is familiar territory for CEO Mark Angel, though the AI aspect, he admits, is new.

“A lot of the Amira team came from Renaissance Learning. bringing fairly conventional edtech software into elementary school classrooms at scale. The actual tech we used was very simple compared to Amira — the big challenge was trying to figure out how to make applications work with the teacher workflow, or make them friendly and resilient when 6 year olds are your users,” he told me.

“Not to make it trite, but what we’ve learned is really just listen to teachers — they’re the super-users,” Angel continued. “And to design for radically sub-optimal conditions, like background noise, kids playing with the microphone, the myriad things that happen in real life circumstances.”

Once they were confident in the ability of the app to reliably decode words, the system was given three fundamental tasks that fall under the broader umbrella of machine learning.

The first is telling the difference between a sentence being read correctly and incorrectly. This can be difficult due to the many normal differences between speakers. Singling out errors that matter, versus simply deviation from an imaginary norm (in speech recognition that is often American English as spoken by white people) lets readers go at their own pace and in their own voice, with only actual issues like saying a silent k noted by the app.

(On that note, considering the prevalence of English language learners with accents, I asked about the company’s performance and approach there. Angel said they and their research partners went to great lengths to make sure they had a representative dataset, and that the model only flags pronunciations that indicate a word was not read or understood correctly.)

The second is knowing what action to take to correct an error. In the case of a silent k, it matters whether this is a first grader who is still learning spelling or a fourth grader who is proficient. And is this the first time they’ve made that mistake, or the tenth? Do they need an explanation of why the word is this way, or several examples of similar words? “It’s about helping a student at a moment in time,” Angel said, both in the moment of reading that word, and in the context of their current state as a learner.

Screenshot of a reading assessment in the app Amira.

Third is a data-based triage system that warns students and parents if a kid may potentially have a language learning disorder like dyslexia. The patterns are there in how they read — and while a system like Amira can’t actually diagnose, it can flag kids who may be high risk to receive a more thorough screening. (A note on privacy: Angel assured me that all information is totally private and by default is considered to belong to the district. “You’d have to be insane to take advantage of it. We’d be out of business in a nanosecond.”)

The $10M in funding comes at what could be a hockey-stick moment for Amira’s adoption. (The round was led by Authentic Ventures II, LP, with participation from Vertical Ventures, Owl Ventures, and Rethink Education.)

“COVID was a gigantic spotlight on the problem that Amira was created to solve,” Angel said. “We’ve always struggled in this country to help our children become fluent readers. The data is quite scary — more than two thirds of our 4th graders aren’t proficient readers, and those two thirds aren’t equally distributed by income or race. It’s a decades long struggle.”

Having basically given the product away for a year, the company is now looking at how to convert those users into customers. It seems like, just like the rest of society, “going back to normal” doesn’t necessarily mean going back to 2019 entirely. The lessons of the pandemic era are sticking.

“They don’t have the intention to just go back to the old ways,” Angel explained. “They’re searching for a new synthesis — how to incorporate tech, but do it in a classroom with kids elbow to elbow and interacting with teachers. So we’re focused on making Amira the norm in a post-COVID classroom.”

Part of that is making sure the app works with language learners at more levels and grades, so the team is working to expand its capabilities upwards to include middle school students as well as elementary. Another is building out the management side so that success at the classroom and district levels can be more easily understood.

Cartoon illustration of an adventurous looking woman in front of a jungle and zeppelin.

Amira’s appearance got an update in the new app as well.

The company is also launching a new app aimed at parents rather than teachers. “A year ago 100 percent of our usage was in the classroom, then 3 weeks later 100 percent of our usage was at home. We had to learn a lot about how to adapt. Out of that learning we’re shipping Amira and the Story Craft that helps parents work with their children.”

Hundreds of districts are on board provisionally, but decisions are still being kicked down the road as they deal with outbreaks, frustrated parents, and every other chaotic aspect of getting back to “normal.”

Perhaps a bit of celebrity juice may help tip the balance in their favor. A new partnership with Houston Texans linebacker Brennan Scarlett has the NFL player advising the board and covering the cost of 100 students at a Portland, OR school through his education charity, the Big Yard Foundation — and more to come. It may be a drop in the bucket in the scheme of things, with a year of schooling disrupted, but teachers know that every drop counts.

#apps, #edtech, #education, #education-tech, #funding, #fundings-exits, #learning, #machine-learning, #reading, #recent-funding, #renaissance-learning, #schools, #startups, #tc

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Lessons from Top Hat’s acquisition spree

Top Hat, a startup that digitizes textbooks and turns them into an interactive experience for college students, announced on Wednesday that it has acquired yet another business: Fountainhead Press. The acquisition marks Top Hat’s third scoop of a publishing company in the past 12 months.

Consolidation is going to be huge in the next few years for edtech, as bigger players raise enough financing (and gain profits) to be able to afford other businesses.

Top Hat’s whole business proposition is a subtweet to Zoom University: It wants to make learning an active, online experience and completely digital. That focus has let them reach 3.5 million students and thousands of universities. With a new acquisition, Top Hat is bringing more content into its fold, and with it, more customers who need a better solution to a dusty textbook.

I caught up with Top Hat CEO and founder Mike Silagadze to understand what has triggered this string of content acquisitions. While the M&A isn’t tech-focused, we can learn about how a well-funded edtech startup is navigating the early innings of 2021.

We’ll talk about the shift from offline to online, edtech’s consolidation environment and why the “sell to Pearson or bust” mindset might officially be out the door for the sector.

Offline to online

#acquisition, #e-learning, #edtech, #learning, #ma, #merger, #startups, #tc

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Fluent Forever raises $4.9M for its language learning system

Fluent Forever, a startup that uses a novel learning system to help its users master a new language faster, has raised a $4.9 million funding round led by Denver-based Stout Street Capital. Other investors in this round include The Syndicate, LAUNCH, Mana Ventures, Noveus VC, Flight.VC, Insta VC, UpVentures, Firebrand Ventures, Cultivation Capital, Spero Ventures and Lofty Ventures.

In many ways, Fluent Forever is a direct competitor to Duolingo, Babbel and similar online language learning services. What sets it apart is a focus on a personalized learning system that emphasizes ear training, visual aids and something akin to spaced-repetition for helping you memorize new words and phrases. It’s a paid service (after a 14-day free trial) with subscriptions starting at $10 per month for a monthly subscription and the usual discounts for longer-term commitments.

To teach himself his first languages, the company’s founder and CEO Gabriel Wyner used the popular flashcard service Anki, wrote a book about his approach, and taught workshops on language learning using his system with Anki. But as he noted, Anki is a serious tool, and simply learning how to get the most out of it takes a lot of time and energy.

Image Credits: Fluent Forever

“I’ve watched everyone else fail at language learning,” he told me. “And the first thought is, okay, well, if you just learn how to do it right, then that’s a fixable thing. That’s exciting. And then once you have a solution for people and they’re all excited about it — but then you watch them fail because of IT reasons. That’s extra frustrating.”

In many ways then, Fluent Forever uses Wyner’s flashcard approach — because building those flashcards by hand is at the core of his learning system — and turns it into a far-easier-to-use application.

What people want, Wyner acknowledged, is a tool where you just press some buttons and learn something. But that doesn’t work. “I had to have a really strong reaction to this — a really strong answer — and say, ‘absolutely not. That is the one thing that teaches you is building it.’ ”

Wyner is not afraid to compare his approach to Duolingo’s and argues that its focus on translation exercises doesn’t translate to real language skills in the long run. At the same time, he freely acknowledges that the Duolingo user experience and gamification are far better than Fluent Forever. But he also believes that learners see far better results with his system.

Image Credits: Fluent Forever

“We ask [our users]: ‘Why are you with us? Why would you pay for us when you could just get Duolingo for free?” What they come back with is, ‘yeah, your product is rough around the edges. I wish you would fix this, this and that, but you had me thinking in Spanish in two weeks,” Wyner said.

Fluent Forever currently supports nine languages: Japanese, French, Russian, Mexican and Spanish Spanish, Italian, Korean, German and Brazilian Portuguese, with Dutch being the next language the team is tackling.

As Wyner told me, the company had trouble raising in 2019, in part because the service was seeing pretty flat growth at the time. “People are very skeptical about language learning — that is not a sexy field. People don’t like it. The idea of jumping and trying to be competitive with Duolingo was just not appealing to anyone,” he told me. Come 2020, though, growth picked up, even before the COVID pandemic. At the same time, Fluent Forever also participated in Jason Calacanis’ Launch Accelerator.

Looking ahead, Wyner tells me that Fluent Forever is looking at ways to bring live tutors into the loop. Live tutoring online has been done before, of course, and there are some companies like Preply that specialize in it already, but what Fluent Forever wants to do is combine the online language learning service with short live sessions and then use the online component to go back to that conversation over the course of a week or so. One advantage here is that these users — who will likely pay a premium for the live service — will also use their time with live tutors to create their own personalized sentences in the Fluent Forever system, which could then over time become content that’s available to all users, too.

#anki, #babbel, #crowdsourcing, #denver, #duolingo, #education, #fluent-forever, #jason-calacanis, #language-learning, #launch-accelerator, #learning, #recent-funding, #startups, #stout-street-capital, #tc

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EdTech boom continues as IntellectoKids raises $3M from Allrise Capital and others

The rush to capitalize on the shift to online learning, post-pandemic, continues. IntellectoKids, a developer of educational apps for children aged 3 to 7 years, has raised $3 million in a Series A financing led by US-based Allrise Capital and other investors, including Genesis Investments.

The platform offers parents of preschool children ‘gamified’ educational content and structured lessons available on mobile devices.

The startup will now launch a Classroom feature with learning tracks in five core Kindergarten and Grade 1 courses, including Math, Phonics, Science, Arts, and Logic.

In addition to the current B2C model, the founders expect in 2021 to offer primary schools and kindergartens IntellectoKids’ platform as an online supplement to support their offline educational process.

IntellectoKids was founded by Mike Kotlov and Andrey Kondratyuk in 2017, who each have three young children.

Kotlov said: “On the education scene, preschool education is becoming a highly vibrant market. The pandemic showed that preschool kids can effectively consume educational content online and autonomously. Clearly, there is a growing need for this type of product among parents and businesses now; however, once the pandemic is over the online education is here to stay for sure as it has already become intertwined with offline and benefited the overall educational process.”

IntellectoKids says it has more than 2 million installs across North America and Central & Northern Europe.

#articles, #early-childhood-education, #education, #genesis-investments, #learning, #mobile-devices, #north-america, #online-education, #online-learning, #preschool, #tc

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Massachusetts governor won’t sign police reform bill with facial recognition ban

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has returned a police reform bill back to the state legislature, asking lawmakers to strike out several provisions — including one for a statewide ban on police and public authorities using facial recognition technology, the first of its kind in the United States.

The bill, which also banned police from using rubber bullets and tear gas, was passed on December 1 by both the state’s House and Senate after senior lawmakers overcame months of deadlock to reach a consensus. Lawmakers brought the bill to the state legislature in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer, later charged with his murder.

Baker said in a letter to lawmakers that he objected to the ban, saying the use of facial recognition helped to convict several criminals, including a child sex offender and a double murderer.

In an interview with The Boston Globe, Baker said that he’s “not going to sign something that is going to ban facial recognition.”

Under the bill, police and public agencies across the state would be prohibited from using facial recognition, with a single exception to run facial recognition searches against the state’s driver license database with a warrant. The state would be required to publish annual transparency figures on the number of searches made by officers going forward.

The Massachusetts House voted to pass by 92-67, and the Senate voted 28-12 — neither of which were veto-proof majorities.

The Boston Globe said that Baker did not outright say he would veto the bill. After the legislature hands a revised (or the same) version of the bill back to the governor, it’s up to Baker to sign it, veto it, or — under Massachusetts law, he could allow it to become law without his signature by waiting 10 days.

“Unchecked police use of surveillance technology also harms everyone’s rights to anonymity, privacy, and free speech. We urge the legislature to reject Governor Baker’s amendment and to ensure passage of commonsense regulations of government use of face surveillance,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

A spokesperson for Baker’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.

#driver, #facial-recognition, #george-floyd, #government, #governor, #learning, #massachusetts, #officer, #security, #senate, #spokesperson, #surveillance, #video-surveillance

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Kahoot drops $50M on Drops to add language learning to its gamified education stable

After raising $215 million from SoftBank to double down on the surge of interest in online learning, Kahoot has made an acquisition to expand the scope of subjects that it covers. The popular startup, which lets people build and share educational games, has picked up Drops, a startup that helps people learn languages by way of short picture- and word-based games. The plan is to integrate more Kahoot features into Drops’ apps, and to bring some of Drops’ content into the main Kahoot platform.

Kahoot, which trades a part of its shares through Norway’s alternative exchange the Merkur Market and currently has a market cap of over $3 billion, said in an announcement that it would pay $31 million in cash, plus up to $19 million more in cash and shares, based on Drops meeting certain targets between now and 2022. The deal is expected to close this month.

Drops makes three main apps. First in an eponymous freemium app, with free and paid features, that helps adults learn new languages, currently some 42 in all, with a focus on vocabulary, built around five-minute, “snackable” sessions. A second app, Scripts, is aimed at learning to read, write and sign, and it covers four alphabets and four character-based writing systems. A third, Droplets, is aimed specifically at language learning for learners aged between eight and 17. Altogether Drops has clocked up 25 million users.

Notably, one reason it might be off TechCrunch’s (and the startup world’s) radar is that it appears to have been bootstrapped up to now. (We are confirming that detail and will update when/if we learn more.) But it’s had some notable accolades, getting named app of the year by Google in 2018, for one.

The startup was founded in Estonia and has 21 employees and has no “head office” as such, with the team spread across Estonia, US, UK, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Hungary, Ukraine and Russia. This could be one reason why it’s kept costs low: in 2019 it reported gross revenues of $7.5 million (€6.3 million), with cash conversion of 40%.

For some more context, Kahoot says that in the last 12 months, more than 1 billion participating players in over 200 countries attended over 200 million Kahoot! sessions. That figure includes both educational users of its free services, as well as enterprises, which pay to build and use games (for example related to professional development or business compliance) on the platform.

“We are thrilled to welcome Drops to the expanding Kahoot! family as we advance towards our vision to become the leading learning platform in the world,” said Eilert Hanoa, the CEO of Kahoot, in a statement. “Drops’ offerings and innovative learning model are a perfect match to Kahoot!’s mission of making learning awesome through a simple, game-based approach. Drops and language learning becomes the latest addition to our growing offering of learning apps for learners of all ages and abilities. We will continue to expand in new areas to make Kahoot! the ultimate learning destination, at home, school or work, and to make learning awesome!”

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a bonanza for educational apps, which are collectively seeing a huge rush of usage in the last year.

For students, educators and parents, they have become a way of connecting and teaching at a time when physical schools are either closed, or drastically curtailed in what they can do, in order to help limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Businesses and other organizations, on the other hand, are leaning on e-learning as a way of keeping connected with staff, engaging them, and training them at a time when many are working from home.

It might seem ironic that at a time when travel has been drastically limited, if not completely halted altogether, for many of us, that language learning has seen an especially big boom.

Maybe it’s about making hay — that is, using the moment to get yourself ready for a time in the future when you might actually get to use your newly acquired foreign language skills. Or maybe it’s just another option for distracting or occupying ourselves in a more constructive way. Whatever might be the motivation or cause, the effect is that language learning is on the up.

Most recently, Duolingo — which incidentally also uses game-based concepts, where you enter a leaderboard for your learning and your daily sessions become winning streaks — raised $35 million on a $2.4 billion valuation, a huge jump for the company.

Kahoot cites figures that predict that digital language learning will be an $8 billion+ market by 2025 as describes Drops as “one of the fastest-growing language platforms in the world.”

“The entire Drops team has spent the last five years building a new way to learn language, and we’re just getting started,” said Daniel Farkas, co-founder and CEO, Drops, in a statement. “We’ve introduced millions of users across the globe to our playful, dynamic approach to language learning. Kahoot! is doing the same for all types of learning. We’re excited to work with such a mission-aligned company to introduce the Drops platform to game-loving learners everywhere.”

#apps, #drops, #education, #europe, #kahoot, #languages, #learning, #ma

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Abacus.AI raises another $22M and launches new AI modules

AI startup RealityEngines.AI changed its name to Abacus.AI in July. At the same time, it announced a $13 million Series A round. Today, only a few months later, it is not changing its name again, but it is announcing a $22 million Series B round, led by Coatue, with Decibel Ventures and Index Partners participating as well. With this, the company, which was co-founded by former AWS and Google exec Bindu Reddy, has now raised a total of $40.3 million.

Abacus co-founder Bindu Reddy, Arvind Sundararajan and Siddartha Naidu. Image Credits: Abacus.AI

In addition to the new funding, Abacus.AI is also launching a new product today, which it calls Abacus.AI Deconstructed. Originally, the idea behind RealityEngines/Abacus.AI was to provide its users with a platform that would simplify building AI models by using AI to automatically train and optimize them. That hasn’t changed, but as it turns out, a lot of (potential) customers had already invested into their own workflows for building and training deep learning models but were looking for help in putting them into production and managing them throughout their lifecycle.

“One of the big pain points [businesses] had was, ‘look, I have data scientists and I have my models that I’ve built in-house. My data scientists have built them on laptops, but I don’t know how to push them to production. I don’t know how to maintain and keep models in production.’ I think pretty much every startup now is thinking of that problem,” Reddy said.

Image Credits: Abacus.AI

Since Abacus.AI had already built those tools anyway, the company decided to now also break its service down into three parts that users can adapt without relying on the full platform. That means you can now bring your model to the service and have the company host and monitor the model for you, for example. The service will manage the model in production and, for example, monitor for model drift.

Another area Abacus.AI has long focused on is model explainability and de-biasing, so it’s making that available as a module as well, as well as its real-time machine learning feature store that helps organizations create, store and share their machine learning features and deploy them into production.

As for the funding, Reddy tells me the company didn’t really have to raise a new round at this point. After the company announced its first round earlier this year, there was quite a lot of interest from others to also invest. “So we decided that we may as well raise the next round because we were seeing adoption, we felt we were ready product-wise. But we didn’t have a large enough sales team. And raising a little early made sense to build up the sales team,” she said.

Reddy also stressed that unlike some of the company’s competitors, Abacus.AI is trying to build a full-stack self-service solution that can essentially compete with the offerings of the big cloud vendors. That — and the engineering talent to build it — doesn’t come cheap.

Image Credits: Abacus.AI

It’s no surprise then that Abacus.AI plans to use the new funding to increase its R&D team, but it will also increase its go-to-market team from two to ten in the coming months. While the company is betting on a self-service model — and is seeing good traction with small- and medium-sized companies — you still need a sales team to work with large enterprises.

Come January, the company also plans to launch support for more languages and more machine vision use cases.

“We are proud to be leading the Series B investment in Abacus.AI, because we think that Abacus.AI’s unique cloud service now makes state-of-the-art AI easily accessible for organizations of all sizes, including start-ups. Abacus.AI’s end-to-end autonomous AI service powered by their Neural Architecture Search invention helps organizations with no ML expertise easily deploy deep learning systems in production.”

 

#artificial-general-intelligence, #artificial-intelligence, #bindu-reddy, #cloud, #cloud-computing, #co-founder, #coatue, #enterprise, #entrepreneurship, #funding, #fundings-exits, #learning, #machine-learning, #ml, #recent-funding, #science-and-technology, #start-ups, #startups

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AI-tool maker Seldon raises £7.1M Series A from AlbionVC and Cambridge Innovation Capital

Seldon is a U.K. startup that specializes in the rarified world of development tools to optimize Machine Learning. What does this mean? Well, dear reader, it means that the “AI” that companies are so fond of trumpeting, does actually end up working.

It’s now raised a £7.1M Series A round co-led by AlbionVC and Cambridge Innovation Capital . The round also includes significant participation from existing investors Amadeus Capital Partners and Global Brain, with follow-on investment from other existing shareholders. The £7.1M funding will be used to accelerate R&D and drive commercial expansion, take Seldon Deploy – a new enterprise solution – to market, and double the size of the team over the next 18 months.

More accurately, Seldon is a cloud-agnostic Machine Learning (ML) deployment specialist which works in partnership with industry leaders such as Google, Red Hat, IBM and Amazon Web Services.

Key to its success is that its open-source project Seldon Core has over 700,000 models deployed to date, drastically reducing friction for users deploying ML models. The startup says its customers are getting productivity gains of as much as 92% as a result of utilizing Seldon’s product portfolio.

Alex Housley, CEO and founder of Seldon said: Speaking to TechCrunch, Housley explained that companies are using machine learning across thousands of use cases today, “but the model actually only generates real value when it’s actually running inside a real-world application.”

“So what we’ve seen emerge over these last few years are companies that specialize in specific parts of the machine learning pipeline, such as training version control features. And in our case we’re focusing on deployment. So what this means is that organizations can now build a fully bespoke AI platform that suits their needs, so they can gain a competitive advantage,” he said.

In addition, he said Seldon’s Open Source model means that companies are not locked-in: “They want to avoid locking as well they want to use tools from various different vendors. So this kind of intersection between machine learning, DevOps and cloud-native tooling is really accelerating a lot of innovation across enterprise and also within startups and growth-stage companies.”

Nadine Torbey, Investor AlbionVC added: “Seldon is at the forefront of the next wave of tech innovation, and the leadership team are true visionaries. Seldon has been able to build an impressive open-source community and add immediate productivity value to some of the world’s leading companies.”

Vin Lingathoti, Partner at Cambridge Innovation Capital said: “Machine learning has rapidly shifted from a nice-to-have to a must-have for enterprises across all industries. Seldon’s open-source platform operationalizes ML model development and accelerates the time-to-market by eliminating the pain points involved in developing, deploying and monitoring Machine Learning models at scale.”

#albionvc, #amadeus-capital-partners, #amazon-web-services, #artificial-intelligence, #cambridge-innovation-capital, #cloud-computing, #cloud-infrastructure, #cybernetics, #europe, #google, #ibm, #learning, #machine-learning, #ml, #partner, #recent-funding, #red-hat, #seldon, #startups, #tc, #united-kingdom

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As edtech crowds up, Campuswire bets big on real-time learning

Campuswire was in a fortuitous spot when colleges and universities across the world shut down on short notice because of the threat of coronavirus. Founded by Tade Oyerinde in 2018, Campuswire is a virtual solution for any teacher who wants to digitize their internal classroom communications, from Q&A time to the lecture itself.

The strategy, for the most part, has worked. Campuswire is now used at more than 300 universities among 200,000 students, Oyerinde tells me.

While Campuswire’s pitch was set to boom overnight, the founder instead saw a bigger challenge approaching: more competition. As professors moved online, lectures moved to Zoom or tools built atop of Zoom. Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts filled in the gap for classrooms that couldn’t afford fancy licenses. Campuswire’s key monetization strategy, which was selling pro licenses for its online class software, felt threatened by alternatives.

So, after months of iterating, Campuswire has adapted its monetization strategy and today announced that it is launching live courses taught by professors. Instead of solely working with professors to streamline internal class communications, Campuswire will now help teachers produce classes that students can then take for a fee. The tuition revenue will be split between the teacher and Campuswire.

Campuswire courses kick off with an angel investing class taught by Charles Hudson, the founder and general partner of Precursor Ventures. Hudson lectures at Stanford occasionally, and working with Campuswire allows him to teach a broader set of students.

Meanwhile, Campuswire software will be free to use starting in January 2021.

The move marks Campuswire’s further dive into synchronous learning. Campuswire’s model is built on how existing classrooms work in universities and colleges. Classes on Campuswire are capped at 500 to promote conversation, and large lectures are supplemented with teacher assistant (TA) classes to hammer home confusing concepts.

Meanwhile, it’s clear amid the pandemic that asynchronous learning has its perks (students can learn on their own schedule, while educators are able to work more flexible hours). Still, Oyerinde thinks a pre-recorded format is not effective for pedagogy purposes.

“This is kind of the hill we’re going to die on,” he said. “Real, lasting learning has to be synchronous for the majority of people.”

In other words, while there’s a small group of gifted-and-talented students who can watch a one-hour lecture and absorb every factoid and nuance, the majority of students need engagement, interaction and motivation to understand a topic, he argues. It’s the reason why MOOCs, or massive open online course providers, only have a 2-3% completion rate on their courses, he argues.

At its core, Campuswire has evolved from a platform trying to compete with Zoom to a platform that is trying to compete with these MOOCS through engaging content taught by experienced professors. Its main differentiation from MOOCs is that it’s live and has teacher assistants.

There are a number of startups that are trying to create engaging, celebrity professor-taught classes through hybrid plays. MasterClass, which just raised $100 million a few months ago, sells entertainment and education in one go, offering cooking classes from Gordon Ramsay and tennis lessons from Serena Williams. While you can’t interact with Ramsay or Williams, you can chat with fellow classmates.

BookClub connects readers to the authors they are reading, giving bookworms an opportunity to ask about cliffhangers and character development. The upstart is still in its early stages, but founder David Blake says that readers could talk directly to authors down the road. There’s also Teachable, which got acquired by Hotmart earlier this year. Teachable helps any expert who wants to create a business around their expertise do so with a virtual course. Arlan Hamilton, a seed-stage investor, has a course on the platform.

Today’s pivot signals the founder’s mindset that, in order to grow to the billion-dollar business mark in edtech, you need to sell more than software that Google and Microsoft will always give away for free.

“Online learning can be 100 times bigger than it is today,” Oyerinde said. “Once you actually support synchronicity, you actually support people getting to actually interact with UCLA/Princeton/Cornell professors, not just watching them on pre-recorded videos.”

#campuswire, #covid-19, #distance-learning, #education, #education-tech, #learning, #online-learning, #remote-learning, #startups, #tc

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TikTok tests a Learn tab to showcase education and how-to videos

How-to videos have been some of the most popular content on YouTube over the years, and now, to grow engagement and the pool of users that it appeals to, the upstart video app TikTok is getting in on the action, too.

After launching a dedicated “Learn On TikTok” hashtag (#LearnOnTikTok) earlier this summer with a slate of premium creators producing videos for it, multiple users and social media watchers (thanks Matt) are reporting sightings of a new menu item called “Learn.”

Featured prominently alongside “For You” and “Following” at the top of the homescreen, TikTok describes Learn as a place to discover how-to and informative videos posted by users that take viewers through making food, producing art, how scientific processes work, and more.

The Learn feed seems to have disappeared overnight: from what we understand it’s still being tested.

Image Credits: Lena Koppova (opens in a new window)(opens in a new window)In any case, its emergence coincided with the company yesterday launching a new promotional campaign for educational content discoverable through the #LearnOnTikTok hashtag.

(And in the original announcement for Learn On TikTok content, TikTok noted that it is “exploring additional ways to showcase the rich offering of instructional content that’s thriving on the platform,” which includes “building a creator learning portal that will provide insights, tools, and best practices on how to create quality content on TikTok,” so the Learn tab may have been a test of how that will look and work.)

These are not TikTok’s first or only efforts in the realm of education.

Aside from its self-referential audience-created educational videos — it’s the best platform for learning TikTok dances, for learning about the latest song-based memes, watching comedic mishaps as people try to explain something, etc. — the company has been cultivating an image as a go-to platform for learning more serious things, not just messing around.

It’s been pushing that even harder this year than ever, both as TikTok itself faces ire from authorities for having a more potentially harmful influence; and as more people turn to their screens during the Covid-19 pandemic.

This has included formal efforts like partnering up with institutions, and encouraging students to create educational content.

@cambridgeuniversityCan #cars talk to each other? #learnontiktok #cambridgeuniversity #cambridge #artificialintelligence #driverless♬ HAPPY SUMMER ADVENTURE – Sergey Wednesday

It’s also included dedicating $50 million specifically to a creator fund to promote educational videos; and reportedly a whopping $5 billion educational fund as part of a deal to keep from getting shut down in the US over national security concerns (Bytedance, the owner of TikTok, has disputed the idea of the fund).

This has also included soft diplomacy, where teachers are using TikTok as a way of being more relatable to their audience of TikTok-loving students.

At its heart, doing more in education is a natural move for TikTok. Video is a huge learning tool, as YouTube and many others have demonstrated, and it connects with the app’s younger audience while also creating more reasons for why others might also want to use it — but also somewhat opportunistic.

Education is a good look, and its push in India was coming at a time when the company was first starting to face backlash over its content (it didn’t help: it’s currently banned there).

Meanwhile, its US Creative Learning Fund and those reports of a $5 billion education fund — accurate or not — emerged just as the company was working on hammering out a deal — which might include its Chinese owner Bytedance ceding control of the app — to keep it from getting banned outright in the US over national security concerns. (That story is still ongoing.)

Learn On TikTok — which officially was announced this summer — is heavy on user-generated content from TikTok’s wider base, with videos ranging pretty widely, from pottery making to make-up tips, and learning pig Latin to folding origami pigs.

But alongside this, TikTok is now populating the hashtag with a lot of premium content. Working with publishers like Self and WWD, professional organizations, non-profit institutions, and influential personalities (Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson in the science arena, chef José Andrés, Lilly Singh and Tyra Banks), TikTok is also curating and cultivating content made specifically for TikTok to broaden people’s minds and experiences.

“I’m excited to partner with TikTok,” Nye said at the time that his deal was announced. “Looking forward to doing some science on the small screen— the real small screen— the one on your phone…”

All of this is to say that there is a lot of opportunity, but probably some more growing pains to come for TikTok and the people using it to teach and learn.

We will update this story as we learn more ourselves…

#education, #learning, #social, #tc, #tiktok

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Language learning service Babbel says it has now sold over 10M subscriptions

Babbel, the popular Berlin-based online language learning service, today announced that it has now sold a total of 10 million subscriptions to its service. For a language learning service, that’s quite a substantial number, especially given that Babbel doesn’t really offer a free tier. In part, the company’s march to 10 million subscriptions was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but Babbel had already seen accelerating growth before, in no small part thanks to its aggressive expansion in the U.S. where Babbel’s subscriber volume and revenue have tripled year over year.

Image Credits: Babbel

The fact that growth accelerated during the pandemic actually came as a bit of a surprise to the team. Typically, at least in the U.S., demand for language learning is somewhat seasonal and users are often motivated to learn a new language because they are preparing a big trip to Europe, for example.

“We know that in the U.S., we typically find the number one motivation that our users give for why they would want to learn a language is travel, which of course, makes sense, because that is your chance to use the language,” Babbel US CEO Julie Hansen told me. “And in fact, last year, there was record travel from the U.S. to Europe. […] I was very, very concerned for the prospects of our business, not to mention the prospects of our national health.”

But with a bit of lag, after the lockdowns in the U.S. (and around the globe) started, Babbel saw an increase in interest in its service because people wanted to use this time for self-improvement. At the same time, Babbel — like so many other education-related services — launched free tiers for high school and college students, too. Hansen said the company saw at least a “couple of hundred thousand” downloads from those initiatives alone. With that, the company’s user base now also skews a little bit younger (though Hansen also credited the company’s advertising on social and especially TikTok for this).

“You can literally draw a graph per country with the date of school closures, the date of lockdown — and then maybe a day or two for the first couple of Netflix series to go by — and then language learning picked up quite quickly,” Babbel CEO Arne Schepker said.

One area that has been challenging is B2B sales, where Babbel (and its competitors) saw an immediate slowdown, but as Hansen noted, some companies also started leaning more into digital training for their employees, maybe in part because they replaced in-person classes with tools like Babbel. Yet, despite the overall slowdown, Babbel still doubled its B2B revenue year-over-year and recently signed on its fellow Berlin -based company Delivery Hero as one of its customers.

Image Credits: Babbel

Ahead of the pandemic, Babbel also started investing in its language travel business after it acquired LingoVentura in 2018. And while the team believes that this business will pick up again over time, Schebker acknowledged that nobody is traveling right now, so this business is currently in a holding pattern.

Looking ahead, the company will soon launch what Hensen called “other learning methods,” but the team isn’t quite ready to talk about these yet beyond the fact that Babbel plans to embrace “a multitude of learning experiences” to meet learners where they are.

#arne-schepker, #articles, #babbel, #berlin, #ceo, #ecommerce, #education, #europe, #julie-hansen, #learning, #united-states, #wikis

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India’s first Earth-imaging satellite startup raises $5 million, first launch planned for later this year

Bengaluru-based Pixxel is getting ready to launch its first Earth imaging satellite later this year, with a scheduled mission aboard a Soyuz rocket. The roughly one-and-a-half-year old company is moving quickly, and today it’s announcing a $5 million seed funding round to help it accelerate even more. The funding is led by Blume Ventures, Lightspeed India Partners, and growX ventures, while a number of angel investors participated.

This isn’t Pixxel’s first outside funding: It raised $700,000 in pre-seed money from Techstars and others last year. But this is significantly more capital to invest in the business, and the startup plans to use it to grow its team, and to continue to fund the development of its Earth observation constellation.

The goal is to fully deploy said constellation, which will be made up of 30 satellites, by 2022. Once all of the company’s small satellites are on-orbit, the the Pixxel network will be able to provide globe-spanning imaging capabilities on a daily basis. The startup claims that its technology will be able to provide data that’s much higher quality when compared to today’s existing Earth imaging satellites, along with analysis driven by PIxxel’s own deep learning models, which are designed to help identify and even potentially predict large problems and phenomena that can have impact on a global scale.

Pixxel’s technology also relies on very small satellites (basically the size of a bear fridge) that nonetheless provide a very high quality image at a cadence that even large imaging satellite networks that already exist would have trouble delivering. The startup’s founders, Awais Ahmed and Kshitij Khandelwal, created the company while still in the process of finishing up the last year of their undergraduate studies. The founding team took part in Techstars’ Starubst Space Accelerator last year in LA.

#aerospace, #artificial-intelligence, #bengaluru, #blume-ventures, #earth, #google, #imaging, #learning, #lightspeed-india-partners, #louisiana, #mentorships, #outer-space, #private-spaceflight, #recent-funding, #satellite, #small-satellite, #space, #spaceflight, #startups, #tc, #techstars

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Microsoft pitched its facial recognition tech to the DEA, new emails show

Microsoft tried to sell its facial recognition technology to the Drug Enforcement Administration as far back as 2017, according to newly released emails.

The American Civil Liberties Union obtained the emails through a public records lawsuit it filed in October, challenging the secrecy surrounding the DEA’s facial recognition program. The ACLU shared the emails with TechCrunch.

The emails, dated between September 2017 and December 2018, show that Microsoft privately hosted DEA agents at its Reston, Va. office to demonstrate its facial recognition system, and that the DEA later piloted the technology.

It was during this time Microsoft’s president Brad Smith was publicly calling for government regulations covering the use of facial recognition.

But the emails also show that the DEA expressed concern with purchasing the technology, fearing criticism from the FBI’s use of facial recognition at the time that caught the attention of government watchdogs.

Critics have long said this face-matching technology violates Americans’ right to privacy, and that the technology disproportionately shows bias against people of color. But despite the rise of facial recognition by police and in public spaces, Congress has struggled to keep pace and introduce legislation that would oversee the as-of-yet unregulated space.

But things changed in the wake of the nationwide and global protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd, which prompted a renewed focus about law enforcement and racial injustice.

An email from a Microsoft account executive inviting DEA agents to its Reston, Va. office to demo its facial recognition technology. (Source: ACLU/supplied)

Microsoft was the third company last week to say it will no longer sell its facial recognition technology to police until more federal regulation is put into place, following in the footsteps of Amazon, which put a one-year moratorium on selling its technology to police. IBM went further, saying it will wind down its facial recognition business entirely.

But Microsoft, like Amazon, did not say if it would no longer sell to federal departments and agencies like the DEA.

“It is bad enough that Microsoft tried to sell a dangerous technology to a law enforcement agency tasked with spearheading the racist drug war, but it gets worse,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU. “Even after belatedly promising not to sell face surveillance tech to police last week, Microsoft has refused to say whether it would sell the technology to federal agencies like the DEA,” said Wessler.

“This is troubling given the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s record, but it’s even more disturbing now that Attorney General Bill Barr has reportedly expanded this very agency’s surveillance authorities, which could be abused to spy on people protesting police brutality,” he said.

Lawmakers have since called for a halt to the DEA’s covert surveillance of protesters, powers that were granted by the Justice Department earlier in June as protests spread across the U.S. and around the world.

When reached, DEA spokesperson Michael Miller declined to answer our questions. A spokesperson for Microsoft did not respond to a request for comment.

#attorney-general, #congress, #dea, #department-of-justice, #facial-recognition, #george-floyd, #government, #law-enforcement, #learning, #president, #privacy, #security, #spokesperson, #surveillance, #united-states, #video-surveillance, #virginia

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Microsoft launches new tools for building fairer machine learning models

At its Build developer conference, Microsoft today put a strong emphasis on machine learning but in addition to plenty of new tools and features, the company also highlighted its work on building more responsible and fairer AI systems — both in the Azure cloud and Microsoft’s open-source toolkits.

These include new tools for differential privacy and a system for ensuring that models work well across different groups of people, as well as new tools that enable businesses to make the best use of their data while still meeting strict regulatory requirements.

As developers are increasingly tasked to learn how to build AI models, they regularly have to ask themselves whether the systems are “easy to explain” and that they “comply with non-discrimination and privacy regulations,” Microsoft notes in today’s announcement. But to do that, they need tools that help them better interpret their models’ results. One of those is interpretML, which Microsoft launched a while ago, but also the Fairlearn toolkit, which can be used to assess the fairness of ML models, and which is currently available as an open-source tool and which will be built into Azure Machine Learning next month.

As for differential privacy, which makes it possible to get insights from private data while still protecting private information, Microsoft today announced WhiteNoise, a new open-source toolkit that’s available both on GitHub and through Azure Machine Learning. WhiteNoise is the result of a partnership between Microsoft and Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science.

#artificial-intelligence, #cloud, #cloud-computing, #cloud-infrastructure, #developer, #github, #learning, #machine-learning, #microsoft, #microsoft-build-2020, #microsoft-azure, #ml, #tc, #whitenoise

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GO1, an enterprise learning platform, picks up $40M from Microsoft, Salesforce and more

With a large proportion of knowledge workers doing now doing their jobs from home, the need for tools to help them feel connected to their profession can be as important as tools to, more practically, keep them connected. Today, a company whose platform helps do precisely that is announcing a growth round of funding after seeing engagement on the platform triple in the last month.

GO1.com, an online learning platform focused specifically on professional training courses (both those to enhance a worker’s skills as well as those needed for company compliance training), is today announcing that it has raised $40 million in funding, a Series C that it plans to use to continue expanding its business, which started out in Brisbane, Australia and now has its operations also based out of San Francisco. (It was part of a Y Combinator cohort back in 2015.) Specifically, it wants to continue growth in North America, and to continue expanding its partner network.

It’s not disclosing its valuation but we are asking. It’s worth pointing out that not only has GO1 seen engagement triple in the last month as people turn to online learning as one way of keeping users connected to their professional lives as they work among children and house pets, noisy neighbours, dirty laundry, sourdough starters, and the rest — and that’s before you count the harrowing news we are hit with on a regular basis. But even beyond that, longer term GO1 has shown some strong signs that speak of its traction.

It counts the likes of the University of Oxford, Suzuki, Asahi and Thrifty among its 3,000+ customers, with more than 1.5 million users overall able to access over 170,000 courses and other resources provided by some 100 vetted content partners. Overall usage has grown five-fold over the last 12 months. (GO1 works both with in-house learning management systems or provides its own.)

“GO1’s growth over the last couple of months has been unprecedented and the use of online tools for training is now undergoing a structural shift,” said Andrew Barnes, CEO of GO1, in a statement. “It is gratifying to fill an important void right now as workers embrace online solutions. We are inspired about the future that we are building as we expand our platform with new mediums that reach millions of people every day with the content they need.”

The funding is coming from a very strong list of backers: it’s being co-led by Madrona Venture Group and SEEK — the online recruitment and course directory company that has backed a number of edtech startups, including FutureLearn and Coursera — with participation also from Microsoft’s venture arm M12; new backer Salesforce Ventures, the investing arm of the CRM giant; and another previous backer, Our Innovation Fund.

Microsoft is a strategic backer: GO1 integrated with Teams, so now users can access GO1 content directly via Microsoft’s enterprise-facing video and messaging platform.

“GO1 has been critical for business continuity as organizations navigate the remote realities of COVID-19,” said Nagraj Kashyap, Microsoft Corporate Vice President and Global Head of M12, in a statement. “The GO1 integration with Microsoft Teams offers a seamless learning experience at a time when 75 million people are using the application daily. We’re proud to invest in a solution helping keep employees learning and businesses growing through this time.”

Similarly, Salesforce is also coming in as a strategic, integrating this into its own online personal development products and initiatives.

“We are excited about partnering with GO1 as it looks to scale its online content hub globally. While the majority of corporate learning is done in person today, we believe the new digital imperative will see an acceleration in the shift to online learning tools. We believe GO1 fits well into the Trailhead ecosystem and our vision of creating the life-long learner journey,” said Rob Keith, Head of Australia, Salesforce Ventures, in a statement.

Working remotely has raised a whole new set of challenges for organizations, especially those whos employees typically have not worked for days, weeks and months outside of the office. Some of these have been challenges of a more basic IT nature: getting secure access to systems on the right kinds of machines and making sure people can communicate in the ways that they need to to get work done.

But others are more nuanced and long-term: making sure people remain focused and motivated and in a healthy state of mind about work. Education is one way of getting them focused in the latter way: professional development is not only useful for the person to do her or his job better, but it’s a way to motivate them and focus their minds, and rest from routine, in a way that still remains relevant to work.

GO1 is absolutely not the only company pursuing this opportunity. Others include Udemy and Coursera, which have both come to enterprise after initially focusing more on traditional education plays. And LinkedIn Learning (which used to be known as Lynda, before LinkedIn acquired it and shifted the branding) was a trailblazer in this space.

For these, enterprise training sits in a different strategic place to GO1, which started out with compliance training and onboarding of employees before gravitating into a much wider set of topics that range from photography and design, through to Java, accounting, and even yoga and mindfulness training and everything in between.

It’s perhaps the directional approach, alongside its success, that have set GO1 apart from the competition and that has attracted the investment, which seems to have come ahead even of the current boost in usage.

“We met GO1 many months before COVID-19 was on the tip of everyone’s tongue and were impressed then with the growth of the platform and the ability of the team to expand their corporate training offering significantly in North America and Europe,” commented S. Somasegar, managing director, Madrona Venture Group, in a statement. “The global pandemic has only increased the need to both provide training and retraining – and also to do it remotely. GO1 is an important link in the chain of recovery.” As part of the funding Somasegar will join the GO1 board of directors.

Notably, GO1 is currently making all COVID-19 related learning resources available for free “to help teams continue to perform and feel supported during this time of disruption and change,” the company said.

#development, #education, #enterprise, #learning, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #training

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Hundreds of academics back privacy-friendly coronavirus contact tracing apps

Hundreds of academics across the world have welcomed efforts to introduce privacy-friendly contact tracing systems to help understand the spread of coronavirus.

A letter, signed by nearly 300 academics and published Monday, praised recent announcements from Apple and Google to build an opt-in and decentralized way of allowing individuals to know if they have come into contact with someone confirmed to be infected with COVID-19.

The academics said that contact tracing apps that use automated Bluetooth tracing are far more privacy preserving than apps that collect location data in a central store.

“Contact tracing is a well-understood tool to tackle epidemics, and has traditionally been done manually. In some situations, so-called ‘contact tracing apps’ on peoples’ smartphones may improve the effectiveness of the manual contact tracing technique,” the letter reads. “Though the effectiveness of contact tracing apps is controversial, we need to ensure that those implemented preserve the privacy of their users, thus safeguarding against many other issues, noting that such apps can otherwise be repurposed to enable unwarranted discrimination and surveillance.”

The academic endorsement couldn’t come at a more critical time. There are competing methods to trace individuals’ contact with coronavirus. Decentralized systems are far more privacy conscious because no single entity stores the tracing data. But the academics say that centralized stores of data can “allow reconstructing invasive information about the population should be rejected without further discussion,” and instead urged all countries to “rely on systems that are subject to public scrutiny and that are privacy preserving by design.”

“It is vital that, in coming out of the current crisis, we do not create a tool that enables large scale data collection on the population, either now or at a later time,” the letter reads.

The letter lands just days after some of the same academics pulled their support for a similar contact tracing project, known as PEPP-PT, which is said to have seven unnamed governments signed up so far. Two of those, Spain and Switzerland, have called for a decentralized contact tracing solution. But after PEPP-PT published details of its centralized proprietary protocol, several academics associated with the project disavowed the project, saying it was neither open or transparent enough, and lent their support instead to the decentralized systems, such as the privacy-friendly DP-3T protocol, or systems like Apple and Google’s cross-platform solution.

Alan Woodward, a professor at the University of Surrey who also signed onto the letter, told TechCrunch that the letter serves as what the academic community thinks is the “correct approach” to contact tracing.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in this field,” Woodward said. “It shows that it’s not just the few but many who share the concern. I really hope governments listen before they do something that will be very difficult to undo.”

#bluetooth, #contact-tracing, #health, #learning, #prevention, #security, #smartphones, #surveillance, #terms-of-service

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Google Play adds a ‘Teacher Approved’ section to its app store

Google today is making it easier for families to find quality educational apps with the addition of a new “Teacher Approved” section to Google Play. All apps found in this section are vetted by a panel of reviewers, including more than 200 teachers across the U.S., and meet Google’s existing requirements for its “Designed for Families” program.

That program requires apps to meet government regulations around data collection and ad targeting, and also limits the types of ads that can be displayed to children, if apps are ad-supported.

The apps chosen for the “Teacher Approved” section, however, don’t just meet the program’s minimum requirements — they’re also reviewed and rated highly by teachers. These may be apps teachers suggest for supplemental learning while others may just be used for fun.

The launch arrives at a time when most U.S. children are now out of school due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent school closures. To date, at least 55.1 million students are no longer attending their public or private school in-person, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. This change has left parents scrambling to fill their child’s time with educational activities. And even if distance learning is available in their school district, it isn’t typically enough to keep the child engaged throughout the day.

Google says it heard from parents that it was difficult to find kid-friendly apps they felt good about letting their children use, which is why it chose to launch the new “Teacher Approved” section on Google Play.

The company worked with academic experts, including lead advisors Joe Blatt (Harvard Graduate School of Education) and Dr. Sandra Calvert (Georgetown University) to create the framework for rating apps for kids. But the apps themselves are chosen by a panel with teacher involvement. The panel rates apps on various aspects like age-appropriateness, quality of experience, enrichment and whether kids enjoy using the app.

To access the new section, you can either visit the “Kids” tab on Google Play or you can look for the “Teacher Approved” badge on any given app to see if it met with teachers’ approval. In addition, Google Play Pass will offer subscribers a selection of “Teacher Approved” content under the “Apps and games for kids” section.

The apps will be grouped by age: 5 & under, ages 6-8 and ages 9-12. Google will also include information in the app’s listing about why it was rated highly.

At launch, Google tells us there will be around 1,000 Teacher Approved apps live in the Play Store and around 60 also included in Google Play Pass. The company says it’s working with its Play Pass partners to increase this number over time.

 

“I think it’s terrific that Google is taking this unprecedented stand – creating a unique space for apps that teachers have rated high in quality and value for kids and their families,” said Joe Blatt, senior lecturer and faculty director of the Technology, Innovation, and Education Program, in a statement about the launch. “Over the past three years, together with faculty colleagues and students, I have worked to pinpoint criteria for developmental appropriateness, learning impact, and appeal. Then we helped Google build a rating system that enables teachers to apply these criteria reliably. I’m really impressed with the dedication and professionalism that the Google team has invested in this project,” he added.

The new Kids tab with “Teacher approved” apps will roll out in the U.S. on Google Play over the next few days. Google says it will expand the experience internationally in the months to come.

#apps, #children, #education, #families, #google-play, #kids, #learning, #mobile, #parents, #school, #teachers

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Divesting from one facial recognition startup, Microsoft ends outside investments in the tech

Microsoft is pulling out of an investment in an Israeli facial recognition technology developer as part of a broader policy shift to halt any minority investments in facial recognition startups, the company announced late last week.

The decision to withdraw its investment from AnyVision, an Israeli company developing facial recognition software, came as a result of an investigation into reports that AnyVision’s technology was being used by the Israeli government to surveil residents in the West Bank.

The investigation, conducted by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and his team at Covington & Burling, confirmed that AnyVision’s technology was used to monitor border crossings between the West Bank and Israel, but did not “power a mass surveillance program in the West Bank.”

Microsoft’s venture capital arm, M12 Ventures, backed AnyVision as part of the company’s $74 million financing round which closed in June 2019. Investors who continue to back the company include DFJ Growth and OG Technology Partners, LightSpeed Venture Partners, Robert Bosch GmbH, Qualcomm Ventures, and Eldridge Industries.

Microsoft first staked out its position on how the company would approach facial recognition technologies in 2018, when President Brad Smith issued a statement calling on government to come up with clear regulations around facial recognition in the U.S.

Smith’s calls for more regulation and oversight became more strident by the end of the year, when Microsoft issued a statement on its approach to facial recognition.

Smith wrote:

We and other tech companies need to start creating safeguards to address facial recognition technology. We believe this technology can serve our customers in important and broad ways, and increasingly we’re not just encouraged, but inspired by many of the facial recognition applications our customers are deploying. But more than with many other technologies, this technology needs to be developed and used carefully. After substantial discussion and review, we have decided to adopt six principles to manage these issues at Microsoft. We are sharing these principles now, with a commitment and plans to implement them by the end of the first quarter in 2019.

The principles that Microsoft laid out included privileging: fairness, transparency, accountability, non-discrimination, notice and consent, and lawful surveillance.

Critics took the company to task for its investment in AnyVision, saying that the decision to back a company working with the Israeli government on wide-scale surveillance ran counter to the principles it had set out for itself.

Now, after determining that controlling how facial recognition technologies are deployed by its minority investments is too difficult, the company is suspending its outside investments in the technology.

“For Microsoft, the audit process reinforced the challenges of being a minority investor in a company that sells sensitive technology, since such investments do not generally allow for the level of oversight or control that Microsoft exercises over the use of its own technology,” the company wrote in a statement on its M12 Ventures website. “Microsoft’s focus has shifted to commercial relationships that afford Microsoft greater oversight and control over the use of sensitive technologies.”

 

 

#anyvision, #brad-smith, #dfj-growth, #eldridge-industries, #eric-holder, #facial-recognition, #facial-recognition-software, #israel, #law-enforcement, #learning, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #m12, #mass-surveillance, #microsoft, #national-security, #president, #prevention, #qualcomm-ventures, #security, #skills, #surveillance, #tc, #united-states

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