Pittsburgh EdTech Startups Step Up as Schooling Goes Virtual

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The COVID-19 pandemic created new and ever-shifting challenges for education. 

Pittsburgh Public Schools began the school year fully remote, allowing select students to return earlier this month. But that in-person return was short-lived; the district announced just a week later that it would be returning to an all-online model through January. 

Schools across the country are ditching in-person learning in favor of remote education — often at the drop of the hat. The shift in education models has been both unprecedentedly fast and widespread. 

As a result, the city’s startups in education technology – or EdTech – stepped in to help fill the gap

“‘EdTech’ — for a long time just the word itself has gotten people excited,” said Felix Lloyd, co-founder and CEO of Zoobean. “But for whatever reason, schools have been reluctant to move. Now we see a lot of interest.” 

Zoobean, which Lloyd calls “a FitBit for reading,” helps schools and libraries motivate people to read more with reading-tracking technology and reading “challenges.” The use of Zoobean’s technology has experienced significant growth among libraries, which are looking for ways to reach the public with their doors closed. 

But schools are also important customers. “For schools, the immediate thing we experienced in the spring was increased use,” Lloyd noted. “You have this urgency for virtual tools.” 

Educators are also turning more to Expii, a website that offers math and science resources for young learners, amid the switch to online learning. The website was founded by CEO Po-Shen Loh, a math professor at Carnegie Mellon University. 

The site has fared well with SEO for some time — Loh noted proudly that Expii is the No. 1 hit when you Google “scientific fact” — but amid the pandemic, Expii’s traffic “blew up,” he said. 

Now that students no longer have the same amount of in-person access to teachers, sites like Expii have proved extra popular. “Teachers themselves are looking for resources,” Loh said. “Schools and teachers are linking to Expii.com pages.” 

Loh, the national coach of the U.S. International Mathematical Olympiad team, also launched a new product called “Daily Challenge,” which offers extracurricular math learning for students seeking more rigor than is offered in their regular schoolwork. Many students — particularly in the suburbs of major cities including Boston, New York, and San Francisco — used to attend brick-and-mortar learning centers for this sort of bonus coursework. But now, Loh said, “there’s no reason to be constrained by geography.” 

“People have time to go and explore other ways of learning,” he said. That includes YouTube, where Loh has been offering math-learning livestreams since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Duolingo, perhaps Pittsburgh’s best-known EdTech company, has played a growing role amid the move to online learning as well. 

“We have seen incredibly strong growth this year as many people worldwide have taken up language learning while staying at home,” said Michaela Kron, a public relations and social media manager for the company. New users doubled on Duolingo’s language-learning app in March alone. The app also saw an increase in the proportion of its users learning for school purposes. In March, the company released a guide to help parents and teachers with remote language learning. 

But it’s not just the company’s signature language-learning technology that has gotten a boost. Its Duolingo English Test, an online English proficiency test used for college admissions, has seen 1,500 percent year-on-year growth in test-takers “because our test is done entirely online, versus at physical testing centers,” Kron said. 

Zoobean’s Lloyd was quick to point out that he’s not at all happy about the pandemic: “I don’t like any opportunistic language,” he said. His hope is that the pandemic will soon end — but that when it does, educators and students will be more accepting of EdTech in their classrooms. 

“Now we see a lot of interest, and that’s not going to change,” he said. 

Contributing Writer
Noelle Mateer recently returned to her home state of Pennsylvania after six years in China, where she wrote for Wired, Vice, The Economist and more. She’s originally from State College, PA, the home of Penn State, where she’s an alum. She is now studying nonfiction writing as an MFA candidate at the University of Pittsburgh. When not writing or reading, Noelle works on her cocktail-making skills. Follow her on Twitter at @n_mateer.