A university is outfitting living spaces with thousands of Echo Dots

Soon, Saint Louis University students won’t be able to avoid Amazon’s near ubiquitous smart speakers. The university announced this week a plan to outfit living spaces with 2,300 Echo Dots. The devices are set to be deployed by the time classes start, later this month. SLU is quick to note that it’s “the first college […]

Soon, Saint Louis University students won’t be able to avoid Amazon’s near ubiquitous smart speakers. The university announced this week a plan to outfit living spaces with 2,300 Echo Dots. The devices are set to be deployed by the time classes start, later this month.

SLU is quick to note that it’s “the first college or university in the country to bring Amazon Alexa-enabled devices, managed by Alexa for Business, into every student residence hall room and student apartment on campus.” It’s certainly not the first to adopt Amazon’s smart speakers, but it’s among the largest scale for this sort of deployment.

While the product has become a mainstay in plenty of American homes, it does seem like an odd choice dorms and student campus. SLU has worked with Alexa for Business to create 100 custom questions, including, “What time does the library close tonight?” and “Where is the registrar’s office?” 

Then, of course, there are the privacy concerns of having little cloud connected recording devices populating the school’s living spaces. SLU is attempting to get out in front of that here. The company addressed those issues on a privacy page, writing,

Because of our use of the Amazon Alexa for Business (A4B) platform, your Echo Dot is managed by a central system dedicated to SLU. This system is not tied to individual accounts and does not maintain any personal information for any of our users, so all use currently is anonymous. Additionally, neither Alexa nor the Alexa for Business management system maintains recordings of any questions that are asked.

The school notes that students can also mute the microphone. Students can’t technically opt-out, but they can unplug the product and shove it in a drawer, turning it in at the end of the year. Just don’t use it as a hockey puck, because that’ll cost you.

Facebook is going back to college

While today’s college graduates are “digital natives,” these natives have been conditioned on Netflix-like interfaces, and aren’t accustomed to laborious software configurations, or the steep learning curves required to master a software platform.

Kids these days take a greater interest in practical things than we give them credit for. For example, this summer my 12-year-old son Leo was at sleepaway camp in Canada. When we received his first letter home, among camp platitudes, the two notable items reported were that one of his counselors was discharged from the Israeli Army a week before camp, while another was recently “mugged by three guys (one had a gun!) and got stabbed in the arm.” Leo reported the cabin was mesmerized when, as a reward, the counselor showed campers his sweater with a knife hole in it.

America’s colleges and universities could learn a thing or two from Leo, because they continue to resist teaching students the practical things they’ll need to know as soon as they graduate; for instance, to get jobs that will allow them to make student loan payments. Digital skills head this list, specifically experience with the high-powered software they’ll be required to use every day in entry-level positions.

But talk to a college president or provost about the importance of Marketo, HubSpot, Pardot, Tableau, Adobe and Autodesk for their graduates, and they’re at a loss for how to integrate last-mile training into their degree programs in order prepare students to work on these essential software platforms.

Enter a new company, Pathstream, which just announced a partnership with tech leader Unity and previously partnered with Facebook. Pathstream supports the delivery of career-critical software skill training in VR/AR and digital marketing at colleges and universities.

According to Pathstream co-founder Eleanor Cooper, the company was created from piecing together two insights. First, graduates aren’t getting the digital skills they need to be hired. Employers are so frustrated that they no longer believe that new grads are qualified for digital jobs; according to a recent survey of more than 95,000 job postings by TalentWorks, 61 percent of positions that say they’re seeking entry-level employees now specify at least three years or more of relevant work experience. Second, tech companies are struggling to reach new generations of learners.

While today’s college graduates are “digital natives,” these natives have been conditioned on Netflix-like interfaces, and aren’t accustomed to laborious software configurations, or the steep learning curves required to master a software platform.

As a result, Cooper says Pathstream makes learning a new software platform live up to student expectations of receiving “joy before pain,” thereby gently nudging college students down the road to mastery. In addition, rather than traditional classroom-based learning, Pathstream’s platform simulates a work environment, where students complete tasks and projects on the platform, build a portfolio of work and earn a certification from both a higher education institution and the software company.

Facebook is using Pathstream to support training students on its digital marketing platform, including social media marketing using Facebook Ad Manager and Instagram . Parisa Zagat, Policy Programs Manager at Facebook, related the partnership with Pathstream to its pledge in June to train 1 million U.S. small business owners on the digital skills they need to compete in today’s workplace.

Unity is focusing its training on VR/AR courses for industry use cases (construction, manufacturing, automotive, enterprise training). Jessica Lindl, Global Head of Education at Unity, said “in order to gain employment in today’s digitally focused world, job-seekers are required to rapidly up-level their skills.”

Image: Getty Images/smartboy10/DigitalVision

“The problem is there’s a significant education gap between those who seek to learn these skills and the programs available to them. With Pathstream, we will be able to provide interactive programs for students of all backgrounds to learn real-world software platforms in their own way, making it easier and more efficient for them to find success in their current career path or a new one.”

While it completes training programs for Facebook and Unity, Pathstream is building out a network of colleges that will offer the curriculum to students. Recently, Facebook announced that Pathstream will be offering digital marketing certificates at Central New Mexico Community College and Des Moines Area Community College. According to Zagat, “By the end of the year, Facebook plans to form a total of 20 partnerships with community colleges across the country, working hand-in-hand with Pathstream and the colleges to build out custom curriculums and programs for these partnerships.”

Cooper says that “colleges and universities understand that their students are focused on employment, and specifically on getting a good first job. Today’s students no longer buy the line that college prepares you for your fifth job, not your first job. They know that if you don’t get a good first job, you’re probably not going to get a good fifth job.” And, as she points out, most good first jobs specifically require one or more technologies like Facebook or Unity — technologies that colleges and universities aren’t teaching.

If Pathstream is able to realize its vision of integrating industry-relevant software training into degree programs in a big way, colleges and universities have a shot at maintaining their stranglehold as the sole pathway to successful careers. If Pathstream’s impact is more limited, watch for millions of students to sidestep traditional colleges, and enroll in emerging faster and cheaper alternative pathways to good first jobs — alternative pathways that will almost certainly integrate the kind of last-mile training being pioneered by Pathstream.

LittleBits acquires kids educational community DIY.co

LittleBits is making its first acquisition. The New York-based educational hardware company has agreed to acquire DIY.co, an educational social network for kids. Co-founded in 2011 by Vimeo’s Zach Klein, the San Francisco-based software startup is behind the DIY.org online community and jam.com, a subscription-based STEAM educational platform. “Over the years we’ve explored dozens of […]

LittleBits is making its first acquisition. The New York-based educational hardware company has agreed to acquire DIY.co, an educational social network for kids. Co-founded in 2011 by Vimeo’s Zach Klein, the San Francisco-based software startup is behind the DIY.org online community and jam.com, a subscription-based STEAM educational platform.

“Over the years we’ve explored dozens of acquisitions, strategic deals, mergers,” littleBits founder and CEO Ayah Bdeir told TechCrunch. “We’re very actively looking at that stuff all the time. But DIY, Zach and his team stand out as a match made in heaven.”

DIY’s product will serve as the software foundation for littleBits’ projects moving forward. For starters, the company will provide a kind of software instruction booklet for littleBits’ kits, including a trio of new ones due out this fall. Those will follow the startup’s recent Avengers kits, the second product to take advantage of its Disney accelerator connections.

From there, its seems pretty clear how the company’s social networking and hundreds of hours of online instructional videos will complement littleBits’ long-standing goal of empowering children through STEM educational tools.

“We’re creating an environment where kids are teaching kids,” Klein tells TechCrunch. “That was our mission from day one, to create a space where kids can develop learning strategies for other kids, instead of a one-size-fits-all approach to education. We’re creating an environment where kids are forging the pathways that other kids can find and follow.”

DIY.co, will stay in its San Francisco office, allowing littleBits to expand its presence to the West Coast, where most of its investors are based. The company name and sub-brands like Jam will also remain intact, allowing littleBits to leverage the cachet the brand has built over the years, including some 1.5 million projects uploaded by 550,000 registered users.

DIY’s team of 15 will also stay on, joining littleBit’s existing staff of 100+ employees.

“The expertises are really complementary,” says Bdeir. “Zach’s team, their skill set is in software product and community building and content creation. Those are things we don’t have a lot of expertise in. We wouldn’t be doing this if we weren’t bullish about the future. This is the beginning of us doing many more aggressive steps to becoming the leading learning-to-play company in the world.”

LittleBits is clearly starting to put to use some of the $65 million it’s raised, by growing the company through acquisitions and other means. In the case of DIY, the deal is certainly a complementary one.

“This combination isn’t just about merging two mission-aligned brands,” Jon Callaghan, co-founder of littleBits investor True Ventures, told TechCrunch. “It’s reflective of a larger trend among consumer brands like Peloton and Netflix that recognize that quality content is, once again, king.”

Terms of the deal have not been disclosed.

Wonderschool raises $20M to help people start in-home preschools

Educators already don’t get paid enough, and those that work in preschools or daycares often make 48% less. Meanwhile, parents struggle to find great early education programs where kids receive enough attention and there’s space, but they don’t need special connections or to pass grueling admissions interviews to get in. Any time there’s a lousy […]

Educators already don’t get paid enough, and those that work in preschools or daycares often make 48% less. Meanwhile, parents struggle to find great early education programs where kids receive enough attention and there’s space, but they don’t need special connections or to pass grueling admissions interviews to get in.

Any time there’s a lousy experience people have an emotional connection to and spend a lot of money on, there’s an opportunity for a startup. Enter ‘Wonderschool‘, a company that lets licensed educators and caretakers launch in-home preschools or daycares. Wonderschool helps candidates get credentialed, set up their programs, launch their websites, boost enrollment, and take payments in exchange for a 10 percent cut of tuition. The startup is now helping run 140 schools in the SF Bay, LA, and NYC where parents are happy to pay to give their kids an advantage.

That chance to fill a lucrative gap in the education market has attracted a new $20 million Series A for Wonderschool led by Andreessen Horowitz . The round brings the startup to $24.1 million in total funding just two years after launch. With the cash and Andreessen partner Jeff Jordan joining its board, Wonderschool is looking to build powerful lead generation and management software to turn teachers into savvy entrepreneurs.

Finding good childcare has become one of the most difficult experiences for families. I’ve seen parents who are making a livable wage in urban cities like San Francisco and New York still struggle to find and afford quality childcare” says co-founder and CEO Chris Bennett. “We wanted to deliver a solution for parents that also had the potential to create jobs and empower the caregiver — that’s Wonderschool.”

By spawning and uniting programs across the country, Wonderschool could scale as the way software eats preschool. But without vigorous oversight of each educator, Wonderschool is also at risk of a safety mishap at one of its franchises ruining the brand for them all.

Airbnb For Schooling

Wonderschool started when co-founder Arrel Gray was having trouble finding childcare for his daughter close to home. “My little sister went to an in-home preschool, so I suggested he check them out” says Bennett. “But he wasn’t very satisfied with the options – the majority were full and some didn’t meet the expectations for his family. We also found that they didn’t use the internet much so they were hard to find and contact.”

The two were seeking to pivot their social commerce startup Soldsie after Facebook algorithm changes curtailed its growth. Their research led to the discovery of just how much lower preschool and daycare workers’ wages were. “When we had the idea we thought, ‘what the best way to test this?’ Why don’t we start a preschool ourselves'” says Bennett. “So we rented a home in the Berkeley Hills, hired an amazing educator, set up a school and started one. The school ended up being a huge success. Five-star reviews on Yelp. A high NPS. Parents loved the place.” It also netted the teacher a 3X higher salary than before.

With that proof, Wonderschool went on to raise $4.1 million from Josh Kopelman at First Round Capital, Omidyar Network, Cross Culture Ventures, Uncork Capital, Lerer Ventures, FundersClub, and Edelweiss. That let Bennett and Gray flesh out the business. Wonderschool would recruit existing teachers and caregivers or guide people to get licensed so they could become “directors” of in-home schools. Wonderschool acts almost like Airbnb by turning them into small businesses earning money from home.

Teachers can pick whatever schedule, curriculum, or format they want, like Montesori or nature-focused learning. Wonderschool now has over 500 directors working with its software, with some making as much as $150,000 or $200,000. In exchange for its 10 percent cut of tuition, Wonderschool provides directors with a “bootcamp” to prep them for the job. It pairs them with a mentor, then helps them build their website and figure out their pricing options. Coaching guides train the directors to scout for new leads, offer appealing tours, and track their fledgling business.

The $20 million from Andreessen, OmidyarGary Community Investments, and First Round will go to expanding the Wonderschool software. Each student slot it can help director fill, the more it earns. The startup will also have to compete with  companies like Wildflower Schools, which Bennett admits has a similar business model but he says “We are focused on in home and they also focus on Montessori while we are curriculum agnostic.” There’s also Cottage Class which powers homeschooling for students up to age 18, Tinkergarten that concentrates on short-term outdoor education, and VIPKid connects kids in China with U.S. teachers over video chat.

They, like Wonderschool, are trying to scale up to meet the massive existing demand. “The challenge is that there aren’t enough programs for the number of children needing public or private schooling – 1st grade or earlier – and our goal is to provide enough supply for every child” Bennett explains.

Still, safety remains a top concern. Bennett notes that “Wonderschool has a support team that helps school Directors prepare their homes for operation. With regard to safety, each state’s licensing office covers this in their approval process for being granted a license to operate.” But could a problem at one school shake the businesses of all the rest of its franchises? “We have a system of checks in balances in place that we feel confident would allow us to anticipate any potential issues, including regular, weekly check-ins with Directors and a feedback loop with parents. We also email parents on a regular cadence to get feedback from parents and we step in and work with the Director if we find that there are issues” Bennett insists.

If Wonderschool can keep its brand clean through thorough oversight, it could both create better paying jobs in a field rife with undercompensated heroes, and open early schooling to a wider range of students. Bennett’s parents moved to the U.S. from Honduras, pouring their efforts into supporting his and his sister’s education. Now he’s building the next generation of teachers the tools to give more kids a head start in life.

Google Classroom gets a redesign

It’s been a few years since Google first launched Classroom, its learning management system for teachers and students. Today, ahead of the start of the new year in many school districts, Google is launching a major redesign of Classroom that introduces a refreshed look and a number of new features for the teachers who use […]

It’s been a few years since Google first launched Classroom, its learning management system for teachers and students. Today, ahead of the start of the new year in many school districts, Google is launching a major redesign of Classroom that introduces a refreshed look and a number of new features for the teachers who use the service.

Classroom now, for example, features a new grading tool that works not just with Google Docs files but also Office files, PDFs, videos and other file types. And because students always make the same mistakes, teachers can now create a ‘comment bank’ so they can reuse commonly used feedback. Google says this is meant to ‘encourage thoughtful engagement.’

Teachers now also get access to a new site with training materials to bring them up to speed with how to best use its services.

The new Classroom now also features a new ‘Classwork’ page where teachers can organize their assignments and group them into modules and units. It’s now also easier for teachers to re-use previous classes and collaborate with others to design their classes. And because things can get noisy, Google is adding some digital wellbeing features for co-teachers to Classroom that allows them to turn off notifications for specific classes.

A Google spokesperson also told us that Classroom is getting extended support for Google Form quizzes (and the ability to put a quiz in locked mode to avoid distractions), as well as some new Chrome OS admin features to help manage devices.

And here is some good news for everybody, too: Google is making some changes to how Docs handles margins and indentations “to improve the overall writing experience, especially when making MLA style citations” (and here I thought I never had to think about MLA style again…). Soon, you’ll be able to use hanging indents and set specific indentations. This feature will launch in the fall.

 

Campuswire launches to redesign classroom communications

Tade Oyerinde is obsessed with communications inside educational institutions. A few years ago, while studying at Leeds University in England, he founded Gleepost, a Craigslist-like service targeting college campuses. The startup flopped, so Oyerinde moved on to build with his college roommate and twin brother Uniroulette, a Chatroulette clone but limited to people with .edu […]

Tade Oyerinde is obsessed with communications inside educational institutions. A few years ago, while studying at Leeds University in England, he founded Gleepost, a Craigslist-like service targeting college campuses.

The startup flopped, so Oyerinde moved on to build with his college roommate and twin brother Uniroulette, a Chatroulette clone but limited to people with .edu email addresses. It was here that he got a searing introduction to product design and also learned how to become a social hacker, using design choices to drive conversations and engagement. “With Uniroulette… we needed to have about 20 kids concurrently on just to make it work,” he explained to me. To get those numbers, the startup officially opened at 8pm each evening, and anyone who tried to login earlier was given a countdown timer.

To further drive engagement, Oyerinde created dozens if not hundreds of Facebook pages around the concept of love and missed connections targeting different campuses, such as Leeds Crushes or Bodleian Library Secrets. Students were hooked — and also getting carefully calibrated advertising messages to spend more time on Uniroulette. He raised $250k from angels in London, but ultimately, the startup lost traffic and eventually twinkled out.

Oyerinde hopes that the third time is a charm with his new project, Campuswire. The platform, launching publicly today, is designed to maximize the efficiency of classroom conversations, even among different disciplines from math to English. The product is certainly inspired from Slack and other current campus communications tools, but with an intense focus on saving the time of teachers and faculty.

“70% of the things that students need to communicate in a college class is asking a question,” Oyerinde said. “You need a balance of synchronous and asynchronous communications, and we had a bunch of experience with this.”

The challenge for campuses these days is that the methods by which faculty and students communicate couldn’t be more different. Existing incumbents like Blackboard have forums features, but the community is often moribund. Professors use email, which is asynchronous, but not easily shared among students attending a class. Meanwhile, today’s students are obsessed with SMS, Instagram, and YouTube as channels for communication. Campuswire’s goal is to meet everyone halfway.

Campuswire’s platform allows students to ask questions and upvote answers, creating community in a lecture

There were several design decisions that make Campuswire unique. One is that students can post questions anonymously in their classes. “40% of students were never going to ask questions unless they can do it anonymously,” Oyerinde said. He noted that they have had limited issues with trust and safety issues since class discussions are closed to non-enrolled students.

Most importantly, the design of the product is driven by efficiency. Questions are easy to surface for students, helping teachers limit repetitive answers. The other side of efficiency is encouraging students to chime in with their own answers. We wanted to “incentivize the top 5% of students to help each other out,” Oyerinde explained. “They literally jump in, so professors have to do less work.” That’s critical in classes where the number of students can be in the hundreds if not thousands.

The platform has been in beta since last fall at UCLA, and usage in the initial set of classes has been heavy. “Users use us over five hours per day in three out of the four classes in UCLA, and in all of them it was over three hours per day on average,” Oyerinde said. He also said that “we had over 75% 10-week retention.” The team chose UCLA because of its quarterly schedule, “so it meant we had twice the iteration half-life.”

Campuswire debuts just as the kickoff for the new school season gets underway. We are going to “continue with the student outreach and getting a wide cross-section of classes this fall,” he said. The startup now has a team of six based in New York City.

Facebook launches a digital literacy library aimed at educators

Facebook this morning announced the launch of a new set of educational resources focused on helping young people think critically and behave thoughtfully online. The Digital Literacy Library, as the new site is being called, is aimed at educators of children aged 11 to 18, and address topics like privacy, reputation, identity exploration, security, safety, […]

Facebook this morning announced the launch of a new set of educational resources focused on helping young people think critically and behave thoughtfully online. The Digital Literacy Library, as the new site is being called, is aimed at educators of children aged 11 to 18, and address topics like privacy, reputation, identity exploration, security, safety, wellbeing and more.

There are 830 million young people online, the company notes, which is why digital literacy is necessary. We’ve seen the results what can happen when people are lacking in digital literacy – they’re susceptible to believing hoaxes, propaganda and fake news is true; they risk their personal data by using insecure apps; they become addicted to social media and its feedback loop of likes; they bully and/or are bullied; and they don’t take steps to protect their online reputation which can have real-world consequences, to name a few things.

However, many teachers today lack the educational resources that would allow them to teach a digital literacy program in their classroom, or in other less formal environments.

Facebook says the lesson plans in the new library were drawn from the Youth and Media team at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, where they were released under a Creative Commons license. In other words, the company itself did not design the lessons, it’s only making them more broadly available by placing them on Facebook where they can be more easily discovered and used.

The lessons themselves are based on over 10 years of academic research from the Youth and Media team, who also took care to reflect the voices of young people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities, geographies, and educational levels, Facebook says. Initially, the 18 lessons are launching in English, but they’ll be soon available in 45 additional languages.

For educators, the lessons are ready-to-use as free downloads, and state how long each lesson will take. Outside the classroom, parents could use them to teach children at home, or they could be used in after-school programs. Teachers can also modify the lessons’ content to meet their own needs, if they choose.

The courses will be made available in Facebook’s Safety Center and Berkman Klein’s Digital Literacy Resource Platform for the time being. Facebook says it’s also working with other non-profits worldwide to adapt the lessons and create new ones.

This isn’t the first time Facebook has offered educational resources aimed at young people.

The company also recently launched its Youth Portal, which provides educational material directly to teens, not their teachers. However, those resources are focused more on Facebook itself, providing guidance on things like how to navigate the service, how to stay secure, and how to understand how people’s data is used. (Arguably, this sort of information is something a large number of adults could use a refresher on, as well.)

In addition, Facebook has begun to roll out educational guidance into its new app, Messenger Kids, aimed at the under-13 crowd. The app encourages children to be kind and respectful online, by promoting empathy and positive messaging through things like the “Messenger Kids Pledge,” kindness stickers, and other in-app challenges.

At the root of all this is the fact that Facebook, along with most social media, has corrupted the way people interact and navigate the online world. And it is now belatedly is waking up to its role and its responsibilities on that front. These large platforms were built by optimistic engineers who for years only saw the positive side of connecting the online world, and not the potentially negative outcomes – like data theft and misuse, fake news, hacking, attempts to disrupt democracy, bullying, targeted harassment, and even genocide. A literacy program could help the next generation of users, but it has arrived too late for many of Facebook’s users.

Below, are the lesson plans’ description, for reference:

NASA’s Open Source Rover lets you build your own planetary exploration platform

Got some spare time this weekend? Why not build yourself a working rover from plans provided by NASA? The spaceniks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have all the plans, code, and materials for you to peruse and use — just make sure you’ve got $2,500 and a bit of engineering know-how. This thing isn’t made out of Lincoln Logs.

Got some spare time this weekend? Why not build yourself a working rover from plans provided by NASA? The spaceniks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have all the plans, code, and materials for you to peruse and use — just make sure you’ve got $2,500 and a bit of engineering know-how. This thing isn’t made out of Lincoln Logs.

The story is this: after Curiosity landed on Mars, JPL wanted to create something a little smaller and less complex that it could use for educational purposes. ROV-E, as they called this new rover, traveled with JPL staff throughout the country.

Unsurprisingly, among the many questions asked was often whether a class or group could build one of their own. The answer, unfortunately, was no: though far less expensive and complex than a real Mars rover, ROV-E was still too expensive and complex to be a class project. So JPL engineers decided to build one that wasn’t.

The result is the JPL Open Source Rover, a set of plans that mimic the key components of Curiosity but are simpler and use off the shelf components.

“I would love to have had the opportunity to build this rover in high school, and I hope that through this project we provide that opportunity to others,” said JPL’s Tom Soderstrom in a post announcing the OSR. “We wanted to give back to the community and lower the barrier of entry by giving hands on experience to the next generation of scientists, engineers, and programmers.”

The OSR uses Curiosity-like “Rocker-Bogie” suspension, corner steering and pivoting differential, allowing movement over rough terrain, and the brain is a Raspberry Pi. You can find all the parts in the usual supply catalogs and hardware stores, but you’ll also need a set of basic tools: a bandsaw to cut metal, a drill press is probably a good idea, a soldering iron, snips and wrenches, and so on.

“In our experience, this project takes no less than 200 person-hours to build, and depending on the familiarity and skill level of those involved could be significantly more,” the project’s creators write on the GitHub page.

So basically unless you’re literally rocket scientists, expect double that. Although JPL notes that they did work with schools to adjust the building process and instructions.

There’s flexibility built into the plans, too. So you can load custom apps, connect payloads and sensors to the brain, and modify the mechanics however you’d like. It’s open source, after all. Make it your own.

“We released this rover as a base model. We hope to see the community contribute improvements and additions, and we’re really excited to see what the community will add to it,” said project manager Mik Cox. “I would love to have had the opportunity to build this rover in high school, and I hope that through this project we provide that opportunity to others.”

LittleBits enlists the Avengers for its latest kit

Being a part of the Disney Accelerator is the gift that keeps on giving, apparently. After introducing R2-D2-hacking Droid Inventor Kit last year, LittleBits is back with a new kit featuring The Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Iron Man is the real star of this one, with kids building a wearable “gauntlet” featuring an LED matrix panel […]

Being a part of the Disney Accelerator is the gift that keeps on giving, apparently. After introducing R2-D2-hacking Droid Inventor Kit last year, LittleBits is back with a new kit featuring The Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

Iron Man is the real star of this one, with kids building a wearable “gauntlet” featuring an LED matrix panel based on Tony Stark’s palm Repulsor Beam. The arm features wearable sensors (including a new accelerometer), Avengers sound effects and nine bits in total.

The connected app offers step by step video instructions, led by various familiar Avengers members (with a 50/50 gender split to make the experience more inclusive), including the Hulk, Black Panther, Ant Man and the Wasp. Kids are encouraged to customize the gauntlets from there, and once done, they can proudly display it on the included Iron Man stand.

“From creating circuits to introducing superpowers like stealth mode, rainbow control, power boost, and more, the Avengers Hero Inventor Kit teaches kids about STEAM in a fun, accessible way,” CEO Ayah Bdeir said in a release tied to the news. “We’re thrilled to extend our relationship with Disney to now work with the amazing team at Marvel to give kids the skills — and the confidence — to change the world.”

The partnership’s a no brainer for both companies. The Avengers are about as hot as movie properties get, and LittleBits some of the best STEM toys on the market. Famous technology skeptic John Biggs called the Droid Inventor Kit “the first STEM toy that works.” High praise, indeed.

The new kit starts shipping August 4th, priced at $150 — which puts it $50 above the Star Wars kit.

Duolingo hires its first chief marketing officer as active user numbers stagnate but revenue grows

Duolingo, the popular language learning service, today announced that it has now hit more than 300 million users worldwide. A year ago, Duolingo reported 200 million total users. That’s great, but the number of monthly active users on the service remains stagnant. Duolingo reported 25 million active users a year ago — and that’s still the […]

Duolingo, the popular language learning service, today announced that it has now hit more than 300 million users worldwide. A year ago, Duolingo reported 200 million total users.

That’s great, but the number of monthly active users on the service remains stagnant. Duolingo reported 25 million active users a year ago — and that’s still the same today, a company spokesperson confirmed. The company argues this is due to its focus on revenue growth instead of user growth in the last year, but it did grow by 100 million total users. Update: After this post went live, Duolingo called to provide us with revenue numbers to put its user numbers into context, something it hasn’t disclosed before. Its revenue in 2016 was $1 million. It grew that to $13 million in 2017 and a spokesperson tells us that it’s on track for $40 million in 2018. The company also says that its daily active user numbers are up.

Maybe that’s why the company is putting a bit more effort behind its marketing efforts now. As the company also today announced, it has hired Cammie Dunaway as its first chief marketing officer (CMO) to help it reach those next 300 million users.

Before joining Duolingo, Dunaway was the CMO of Yahoo for four years in the early 2000s before joining Nintendo in 2007. In recent years, she took on the role of president and CMO of KidZania.

“This is an opportunity to have mission alignment and work with great people,” Dunaway told me when I asked her what attracted her to the job. “And also to be able to really make an impact and an important point in the company’s history. But on the mission alignment: I am at the point of my career where I want to spend my talents and my energy really helping companies grow who I think make a difference in the world.”

But why did Duolingo decide to hire a CMO now and start to more actively go after new users? Dunaway argues that the company is now at an inflection point where it has paid services and a subscription product. “That gives us the opportunity to put a little bit more focus behind marketing because we want to ensure that we continue to grow so that we’re able to make the service free and accessible to people who need us,” she explained.

So going forward, you’re going to see a lot more brand marketing from Duolingo and see the company tell a lot more stories (and it’s already doing some of that), but it’ll also do some traditional performance marketing to acquire new users that it thinks will likely convert into paying subscribers. As Duolingo co-founder Luis von Ahn noted last year, the company is looking at its subscription product, which provides an ad-free experience, offline access and a few other perks, as a way to subsidize the product for those who can’t afford a subscription.

While it’s ramping up its marketing efforts, though, Dunaway promises that Duolingo won’t lose its focus on building the best product for its users. And sometimes those go hand-in-hand. Duolingo is about to launch a Hawaiian course, for example, to help tourists learn more about the islands they visit. But I’m sure that’s also going to generate quite a bit of buzz for the service.

What Duolingo really has to figure out now, though, is how to turn that huge install base into a growing base of active users. That, after all, is the group of people who will also buy subscriptions and support the service in other ways.