Uber for X is all the rage. But can (and should) we try to apply Uber’s model to one of the world’s most stagnant institutions?


10 seconds. Maybe a little longer if you mistype your password.

That’s how long it takes to call an Uber. Through the app, you can see your driver’s name and rating; you can see the make and model of the car and track its approach; and you can even call if one of you gets lost. After the ride, payment is handled automatically and you can leave a review that helps decide whether the driver gets to continue working with Uber. All this at a fraction of the cost of taking a taxi.

If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably already used Uber. Since 2009, Uber has grown into a $50B behemoth that offers its services in 300 cities in 57 countries.

Given its tremendous valuation, it’s no surprise that entrepreneurs and investors alike have rushed to support Uber-like models in other industries. Need an on-demand dog walker? Meet Wag. How about a mover? Try Lugg. Left your plane at home? There’s even an Uber for private jets.


For now, many of the above services are only relevant for narrow segments of the population. Sorry, Glamsquad, but the average American doesn’t need on-demand hair styling. But could an “Uber for X” startup work in a different type of business, perhaps one that could affect nearly every individual in the world?

As an education entrepreneur, I’m excited about the potential impact that Uber-like services (often labeled “on-demand mobile services” or ODMS) can have on the way we learn, from early childhood education to professional development.


How education has already changed

First, some context.


Don’t listen to the naysayers – education certainly has changed over the last century. In the 1950s, US classrooms focused almost exclusively on rote memorization. By the 1970s, they had begun flirting with the Open Classroom model. By the 2000s, schools were beginning to emphasize softer skills like the 4C’s: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. Policies like No Child Left Behind have encouraged more standardized testing, and things like cursive, arts, and recess are mostly absent in today’s schools. Charter schools have transformed the public school landscape by allowing administrators to adapt organization, culture, and curricula to community needs. From a technology standpoint, educators are increasingly using online video libraries like Khan Academy to “flip the classroom” and software like Google Classroom to promote collaboration. Interactive whiteboards have replaced chalkboards in over 2.8 million K-12 classrooms globally. From a pedagogy perspective, 46 states have adopted national Common Core standards which emphasize a quicker path to literacy and deeper mathematical understanding.

Despite progress, in other ways education has been slower to adopt changes seen in other industries. Students don’t have individual learner profiles which follow them around from school to school and capture their strengths, weaknesses, and learning preferences (like electronic medical records in healthcare). We don’t really have a great sense of how to collect, analyze, and interpret student data (like we do for consumer data in e-commerce). Most learning management systems don’t have robust predictive algorithms to truly personalize learning (like the ones powering Netflix or Amazon’s recommendation engine).

So while education has changed somewhat, the pace of this change is remarkably slow compared to other sectors. Can we change education as swiftly and extensively as Uber is changing the taxi industry?

To figure this out, let’s:

  1. Break down Uber into its component parts
  2. Imagine what these components would look like when applied to education
  3. Identify education-specific challenges and way to overcome them


Component 1 – Two-sided platform which matches latent supply with unmet demand


A two-sided platform in education would connect educators who have excess capacity, with students who have unmet demand. Here, educators aren’t teachers in the traditional sense. Uber educators are anyone with the ability to help others learn a specific skillset. They may themselves be experts in the particular area they are teaching, or they may simply know how to help others become expertsin that area.

This looser definition of a teacher is relevant because the US is facing a nationwide teacher shortage, so latent supply for an educational Uber would need to come from other professions (e.g., engineers, writers, musicians). For starters, we could focus on the areas of education with the greatest supply/demand mismatch. Given the increased emphasis on STEM in schools and the increasing number of workers moving to the tech industry, matching experienced  tech professionals with students interested in technology could be one option.


Non-traditional teachers may not know how to teach – You could be the world’s foremost biologist, but that doesn’t necessarily make you more qualified to teach middle school biology. Teaching requires more than just subject knowledge – it requires an ability to connect with students, an understanding of pedagogy, and unbelievable patience, among other skills. Any two-sided platform in education needs to either properly train the supply side in effective teaching methods, or pair non-teachers with teachers to give students a solution that combines content expertise with teaching expertise.

Unions would fight back – Teacher unions are notoriously resistant to outside influences in the education system, which they fear could erode their power. And given teachers’ immense political clout, an Uber-like business in education would be prudent to figure out how to deal with unions before they are overburdened with regulations that stymie its growth. It could potentially position itself as a supplement, not competitor, to teachers, or perhaps employ the Uber approach of lobbying for regulations that fight against incumbents.


Component 2 – On-demand, mobile service

This actually has a few sub-components, so let’s examine each individually.


  1. Exactly what you need – Just like Uber gets you from point A to point B and does little else, an Uber for education should deliver exactly the educational content you need in bite-sized chunks. The best way to do this is to tie content to action-oriented outcomes. In other words, you want to learn how to do X? Let’s match you with someone who can teach you how to X. No more, no less.
  2. When you need it – In order for Uber to match every rider with a driver within minutes of opening the app, and to keep drivers close to full utilization, it needs to carefully connect supply to demand and ensure neither side outgrows the other. Students find that instruction is most effective when it is delivered when they need it most. Perhaps you can expand the capacity of individual educators by making it easier for them to serve multiple students at the same time, without sacrificing quality. And if we assume the teacher-student interactions can take place online, a supply of teachers located across multiple time zones can support 24/7 coverage.
  3. Where and how you need it – True on-demand learning means that students are taught wherever they are most comfortable, whether that’s at the library, in the classroom, or from home. They also need to be able to choose from multiple teaching styles (e.g., video lectures, problem sets, group projects) in order to learn in a way that best suits them. A service could either match specific teaching styles (e.g., expert video lectures) with specific learning preferences (e.g., student wants watch videos on the subway), or make it easy for an educator to convert a lesson into multiple formats.


Students may not be able to outline specific learning needs – What if a student is falling behind in algebra and wants general math help, instead of help with a specific algebra problem? Well just like you wouldn’t order an Uber without having a single, imminent destination in mind, Uber for education may not be right for students who can’t modularize their needs. Any viable service would most likely need to focus on specific, manageable chunks of education, either in the form of specific homework questions, learning objectives, or even tasks at hand (i.e., professional development). If students can’t break their needs up into chunks themselves, the service should be able to help.


Component 3 – High-quality, community-rated suppliers

Just like with Uber drivers, any teacher on the platform should be continuously rated and dismissed if their rating falls below a predetermined threshold.



It’s difficult for a student to gauge a teacher’s quality –It is arguably easier to assess the quality of an Uber experience than an educational experience, partly because preferred learning styles and speeds vary vastly among individuals. Instead of giving a rating on a single dimension, an educational Uber could ask for teacher ratings on multiple dimensions like content knowledge, patience, enthusiasm, etc., like AirBnB does by asking guests to rate accuracy, cleanliness, location, etc. The service could also periodically match teachers with “master teachers” and have them be rated more formally, much like they would be rated by an observer in a school.

Digital lessons aren’t as effective as in-person sessions– As anyone who has taken an online course can confirm, learning over your computer or phone isn’t always as engaging, and thus less effective, than learning in an actual classroom. An Uber-like service can mitigate this decrease in quality by focusing on subjects which can be augmented with technology, not ones where technology is just a medium for the interaction. For example, a physics teacher can easily send over simulations to students to help them understand tough concepts, or a programming teacher can do a quick code review with any number of digital tools – activities which wouldn’t be as seamless in-person.


Component 4 – Low cost

Uber keeps its prices to consumers low by paying drivers as contractors, not employees, circumventing a taxi monopoly which requires taxicabs to own highly-priced medallions, and using scalable technology in place of overhead like a central dispatcher.

An Uber in education may to keep costs low by having younger, more inexperienced employees (e.g., college students) work as teachers, or by hiring lower-cost teachers from overseas like some online tutoring services do.


Maybe we can Uber-ize education, but should we?


In summary, there is definitely opportunity in creating low-cost, on-demand learning experiences, especially in disciplines where there is a growing demand for teachers and flexible supply (e.g., technology professionals can  supplement the  learn-to-code movement).

However, it is important to consider the effect such a disruption would have on the broader education system. Many students would not benefit from an educational Uber, from reasons ranging from being unable to pay for a premium educational service, to not being engaged by a digital teacher (and perhaps no in-person teachers are nearby).  As a result, the service may miss the students who need it the most, entrenching inequity issues we have been fighting for decades. And just like the success of Uber may leave the lowest-quality drivers left in the traditional taxi industry, we should worry if on-demand education gives wealthier students a monopoly on the best teachers.

Furthermore, the analysis above assumes that the goal of education is to learn a specific, well-defined skill. That premise is itself controversial. When Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin tried replacing the words “search for truth” with “meet the state’s workforce needs” in the state code for universities, it was met with backlash from academics and educators alike. They argue that an education should provide a sense of social responsibility, encourage discovery, and instill wonderment about the world. Any service that claims to educate should serve this dual purpose of preparing students for work and life.


What next?

Several well-positioned players are already moving into on-demand education. Online course provider Udacity has recently pivoted from offering full-scale university courses to bite-sized “nanodegrees” which are proctored by their global network of 300 code reviewers. They claim their best code reviewer can earn more than 8x the monthly salary of a part-time teacher in the US. Startups like MathCrunch provide Uber-like math tutoring services at a fraction of the cost of incumbent Tutor.com. Maybe even Uber, who partnered with Levo League in early 2015 to offer brief “mentoring rides” with influential businesswomen, can themselves make a play in the market.

As for myself, I’m excited about exploring whether an “Uber for Education” has any merit given the immense social value it could create. If you have thoughts on the topic, please share them below!



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By: Vibin Kundukulam

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Georgia Tech Online Education Masters

In 2014, Georgia Tech launched an online masters degree in computer science. This program has generated considerably publicity and some academic interest. The masters program takes 2 years to complete and costs approximately $7,000, about 1/3 the cost of on an equivalent on campus degree. Students completing the online program will receive the same degree as students completing the on campus masters. Professor Joshua Goodman at the Harvard Kennedy School argues that this is the first online program that is truly equivalent to a “prestigious STEM degree”. Other elite US universities should follow suit and roll out online only programs, at least in computer science. Several considerations support this conclusion:

Unmet demand among midcareer professionals. Professor Goodman compared the demographic profile of candidates enrolling in the online and on-campus programs and determined that the online matriculants tended to be older and employed. Matriculation rates for admitted online program applicants were extremely high, suggesting that

Competition: Universities should move quickly to preempt other institutions launching online programs. Universities may seek exclusive partnerships with MOOC platforms (e.g. Coursera, Udacity), which would preempt competition from other institutions. Georgia Tech worked with Udacity to develop and host its program.

Minimal cannibalization risk in the short term. Georgia Tech’s online program currently appeals to midcareer employed professionals who are unlikely to enroll in an on-campus masters program. Additionally, the on-campus program at Georgia Tech is made up predominantly of international students who are motivated in part by the ability to physically move to the United States.

By: Evan Valentini

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Industries that are ripe for disruption through the employment of technology are those that are currently costly and inefficient, and whose key function can plausibly be carried out digitally by connecting market participants online. The administration of most medical services, as an example, would not fit into this category given the need to be physically present for value to be delivered from practitioner to patient. However, industries like hospitality, dining, livery, and real estate have all been disrupted in this way with the emergence of digital platforms such as Airbnb, opentable.com, Uber, and Zillow, respectively. One industry that I believe is ripe for similar disruption is education, and it is curious to me that, especially in the United States, online education has not taken hold in a prominent way. However, I do not believe that a shift towards an entirely-digital learning model would be beneficial. Instead, I suggest that certain digital tools are being created that can enhance the way traditional education is delivered, making it more effective and improving student performance.

Students in the United States are lagging behind in terms of academic performance when compared to the rest of the developed world, despite rising education costs that have outpaced inflation for decades. 15 year olds in the US are less proficient in than their counterparts in 17 other OECD countries with regards to mathematics. With regards to science, the same age group in the US comes in 13th, according to recent assessment tests conducted by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  These performance statistics, which have been relatively constant over the last decade, have not improved despite a 20% increase in the annual cost to educate one student in public elementary and secondary schools (from 1999 to 2009 the annual cost increased from $9,292 to $11,184). With the help of cost-efficient digital innovations in the education space, US students could close the performance gap with their international counterparts.

The following educationally-oriented digital start ups and/or tools are particularly interesting, and go beyond simply digitizing educational content, enhancing the effectiveness of in-class instruction. In my opinion, this is the distinction between the firms listed below and large MOOC providers like Coursera, Khan Academy, and Udacity, are as follows:

  1. Learnist – allows users to create “learn boards” that share assignments and lessons on a wide variety of topics. The platform itself resembles Pintrest, in that it allows individuals to curate their own boards, but also allows the creation of original content, and targets both school-aged students as well as “life-long learners.” Additionally, teachers have made use of the platform by sharing lesson-plan ideas and teaching techniques. Learnist is backed by venture capital firms and media content providers. (http://learni.st/category/10-education)
  2. Google Play for Education – Google’s educational adaptation of its “Play” app enables easier delivery of digital content among mobile devices in the classroom. In addition to the deployment of educational content, the platform’s browsing tool organizes content based on curriculum, enabling teachers to easily discover new tools and content for their students.
  3. OneClass – a digital repository of class notes, tutorials, and study packs created by top students across secondary and post-secondary topics. Users can browse by school and by department for notes, and video tutorials also exist for general topics in finance, mathematics, and several science subjects. The collaborative platform is currently available for US and Canadian students, and recently announced a $1.6MM investment by led by SAIF Partners and Real Ventures. Since launching in 2011, the platform has signed up over 200,000 members. (oneclass.com)

These tools are unique in that they do not seek to replace our education system as it currently functions, but rather to enhance it. They recognize the need to retain human contact in the educational process, and the important social connections like those between students and teachers.  In the same way that Zappos.com’s customer service function allows shoppers to continue the behavior of buying and returning, these ventures seek to improve the educational process by preserving the consumer behavior, adding cost-efficient improvements.


1)     National Center for Educational Statistics (nces.ed.gov)

2)     http://techcrunch.com/2013/09/18/with-1m-users-now-on-board-learnist-brings-its-pinterest-for-learning-to-android-as-it-looks-to-go-big-abroad/

3)     http://techcrunch.com/2013/10/21/oneclass-raises-1-6m-to-expand-its-note-collaboration-platform-beyond-post-secondary/

4)     http://venturebeat.com/2013/10/21/oneclass-takes-1-6m-to-apply-the-jerry-maguire-strategy-to-college/

5)     http://mooc.org



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Online Learning: MOOC challenges and success factors

Last spring I participated in a course titled “Creating ChinaX: Teaching China’s History Online” as part of the HarvardX MOOC—Massive Open Online Courses—offering for the edX platform. The course provided me an opportunity to design a MOOC and get a taste of this surging edtech phenomenon, which has lately gotten major headlines including the edX and Google partnership. The MOOC movement is endeavoring to globalize education by offering free and fee-based (credentialed) online courses (from a network of academic and non-academic institutions) to practically anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. Major players in the MOOC space include Coursera, Udacity, Khan Academy, and edX. Refer to MOOC ecosystem infographic for details on funding sources for these players.

While the MOOC revolution seems to hold great promises (e.g. democratization of education, answer to education budget crisis, etc.), it also presents its own set of challenges. I offer four of them:

  1. One of the great lessons I have learned from the ChinaX course is how excruciatingly difficult and time-consuming it is to design an online course for the masses. Contrary to the popular belief, designing a MOOC is not about re-packaging existing lecture videos and assessment questions, uploading them and pushing the “Go Online” button! The online instructional context is very different from that of the classroom and requires careful considerations to make online learning engaging: creating bite size (5 to 10 min) lecture videos that provide one-on-one focus between instructor and participant; applying facilitation strategies in conducting the course online and ensuring active student participation in online discussion forum; embedding online formative assessments throughout the course; etc.

  2. MOOCs are also very expensive to create, so not every institution can afford to get into the MOOC space. Penn State has reported that the MOOCs they have developed cost around $50,000 each, which mainly includes stipends for professors and teaching fellows and cost of videography.[1]

  3. MOOC dropout rate is yet another challenge. One widely quoted figure for the dropout rate is 90%.[2] Lack of a tight-knit online learner community, I feel, is a prime contributor to this astonishing rate. Many MOOCs have registered participants initially that number in the fifty to hundred thousands, which contributes to one’s solitudinal feeling of being “one in the thousands”. I myself have registered for a MOOC and tapered off my participation for this very reason.

  4. Finally, I think the technology to create an immersive MOOC-based learning experience hasn’t fully developed yet. Most MOOCs are text-heavy in their content and discussion forum (although new tools such as VoiceThread are increasingly available) and mere videos can only go so far in terms of drawing out interactions from participants. MOOCs need to incorporate emerging technologies such as augmented reality, virtual worlds, and location-aware mobile devices to make learning situated in the everyday context and more interactive.

It’s true that technology seems to have its way of optimizing very quickly in time. The fast advancements from CDs to cloud-based audio streaming, offline retailing to online outlets to location-based marketing to mobile-based payments are just a few examples of this trend. However, I believe that technology is not going to be the key driver of advancements in learning. It’s how we “learn” that needs to be advanced! The key to online learning I feel is improving “learning” itself. Technology is an “enabler”: a means to optimize learning, to make it better, faster, cheaper and available at scale. According to Dr. Bror Saxberg (Chief Learning Office at Kaplan) “the key driver for learning is what you get a mind to do, not the technology you’re using”.[3] Therefore, I feel MOOC’s success will be determined to a great extent by learning innovations. This entails applying educational research in how people learn (e.g. through case-based discussions, hands-on projects, etc.) to online course designs; applying evidence-based learning science principles to media designs;[4] and leveraging the offline context to provide learners opportunities for shared, in-person, social learning experience. Technology can then be applied to enable such a learning experience. It’s encouraging to see that MOOCs have started to take steps in that direction to bridge the offline and online learning contexts.

[1]. Popp, Trey. “MOOC U.” Penn Gazette | MOOC U. The Pennsylvania Gazette, 1 Mar. 2013. Retrieved from http://www.upenn.edu/gazette/0313/feature4_1.html

[2]. Rivard, Ry. “Researchers Explore Who Is Taking MOOCs and Why so Many Drop out | Inside Higher Ed.” Researchers Explore Who Is Taking MOOCs and Why so Many Drop out | Inside Higher Ed. Inside Higher Ed, 8 Mar. 2013. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/03/08/researchers-explore-who-taking-moocs-and-why-so-many-drop-out

[3]. “Bror’s Blog.” ‘Bror’s Blog’ Bror’s Blog, 4 Sept. 2011. Retrieved from http://brorsblog.typepad.com/brors-blog/2011/09/technology-driving-learning-or-learning-driving-technology-which-way-round.html

[4]. Clark, Ruth Colvin., and Richard E. Mayer. E-Learning and Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning. San Francisco: Pfeiffer, 2011. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/Learning-Science-Instruction-Guidelines-Multimedia/dp/0470874309




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Enthusiastic edtech entrepreneurs will often pitch you the idea on how new technologies are revolutionizing the way we conceive learning. They will also mention the opportunity the $909 billion in spending on K-12 and Higher Ed in the US represents [1].  They will of course tell you about Khan Academy (despite the proven flaws to their approach to curriculum design).

What they fail to mention is that for the past few years there has only been a handful of real success stories of edtech companies that can actually reach the growth curves seen in other consumer internet sectors.

A quick scan of the leading incubators’ portfolio show little success on educational startups. Those that make it are typically focused on the very traditional market of test preparation or online courses based ventures. However, there are some exceptions, and recently three start-ups have appeared on the scene bringing interesting changes to a particular education product niche, both in terms of business model and concept.

New players in the LMS market

Learning Management Systems (LMS) have been around for about 12 years and according to Bersin and Associates [2] they will represent a $1.9 billion dollar market by 2013. The market is highly fragmented and serves the learning needs of educational institutions in K-12, higher education, and corporate training.

The first true LMS that made it to market was WebCT in 1999 and it was mainly targeted for universities. Blackboard followed, targeting corporate training and growing at a fast pace with an aggressive acquisition strategy that included WebCT itself in 2007.

The first innovator in this space was the Australian based Moodle, creating the first open-source LMS in 2000 and building around it a large network of partners that offered integration services and lately cloud deployment solutions like Moodlerooms.

By 2009, according to the eLearning Guild Report [3], Moddle lead in market share with 20%, followed by Blackboard with 13% and TotalLMS (SumTotal) with 10%.

Surprisingly, recent market data shows the first significant change in the market structure for a decade [4], with newcomers Edmodo and Interactyx growing at a very fast rate. In terms of number of users, Moddle continues leading the market with 60 million, SumTotal with 32 million and Blackboard with 20 million. Nothing new there, except for the 10 million users that Edmodo has reached in barely 3 years, placing it in fourth place in the blink of an eye (view infographic).

Along with Edmodo, two other companies (Lore and Schoology), following the same approach, have secured $54 million dollars in total on VC funding [5] [6] [7] and are growing steadily (Schoology reached a million users a few months ago and Lore is in the same path).

The sudden change in the marketplace and the number of users adopting the new offerings is not to be underestimated, especially not in a market where this is an oddity. So what is creating this shift?

These start-ups have introduced the concept of what some have called Social Learning Platforms. Born on the cloud, and designed combining best practices on social networks, LMS and CMS together. In addition, by offering a free product, they have been able to flip the customer acquisition model to a bottom up approach, generating an incredible response by teachers, students and chief learning officers as first adopters alike. This has allowed them to bypass the cumbersome selling process to school districts and government usually avoided by VCs.

The disruption for the traditional LMS players has been clear. As a response, Blackboard has moved onto open source in an unexpected acquisition of Moddlerooms and NetSpot, and has now in its portfolio a strange combination of proprietary and open source software. It also launched Coursesites, a SaaS freemium offering that departs from their traditional business model.

Pearson, another one of the big industry players, has also reacted and created a cloud based free Social Learning Platform called OpenClass. In this case, it is not even clear how this decision is going to affect their Pearson Learning Studio, an LMS acquired from eCollege back in 2007.

The next question one would ask is how to monetize these free services? In the case of big players like Blackboard and Pearson, one can assume they will go for cross-sell and up-sell strategies targeting customers that where previously on Moddle and other systems and will potentially migrate to their platforms. Pearson has a stronger case as it can sell its content via this new channel.

On the other hand, Edmodo has recently announced their new API, which allows third-party developers to build apps around the platform, most probably paying Edmodo a portion of their revenue in return.

With the long tradition of acquisitions in this market, it would not be strange to see exit strategies facilitating M&As in the short run, especially if the race for Moddle users is being won by the newcomers.


So it is starting to sound like the real consumer internet story, but don’t forget is about education as well

For us aspiring edtech entrepreneurs, what is happening with these start-ups gives some hope for the possibility of embarking in for-profit, VC backed ventures that actually look and feel like the ones in other sectors; as opposed to the hundreds of small, unsustainable, donor backed ventures prevalent in the educational start-up ecosystem.

However, it is not that simple, education is not like any other sector. An educational product should prove the effectiveness of its technology on learning. That is the whole purpose of using technology to begin with. Nonetheless, I am afraid that this might not happen, and in the mean time certainty about the efficiency of Social Learning Platforms on learning will be yet to be demonstrated.

You might end up with a successful company and a high perceived value from customers. But if learning is not improving, in the end, you are simply contributing to the inevitably failure of the education system and with it, fueling the damaging spiral of low education, low productivity, low economic output.




[1] U.S. Department of Education.  (2005, June). 10 Facts About K-12 Education Funding. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/about/overview/fed/10facts/index.html

[2] Bersin & Associates. (2012, October). LMS 2013: The $1.9 Billion Market for Learning Management Systems. Retrieved from http://www.bersin.com/blog/post.aspx?id=5c1f98de-e439-4e56-879d-b7741bde216c

[3] Davis, B., Carmean, C., & Wagner, E.D. (2009).  The evolution of the LMS: from management to learning deep analysis of trends shaping the future of e-Learning. The eLearning Guild Research

[4] Capterra. (2012, October). The Top 20 Most Popular LMS Software Solutions.  Retrieved from http://www.capterra.com/top-20-lms-software-solutions#.UKSB9uOe_mA

[5] Techcrunch Company Profile. Retrieved from  http://www.crunchbase.com/company/coursekit

[6] Techcrunch Company Profile. Retrieved from   http://www.crunchbase.com/company/schoology

[7] Techcrunch Company Profile. Retrieved from   http://www.crunchbase.com/company/edmodo


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