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Merlyn Mind emerges from stealth with $29M and a hardware and software solution to help teachers with tech

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We’ve chronicled, in great detail, the many layers of technology, services and solutions, that have been wrapped around the world of education in recent years — and especially in the last year, which became a high watermark for digital learning tools because of Covid-19. Today, a startup called Merlyn Mind is coming out of stealth with a proposition that it believes helps tie a lot of this together in the K-12 classroom — a “digital assistant” that comes in the form of a piece of custom hardware and software to “read” natural voice and remote control commands from a teacher to control multimedia apps on a screen of choice. Along with this, Merlyn Mind is announcing $29 million in initial funding to build out its vision.

The funding is being led by specialist edtech investor Learn Capital, with other unnamed investors participating. It comes after Merlyn Mind spent about three years quietly building its first release and more recently piloting the service in 50+ classrooms in more than 20 schools.

Co-founded by longtime IBM scientists Satya Nitta (the CEO), Ravi Kokku, and Sharad Sundararajan — all of whom spent several years leading education efforts in IBM’s Watson AI research division — Merlyn Mind is coming to the market with a patented, vertically integrated solution to solve what Nitta told me in an interview he believes and has seen first-hand to be a fundamental pain point in the world of edtech.

In effect, education and technology may have now been merged into a single term as far as the tech world is concerned, but in terms of practical, on-the-ground application, many teachers are not making the most of the tools they have in the classroom. The majority are, he believes, facing “cognitive overload” (which is not to mention the kids, who themselves probably are facing the same: a problem for it to tackle down the road, I hope), and they need help.

To be fair, this problem existed before the pandemic, with research from McKinsey & Co. published in 2020 (and gathered earlier) finding that teachers were already spending more than half of their time on administrative tasks, not teaching or thinking about how and what to teach or what help specific students might need. Other research from Learn Platform found that teachers potentially have as many as 900 different applications that they can use in a classroom (in practice, Nitta told me a teacher will typically use between 20 and 30 applications, sites and tech services in a day, although even that is a huge amount).

Post-Covid-19, there are other kinds of new complications to grapple with on top of all that. Not only are many educators now playing catch-up because of the months spent learning at home (it’s been widely documented that in many cases, students have fallen behind), but overall, education is coming away from our year+ of remote learning with a much stronger mandate to use more tech from now on, not less.

The help that Merlyn Mind is proposing comes in the form of what the startup describes as an “AI hub.” This includes a personal assistant called Symphony Classroom, a kind of Alexa-style voice interface tailored to the educational environment and built on a fork of Android; a smart speaker that looks a bit like a soundbar; and a consumer-style remote that can be used also for navigation and commands.

These then work with whatever screen the teacher opts to use, whether it is a TV, or an interactive whiteboard, or something else; along with any other connected devices that are used in the classroom, to open and navigate through different apps, including various Google apps, NearPod, Newsela, and so on. (That could potentially also include kids’ individual screens if they are being used.)

The idea is that if a teacher is in the middle of a lesson on a specific topic and a question comes up that can best be answered by illustrating a concept through another app, a teacher can trigger the system to navigate to a new screen to find that information and instantly show it to the students. The system can also be used to find a teacher’s own materials on file. The demo I saw worked well enough, although I would love to see how an ordinary teacher — the kind they’re hoping will use this — would fare.

Everyone knows the expression “hardware is hard,” so it’s interesting to see Merlyn addressing its problem with a hardware-forward approach.

Nitta was very ready with his defense for this one:

“I’ll tell you why we built our own hardware,” he told me. “There’s a bunch of AI processing that’s happening on the device, for various reasons, including latency and security. So it’s kind of an edge AI appliance. And the second thing is the microphones. They are designed for the classroom environment, and we wanted to have complete control over the tooling of these microphones for the processing, for the environment, and that is very hard to do. If you are taking a third-party microphone array off the shelf, it’s impossible, actually, you simply cannot.”

The startup’s early team is rounded out with alums from the likes of HP Education, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Broadcom and Roku to help build all of this, knowing the challenges they were tackling, but also the payoff once it would be finished if it all works.

“We have a very, very talented team, and we basically said, right, this is going to be a lot of hard work that will take us three and a half years. We have to build our own piece of hardware… and we ended up building the entire voice stack from from scratch ourselves, too,” Nitta continued. “It means we have end to end control of everything from the hardware all the way to the language models.”

He did point out though that over time, there will be some elements that will be usable without all the hardware, in particular when a teacher may suddenly have to teach outside the classroom again in a remote learning environment.

It’s a very ambitious concept, but where would education and learning be if not for taking leaps once in a while? That’s where investors stand on the startup, too.

“Just as we saw with the breakthrough edtech company Coursera which reached IPO this year and was started a decade ago by two machine learning professors, in today’s hypercompetitive market the best edtech companies need to start with an advanced technological core,” said Rob Hutter, founder and managing partner of Learn Capital. “Merlyn is one of the first companies to focus on the enhancement of live teaching in classrooms, and it is developing a solution that is so intuitive it allows teachers to leverage technology with mastery while using minimal effort.  This is a very promising platform.”

The proof will be in how it gets adopted when it finally launches commercially later this year, with pricing to be announced later.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/06/22/merlyn-mind-emerges-from-stealth-with-29m-and-a-hardware-and-software-solution-to-help-teachers-with-tech/

EdTech

China’s expected edtech clampdown may chill a key startup sector

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News that China’s government may force domestic tutoring-focused companies to go nonprofit is taking a huge bite out of the value of several technology companies. Bloomberg notes that the value of companies like New Oriental Education & Technology Group and TAL Education are tumbling in light of the news, which would constitute merely the latest salvo against tech companies in the autocratic country.

New Oriental’s Hong Kong-listed shares fell 44.22% in after-hours trading after the nonprofit news broke, while NYSE-shares of TAL are off an even sharper 51.75% in pre-market trading. With Yahoo Finance listing a roughly $13.8 billion market cap for TAL ahead of its impending declines at the market open, billions of equity value are about to get deleted. The list goes on: China Online Education Group is off 39.97% in after-hours trading, for example.


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A new decision by China’s government to exert more control over a sector of its domestic economy should not surprise. And we shouldn’t be shocked that online tutoring is in the country’s targets; today’s news is a follow-up to prior regulatory action in the sector from earlier in the year.

As China has become synonymous with edtech startups in recent years, the news impacts more than just public companies. The expected rules change may also hit a host of private, venture-backed companies.

For example, what will happen to Yuanfudao? The company was valued at $15.5 billion last year, offering what TechCrunch described as “live tutoring, an online Q&A arm and a math-problem-checking arm.” Will the company see its wings clipped?

Or how about Zuoyebang, which raised $1.6 billion in a single round last year? TechCrunch wrote that Zuoyebang offers “online courses, live lessons and homework help for kindergarten to 12th grade students.” Is it in trouble as well?

All this comes on the same day that shares in Zomato began to float, with the Indian online food delivery company seeing its shares close up nearly 65% in their first day’s trading. TechCrunch has viewed the Zomato IPO as a possible bellwether for the larger Indian startup market, and the results augur well for other growth-focused, loss-making unicorns in the country.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/07/23/chinas-expected-edtech-clampdown-may-chill-a-key-startup-sector/

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EdTech

Duolingo’s bellwether IPO

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Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

We were a smaller team this week, with Natasha and Alex together with Chris to sort through yet another summer frenzy of a week.

This time around we actually recorded live on Twitter Spaces, which was a first for the podcast. If you missed it, it’s probably because we didn’t promote the taping since it was just an experiment. Good news, though, is that it went well, and we’re going to do some more live tapings of the show with the entire crew on the mics. Make sure to follow the show on the Big Tweet to ensure that you can come hang with us next week. We’ll also do some Q&A at the end, if we’re in good moods.

Until then, let’s live in the present. Here’s what we got into in today’s show:

Have a lovely weekend, you lovely human.

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PDT, Wednesday, and Friday morning at 7:00 a.m. PDT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/07/23/duolingos-bellwether-ipo/

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EdTech

Google Meet Host Controls: How to block access, chat, and more!

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Google Meet Host Controls: How to block access, chat, and more! | Shake Up Learning









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Source: https://shakeuplearning.com/blog/google-meet-host-controls-how-to-block-access-chat-and-more/

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EdTech

Hero Vired announces Scholarship Advantage for higher education aspirants and professionals in India

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Hero Vired, India’s premium edtech company for professionals and higher education aspirants, has announced Hero Vired Scholarship Advantage to make its top-of-the-line programs accessible to a broader spectrum of learners and working professionals in India. The scholarships have been carefully curated for individuals with exceptional past academic records, women who have exceptional skills and interests and merit students who need financial assistance.

Scholarships offered by Hero Vired :

? Vired Toppers: Up to 100% Fee Waived to batch-wise toppers based on performance during the program
? Vired Achievers: Up to 50% Fee Waived for those with exceptional academic or industry-related experience
? Women of Vired: Up to 50% Fee Waived for women with outstanding professional experience, academic performance and interest in the domains
? Vired Winner: Up to 50% Fee Waived for those with outstanding past performance and need for financial assistance

According to Hero Vired, there are more than 27 crore people in India who make up the key workforce demographic of 25 to 44 years of age. These include highly skilled graduates and motivated individuals keyed towards achieving greater goals. Hero Vired has designed its offerings to provide an edge to this segment. Hero Vired offers a host of first-of-its-kind courses ranging from certificate programs in Finance & related technologies to integrated programs in Data Science, Machine Learning & Artificial Intelligence, full-stack development, Game Design, and Entrepreneurial Thinking and Innovation.

Commenting on the announcement, Founder and CEO, Akshay Munjalsaid, “The Hero Group has always believed in making quality education accessible to those with the desire to excel in their careers. The Hero Vired Scholarship Advantage is a step in that direction. We want to encourage learners and professionals to get the Hero Vired advantage and be ready for new-age careers and skills. We are truly excited to offer these scholarships and look forward to moulding some brilliant and talented minds towards a brighter future.”

Application Process: Interested candidates can check the website for eligibility criteria and submit the application form and follow a simple interview process to be shortlisted. The Hero Vired Academics team will guide the applicants through every step.

Hero Vired’s programs are designed to provide a premium learning experience through highly engaged one-on-one interactive sessions with all learners for live online classes, doubt clarification and more personalized mentorship sessions. The Hero Vired Learning Experience platform has been built to offer features that make learning impactful via gamification, interactive support, peer to peer communication, high-quality content and high-engagement-driven online instructor-led classes. Select programs also offer an Academic Bank of Credits as proposed in the NEP for learners to access future learning.

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Source: https://www.hrkatha.com/industry-news/hero-vired-announces-scholarship-advantage-for-higher-education-aspirants-and-professionals-in-india/

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