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Higher education is in crisis. Startups have solutions, says Ari Stiegler

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Higher education is in crisis. Startups have solutions, says Ari Stiegler

(Photo : Ari Stiegler)

Higher education in the United States is undergoing a fundamental sea change. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the changing job market, educational institutions are looking for ways to incorporate innovative technologies into their curricula.

The startup sector, according to entrepreneur and venture capitalist Ari Stiegler, is working to meet educators halfway, developing the technology-based solutions that will benefit students and institutions alike in the post-pandemic age.

"A number of innovative startups are striving to harness the latest technologies to improve outcomes in the classroom-both during the pandemic and for the long-run," said Stiegler, who serves as managing partner at Flux Capital, a Los Angeles-based VC firm focused on corporate leaders in winner-take-all markets.

Stiegler pointed to Podium Education as one such startup working to bolster and improve degree programs for students. Podium, Stiegler said, partners with universities to offer for-credit, online programs that equip students with the skills demanded by the twenty-first-century job market. Podium's courses offer the hard, Silicon Valley-esque skills that students-regardless of major or course of study-will need to succeed in the fast-paced, technology-focused job market of the 2020s.

"By working to bridge the gap between the skills universities teach and the capabilities employers expect, Podium has pioneered solutions that benefit both universities and students," Stiegler said. "Podium offers learners online courses, with both synchronous and asynchronous components, that conform to rigorous Carnegie-unit specifications. Every course is taught by an industry-leading instructor, allowing students to learn first-hand from the visionaries shaping the global market while helping universities host new courses aligned with their institutional values and missions."

As many universities buckle under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led an increasing number of students to take gap years or leaves of absence, Podium Education's unique, market-focused course offerings expand domestic and international enrollment, a vital financial lifeline for struggling universities, Stiegler explained.   

"Start-up and venture capital firms are pioneering solutions to the many challenges facing American students both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic," Stiegler said. "Podium's greatest impact is in its ability to build well-rounded, multifaceted learners ready to take on the challenges of the workforce. By designing courses for students of all backgrounds, Podium and its renowned faculty can help an English major, for example, learn data science and coding-building more dynamic, resilient, and prepared students."

While Podium has worked to expand course offerings and enrollments, Stiegler highlighted another start-up offering critical services that address a different facet of higher education-academic support.

Founded by Polish entrepreneurs in 2009, Brainly has built an expansive online platform on which users can ask questions and find answers from qualified educators and students across myriad disciplines. Stiegler explained that Brainly functions like an open forum, in which peers can discuss and share their insights into subjects from calculus to English literature to American history. More than 200 million unique users have found help on Brainly, Stiegler said, which employs more than 2,000 moderators and 130 team members to ensure that all information is accurate and informative.

"Brainly makes it easy for students to find help on assignments without having to commit to expensive tutoring sessions," Stiegler said. "By developing and platforming a knowledge-sharing community, Brainly has tapped into the significant human capital that exists within the university ecosystem to help get students get the help they need quickly, cheaply, and efficiently. So far, more than 50 million questions have been answered on Brainly, a number I anticipate will continue to grow."

In an economy increasingly defined by academic success and technical ability, Stiegler said that Brainly's model uniquely appealed to venture capitalists and investors.

"Succeeding in college courses is imperative to finding gainful employment in this economy," he said. "Academic support has grown into a significant industry in the United States, and it's no surprise that American investors jumped at the opportunity to back Brainly when it underwent Series A funding back in 2014."

Stiegler himself has long sought to develop more effective means for connecting students with the resources they need to thrive. While an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, Stiegler and a group of peers developed TutorMe, an online platform that connects students with qualified tutors over secure video chat almost instantly.

"I firmly believe in the transformative power of education," said Stiegler. "I have long believed that startups have the ability to leverage new technologies to adapt age-old pedagogies for the modern economy. Podium Education and Brainly are demonstrating this point in real-time, and I look forward to continuing to watch their impacts grow." 

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