Clever Ed Tech: Breaking Down Barriers

How has the company Clever managed to digitize the ed tech supply chain and become the largest ed tech ecosystem? Can they continue lead the segment or will they be overtaken by larger firms like Amazon and Google?

Background

These days, the most used buzzword in education seems is “personalization.” Though the word has been used for decades in classrooms, today it is short-hand for the ways in which technology can make learning a more individualized, tailored experience for students and free up teachers to provide more one on one teaching in the classroom.

In order to power a personalized learning experience, the following things must be in place in classrooms: 1) high-speed wireless connectivity; 2) devices (i.e., tablets, laptops); 3) software capable of tracking student learning, “talking” other student data systems, and ultimately providing real-time feedback to teachers, parents, and students; 4) a system that allows teachers, principals, and district IT heads to procure the digital apps in real time, with little friction between vendor and student.

Fortunately, US school districts have increased broadband connectivity significantly, going from 30% of districts with connectivity in 2013 to 94% today [1]. And we are close to a future where all students will have a device in their classroom. Regarding items 3 and 4, ed tech companies like Clever have played a key role in digitizing the education content supply chain, while seamlessly and securely directing data flow from student to educator/school. The question for a company like Clever is whether they continue to garner a critical mass of students and apps to support a robust platform, while remaining a sustainable business that can stay ahead of the digitization curve and fend off future competitors.

Clever’s Products and Operations

Founded in 2012 by three Harvard College classmates, Clever has grown rapidly. In 2015, it had raised $43 million from VC investors [2]. Now, over half of US schools utilize Clever. Its platform serves 300+ apps to students. Students with Clever’s single sign-on credentials or QR codes can access apps on a variety of mobile and desktop platforms [3]. Meanwhile, they have made huge strides in cracking the education’s procurement nut, allowing software start-ups like DreamBox Learning to easily reach new customers. Today, teachers can access to Clever’s platform to select the different district-approved applications they want to use in their classrooms and instantly serve them up to students. Clever’s systems also allow schools to securely transport data from the students using the apps to teachers and administrators.

Though Clever is a private company, we know that one of their major sources of revenue comes from the companies whose apps are served to students. Schools can access the products for free, while the companies pay Clever to utilize the platform. It remains to be seen whether this revenue stream can sustain the company over the next decade.

Clever Innovation

Thus far, Clever has managed to stay ahead of the digitization curve. To be clear, Clever isn’t being shaped by the macro digitization trend, its products literally are digitizing the education supply chain, allowing ed tech companies access to the millions of students using their platform on a daily basis. In the next few years, Clever will continue to improve upon its current offerings and roll out new products to allow for an even more seamless digital, personalized experience for educators and students. Over the next decade, Clever plans on staying ahead of the competition and is considering expanding internationally. In addition, according to their CEO Tyler Bosmeny, they want to be achieve ubiquity: “Our goal is to be able to help every school in America that wants to use Clever can use Clever, until any application doesn’t have to worry about data integration again. That’s our north star, that’s what we’re focused on.” [4]

Potential Headwinds

As other vendors and companies serve up proprietary platforms of their own, it remains to be seen whether Clever can continue to be the largest education ecosystem. In 2015, the New York Times, noted that “a few educational app developers that work with Clever said it was not yet clear whether the service would prove to be the ultimate solution for schools to manage learning app accounts, or merely a transitional technology.” [5]

Uncharted Waters

In order to permeate each and every classroom in the US, and perhaps the world, Clever’s might need to consider partnering with some of the major players like Google and Amazon to quickly achieve international scale. They also will need to continue to expand beyond their bread and butter (single sign-on, data sharing, procurement) and create even more seamless experiences for teachers and students—allowing for more real-time learning feedback to teachers, students, and parents.

Other Questions

  1. Are there corollaries in other industries that match Clever (core business includes digitizing the supply chain, data-sharing, and procurement)? How/did they survive?
  2. Do you think Clever can adapt to new trends re: AI and machine learning in education?

(787 Words)

VIDEO: Clever CEO’s ASU GSV 2017 Presentation

References

[1] Education Superhighway, State of the States Report (September 2017)

[2] Singer, Natasha, “Clever, a Software Service, Gives Schools a Way to Manage Data Flow to Apps,”
New York Times (Sept. 20, 2015)

[3] DiBlasio, Natalie, “Passwords get the boot as students use their own QR codes,” USA Today (Sept. 13, 2016)

[4] Lynley, Matthew, “Clever CEO Tyler Bosmeny Talks New Hires And EdTech In 2016,” Tech Crunch, (December 23, 2015)

[5] Singer, Natasha, “Clever, a Software Service, Gives Schools a Way to Manage Data Flow to Apps,”
New York Times (Sept. 20, 2015)

 

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10 thoughts on “Clever Ed Tech: Breaking Down Barriers

  1. Thanks for the informative write-up. Clever is doing great things and is helping to bridge the gap between those trying to improve the education system and students across the country.

    Like you pointed out in the “Uncharted Waters” section, I do have concerns about the sustainability of Clever’s business model in light of increasing investment in ed tech by larger players. A few months ago, I came across this New York Times article (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/13/technology/google-education-chromebooks-schools.html) which outlines some of Google’s efforts in the classroom. Google’s dominance of the technological ecosystems of so many individuals and companies poses a significant threat to Clever. Google’s ability to integrate so much of the supply chain (that is, content / software ownership and development as well as hardware / platform delivery) could make a “one-stop” solution more preferable for schools. Additionally, while Clever’s domestic growth has been remarkable, other countries less familiar with the platform and the apps that it carries may default to a larger player. As such, it feels as though management should give some serious thought to exploring a partnership.

    1. Thanks, Mo. You make a great point about a larger player perhaps being the default when ed tech starts to reach a tipping point internationally. At present, only a handful of nations are truly taking advantage of ed tech’s true promise, but that is set to change over the next decade as countries like Brazil, which just announced a connectivity initiative, catch up to the US, South Korea, and Singapore.

      1. FYI–here’s an article on the international growth potential: https://marketbrief.edweek.org/marketplace-k-12/ed-tech-surges-internationally-choices-schools-become-confusing/

  2. Very interesting company-thanks for highlighting! To your first question, I find it interesting that in this case, Clever is essentially a distributor, aggregating a number of fragmented apps and delivering them through a consolidated interface. That model has worked in other industries, but it does leave them vulnerable, as it’s not truly producing any distinctive value which can’t be replicated. Other curators, such as Netflix, have been forced to invest in original content creation, and there are no guarantees Clever would be able to avoid this fate or be even be successful if they tried. Additionally, all education technology is not equally valuable, and recent research suggests that it’s possible the recent flurry of development may not be commensurate with the value they provide [1]. If this narrative gains traction, the massive array of apps might be more intimidating than reassuring for an administrator to sign off on. For these reasons, I’m a bit wary of their long-term prospects, but I’m certainly rooting for them to be able to improve an area of tremendous need.

    https://www.usnews.com/news/education-news/articles/2017-09-25/3-lessons-learned-from-education-technology-research

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jim. This isn’t the first time US News has published an article of this sort. I find the argument that ed tech hasn’t been proven by the research a fairly lazy one. We didn’t argue that pencils and chalkboards were poor investments when they were introduced. Ed tech, or most of it, is meant to be used as a tool by great teachers and I’m skeptical as to whether we’ve seen strong research with highly effective teachers who are trained to use ed tech well. That being said, I thought this US News article wasn’t as bearish as we’ve seen in the past given that it clearly focused on the lack of studies that are out there and highlighted the areas in which ed tech is clearly working.

  3. Tommy, thank you for sharing – this was a very thought-provoking and interesting piece. I am so impressed by Clever’s growth; half of US schools is no small feat, and the platform model of aggregating a number of different apps is quite brilliant. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with some of the questions that you pose at the end of your essay. Regarding international expansion, the main problem I see is availability of data and internet. The fact that the US has taken on the initiative to increase broadband coverage is fantastic, but other parts of the world may not take the same approach for years to come.

    To your question of whether Clever can adapt to new trends such as AI and machine learning, I am very optimistic. In my opinion, the most difficult part of the process is achieving buy-in from the customer (schools and students), since most decisions are made by teachers and school systems that are generally more risk averse and can be resistant to change. Clever has already far outstripped its competition in that regard. The remaining task is for it to continually challenge itself to push the frontier of innovation, and to constantly embrace new techniques and concepts. Given its track record, I have confidence that it can achieve its goals.

    1. Thanks, Sarina. You make a great point about how much other countries need to catch up. There could be some upside for Clever in that regard in that by the time other countries do catch up to the US, they will be have the capacity to take advantage of the international opportunity.

  4. Thank you for a very interesting read!

    Clever has clearly increased scale dramatically in a highly fragmented market and in very few years – which is a huge success already. Its mission is also hugely valuable and definitely trying to innovate in an area with a great need for new ideas and ways of doing things.

    As pointed out in the article, a key challenge I see in Clever’s business model that is of relevance for its sustainability is their monetization strategy. Until now they seem to only be cashing in from software companies that develop the apps that Clever then distributes to schools and students. As Jim Sainz points out in his comment, this very much resembles a distributor / aggregator business model. While I believe these businesses can be very relevant and a key component in a supply chain, Clever should start making itself even more relevant and valuable for schools as well. For example, it could try to also monetize the increase in efficiency that it probably is already providing to schools: if it is already helping teachers / principals / schools more broadly access student data, work more efficiently and reducing time teachers have to spend on non-teaching activities, it could potentially charge for that value. Charging schools is probably never a popular idea and is probably a challenge already to get any product through their doors; nevertheless, Clever should look for ways to continue growing in a sustainable way.

  5. Super insightful read, thanks for this. A couple of things which struck me while reflecting on this:

    – How clever (could not resist a Greenstein pun) is the company being wrt to their cash burn? Do they have sufficient liquidity to meet their vision of being across every school in the United States?
    – On a similar note, could there be a differential pricing scheme for public vs private schools or even across different countries? This might help improve the unit economics of the model and expand more aggressively to education systems which need the system the most.

  6. Thanks for this nice overview of Clever, and how they’ve digitized a supply chain of information in education.

    Knowing Tyler personally, I do have to balk at the idea that he’s doing this entirely selflessly. Ultimately, Clever, like all corporations, exists to make money. I feel a bit unsound at the idea that they are making their money from corporations paying for early exposure to young “customers,” who may develop affinity and loyalty for the brand and increase CLV. While reading your write-up it occurred to me that this is exactly what proponents of net neutrality argue against: the ability for money-laden, large corporations to pay their way into our activities, and it feels especially uncomfortable given these are children. Do you have a problem with the corporate revenue model, or do you believe revenue-generating opportunities like preferential treatment for apps who can pay to access children are ultimately what’s needed for the sustainability of for-profit, but for social-good entities?

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