Education

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey gets an educational mode — complete with quizzes

Posted by | assassin's creed, Education, Gaming, History, ubisoft | No Comments

In my review of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, I was blown away by the authenticity and level of detail in the game world. The game itself — well, it was fine. But the highlight was ancient Greece in all its classical splendor, and a new educational Discovery Tour mode aims to teach the history of that society through a gaming lens.

The free update, available now to anyone who owns the game, adds dozens of historical “tours” guided by a NPC, in which you can learn about the cities of ancient Greece, the life and crafts of the people who lived there, what they believed and how they were governed, and of course the many famous battles of the era.

It’s an expanded version of a similar feature created for Assassin’s Creed: Origins, which was set in ancient Egypt. It seemed wasteful then, as in Odyssey, to create such a rich world and just have you stab your way through it. Obviously others at Ubisoft felt the same way, especially Discovery Mode director Maxime Durand, who says he envisioned a feature like this a decade ago.

teach odyssey

And how could you not with the Assassin’s Creed series? From the very first one players were immersed in a painstakingly recreated period of history that gave variously accurate but always compelling experiences of really living in that bygone era. All the work that went into making it convincing can easily — well, perhaps not easily, but directly — be applied to educating the player as well as thrilling them.

And quizzing them! The end of each guided tour will have an optional live quiz-type chat with the guide, which Ubisoft assures players will be fun and not for a grade. I’d probably skip it myself. But history teachers will probably make you do it for extra credit or something.

lostwax

There are 30 discovery sites, each with its own tour and modern-day context, so for example an artist in-game may explain how they sculpt, but then you’ll also see a museum artifact showing the process in “real life.”

Here’s hoping the history lessons are a little less lenient on the topic of slavery than some of the quests were.

“I think learning is a lot about agency… as soon as someone tells you you have to learn about something, there’s some of the fun taken away from it,” said Ubisoft’s Alicia Fortier. “So if we look at learning as play and as exploring, we need to make sure players can focus on what’s interesting to them and then they’ll naturally get more curious.”

The Discovery Tour update is free for all players today. Go, learn something.

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Reliability concerns raised over pi-top’s STEM learning laptop

Posted by | computing, Cornell Tech, edtech, Education, electronics, Europe, Gadgets, Hambro Perks, hardware, hardware startup, learn to code, Pi, pi-top, pi-top 3, Raspberry Pi, Raspberry Pi Foundation, STEM, TC, United Kingdom | No Comments

TechCrunch has learned of a safety issue and a number of product reliability questions being raised about a modular computer made by a London edtech startup that’s intended for children to learn coding and electronics.

The product, called the pi-top 3, is a Raspberry Pi-powered laptop with a keyboard that slides out to access a rail for breadboarding electronics.

A student at a US school had to be attended by a nurse after touching a component in the device which had overheated, leaving them with redness to their finger.

A spokesperson for Cornell Tech confirmed the incident to us — which they said had happened in June. We’ve withheld the name of the school at their request.

In an internal pi-top email regarding this incident, which we’ve also reviewed, it describes the student being left with “a very nasty finger burn”.

Cornell Tech’s spokesperson told us it has stopped using the pi-top 3 — partly in response to this incident but also because of wider reliability issues with the device. They said some of their grad students will be working on a project with the K-12 team next semester with the aim of creating an alternative that’s more reliable, affordable and safe.

We have also been told of concerns about wider reliability issues with the pi-top 3 by a number of other sources.

We asked pi-top for comment on the safety incident at Cornell Tech and for details of how it responded. The company provided us with a statement in which it claims: “pitop incorporates all possible safeguards into our products to ensure they are safe.”

“As soon as we became aware of this incident we immediately investigated what had happened,” it went on. “We discovered that the incident was a one-in-a-million occurrence. The user dropped a piece of metal, with a specific size and shape, under the unit. This fell in such a way that it touched a particular pin and caused a linear regulator to heat up. They received a small minor burn to the tip of one finger when they tried to recover that piece of metal.”

“This is the only reported incident where a user has been hurt whilst using one of our products,” pi-top added.

It is not clear how many pi-top 3 laptops have been sold to schools at this stage because pi-top does not break out sales per product. Instead it provided us with a figure for the total number of devices sold since it was founded in 2014 — saying this amounts to “more than 200,000 devices in 4 years which have been used by more than half a million people”.

pi-top also says it has sold products to schools in 70 countries, saying “thousands” of schools have engaged with its products. (The bright green color of the laptop is easy to spot in promotional photos for school STEM programs and summer camps.)

The London-based DIY hardware startup began life around five years ago offering a ‘3D-print it yourself‘ laptop for makers via the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform before shifting its focus to the educational market — tapping into the momentum around STEM education that’s seen a plethora of ‘learn to code’ toys unboxed in recent years.

pi-top has raised more than $20M in VC funding to date and now sells a number of learning devices and plug-in components intended for schools to teach STEM — all of which build on the Raspberry Pi microprocessor.

pi-top adds its own layer of software to the Pi as well as hardware additions intended to expand the learning utility (such as a speaker for the pi-top 3 and an “inventors kit” with several electronics projects, including one that lets kids build and program a robot).

The pi-top 3 — its third device — was launched in October 2017, priced between $285-$320 per laptop (without or with a Raspberry Pi 3).

The distinctively bright green laptop is intended for use by students as young as eight years old.

Unusual failure mode

In the internal email discussing the “Cornell failure diagnosis” — which is dated July 16 — pi-top’s head of support and customer success, Preya Wylie, conveys the assessment of its VP of technology, Wil Bennett, that the “unusual failure mode was likely caused by an electrical short on the male 34-pin connector on the underside of the protoboard”.

She goes on to specify that the short would have been caused by the metal SD-card removal tool that’s bundled with the product — noting this was “reported to have been somewhere underneath the protoboard at the time”.

“[Bennett] has recreated the same conditions on his bench in China and has seen the pi-top enter similar failure modes, with an electrical short and subsequent overheating,” she writes.

An additional complication discussed in the email is that the component is designed to stay on at all times in order that the pi-top can respond to the power button being pressed when the unit is off. Wylie writes that this means, if shorted, the component remains “very hot” even when the pi-top has been shut down and unplugged — as heat is generated by the pi-top continuing to draw power from the battery.

Only once the battery has fully depleted will the component be able to cool down.

In the email — which was sent to pi-top’s founder and CEO Jesse Lozano and COO Paul Callaghan — she goes on to include a list of four “initial recommendations to ensure this does not happen again”, including that the company should inform teachers to remove the SD-card removal tool from all pi-top 3 laptops and to remove the SD card themselves rather than letting students do it; as well as advising teachers/users to turn the device off if they suspect something has got lost under the protoboard.

Another recommendation listed in the email is the possibility of creating a “simple plastic cover to go over the hub” to prevent the risk of users’ fingers coming into contact with hot components.

A final suggestion is a small modification to the board to cut off one of the pins to “greatly reduce the chance of this happening again”.

pi top 3

We asked pi-top to confirm what steps it has taken to mitigate the risk of pitop 3 components overheating and posing a safety risk via the same sort of shorting failure experienced by Cornell Tech — and to confirm whether it has informed existing users of the risk from this failure mode.

An internal pi-top sales document that we’ve also reviewed discusses a ‘back to school’ sales campaign — detailing a plan to use discounts to “dissolve as much pi-top [3] stock as we can over the next 8 weeks”.

This document says US schools will be targeted from mid August; UK schools/educators from early September; and International Schools Groups from early September. It also includes a strategy to go direct to US Private and Charter Schools — on account of “shorter decision making timelines and less seasonal budgets”.

It’s not clear if the document pre-dates the Cornell incident.

In response to our questions, pi-top told us it is now writing to pi-top 3 customers, suggesting it is acting on some of the initial recommendations set out in Wylie’s July 16 email after we raised concerns.

In a statement the company said: “Whilst it is highly unlikely that this would occur again, we are writing to customers to advise them to take a common-sense approach and switch off the unit if something has got lost inside it.  We are also advising customers to remove the SD card tool from the unit. These simple actions will make the remote possibility of a recurrence even less likely.”

In parallel, we have heard additional concerns about the wider reliability of the pi-top 3 product — in addition to the shorting incident experienced by Cornell.

One source, who identified themselves as a former pi-top employee, told us that a number of schools have experienced reliability issues with the device. One of the schools named, East Penn School District in the US, confirmed it had experienced problems with the model — telling us it had to return an entire order of 40 of the pi-top 3 laptops after experiencing “a large volume of issues”.

“We had initially purchased 40 pi-tops for middle level computers classes,” assistant superintendent Laura Witman told us. “I met one of the owners, Jesse, at a STEM conference. Conceptually the devices had promise, but functionally we experienced a large volume of issues. The company tried to remedy the situation and in the end refunded our monies. I would say it was learning experience for both our district and the company, but I appreciate how they handled things in the end.”

Witman did not recall any problems with pi-top 3 components overheating.

A US-based STEM summer camp provider that we also contacted to confirm whether it had experienced issues with the pi-top 3 — a device which features prominently in promotional materials for its program — declined to comment. A spokesman for iD Tech’s program told us he was not allowed to talk about the matter.

A separate source familiar with the pi-top 3 also told us the product has suffered from software reliability issues, including crashes and using a lot of processor power, as well as hardware problems related to its battery losing power quickly and/or not charging. This source, who was speaking on condition of anonymity, said they were not aware of any issues related to overheating.

Asked to respond to wider concerns about the pi-top 3’s reliability, pi-top sent us this statement:

pitop is a growing and dynamic company developing DIY computing tools which we believe can change the world for the better. In the past four and a half years we have shipped hundreds of thousands of products across our entire product range, and pitop hardware and software have become trusted assets to teachers and students in classrooms from America to Zimbabwe. pitop products are hard at work even in challenging environments such as the UN’s Kakuma refugee camp in Northern Kenya.

At the heart of our products is the idea that young makers can get inside our computers, learn how they work and build new and invaluable skills for the future. Part of what makes pitop special, and why kids who’ve never seen inside a computer before think it’s awesome, is that you have to build it yourself straight out of the box and then design, code and make electronic systems with it. We call this learning.

The nature of DIY computing and electronics means that, very occasionally, things can fail. If they do, pitop’s modular nature means they can be easily replaced. If customers encounter any issues with any of our products our excellent customer support team are always ready to help.

It is important to say that all electronic systems generate heat and Raspberry Pi is no exception. However, at pitop we do the very best to mitigate thanks to the cutting-edge design of our hardware. Faults on any of our products fall well below accepted thresholds. Although we are proud of this fact, this doesn’t make us complacent and we continually strive to do things better and provide our customers with world-class products that don’t compromise on safety.

Thousands of schools around the world recognise the fantastic benefits the pitop [3], pitop CEED, and pitop [1] brings as a Raspberry Pi-powered device. Our new flagship products, the pitop [4] and our learning platform, pitop Further, take coding education to the next level, as a programmable computing module for makers, creators and innovators everywhere. We are proud of our products and the enormous benefits they bring to schools, students and makers around the world.

Internal restructuring

We also recently broke the news that pi-top had laid off a number of staff after losing out on a large education contract. Our sources told us the company is restructuring to implement a new strategy. pi-top confirmed 12 job cuts at that stage. Our sources suggest more cuts are pending.

Some notable names departing pi-top’s payroll in recent weeks are its director of learning and research, William Rankin — formerly a director of learning at Apple — who writes on LinkedIn that he joined pi-top in March 2018 to “develop a constructionist learning framework to support pi-top’s maker computing platform”. Rankin left the business this month, per his LinkedIn profile.

pi-top’s chief education and product officer, Graham Brown-Martin — who joined the business in September 2017, with a remit to lead “learning, product design, brand development and communication strategy” to support growth of its “global education business, community and ecosystem” — also exited recently, leaving last month per his LinkedIn.

In another change this summer pi-top appointed a new executive chairman of its board: Stanley Buchesky, the founder of a US edtech seed fund who previously served in the Trump administration as an interim CFO for the US department for education under secretary of state, Betsy DeVos.

Buchesky’s fund, which is called The EdTech Fund, said it had made an investment in pi-top last month. The size of the investment has not been publicly disclosed.

Buchesky took over the chairman role from pi-top board member and investor Eric Wilkinson: A partner at its Series A investor, Hambro Perks. Wilkinson remains on the pi-top board but no longer as exec chairman.

The job cuts and restructuring could be intended to prepare pi-top for a trade sale to another STEM device maker, according to one of our sources.

Meanwhile pi-top’s latest device, the pi-top 4, represents something of a physical restructuring of its core edtech computing proposition which looks intended to expand the suggestive utility it offers teachers via multiple modular use-cases — from building drones and wheeled robots to enabling sensor-based IoT projects which could check science learning criteria, all powered by pi-top’s encased Raspberry Pi 4.

Out of the box, the pi-top 4 is a computer in a box, not a standalone laptop. (Though pi-top does plan to sell a range of accessories enabling it be plugged in to power a touchscreen tablet or a laptop, and more.)

pi top 4 4

pi-top is in the process of bringing the pi-top 4 to market after raising almost $200,000 on Kickstarter from more than 500 backers. Early backers have been told to expect it to ship in November.

While pi-top’s predecessor product is stuck with the compute power of the last-gen Raspberry Pi 3 (the pi-top 3 cannot be upgraded to the Raspberry Pi 4), the pi-top 4 will have the more powerful Pi 4 as its engine.

However the latter has encountered some heat management issues of its own.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation recently put out a firmware update that’s intended to reduce the microprocessor’s operating temperature after users had complained it ran hot.

Asked whether the Foundation has any advice on encasing the Raspberry Pi 4, in light of the heat issue, founder Eben Upton told us: “Putting the Pi in a case will tend to cause it to idle at a higher temperature than if it is left in the open. This means there’s less temperature ‘in reserve’, so the Pi will throttle more quickly during a period of sustained high-intensity operation.”

“In general, the advice is to choose a case which is appropriate to your use case, and to update firmware frequently to benefit from improvements to idle power consumption as they come through,” he added.

TechCrunch’s Steve O’Hear contributed to this report

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Highlights from Facebook’s Libra Senate hearing

Posted by | Apps, blockchain, cryptocurrency, David Marcus, eCommerce, Education, Facebook, Finance, Government, Libra, Libra Association, Mobile, payments, Policy, privacy, Social, TC, U.S. Senate | No Comments

Facebook will only build its own Calibra cryptocurrency wallet into Messenger and WhatsApp, and will refuse to embed competing wallets, the head of Calibra David Marcus told the Senate Banking Committee today. While some, like Senator Brown, blustered that “Facebook is dangerous!,” others surfaced poignant questions about Libra’s risks.

Calibra will be interoperable, so users can send money back and forth with other wallets, and Marcus committed to data portability so users can switch entirely to a competitor. But solely embedding Facebook’s own wallet into its leading messaging apps could give the company a sizable advantage over banks, PayPal, Coinbase or any other potential wallet developer.

Other highlights from the “Examining Facebook’s Proposed Digital Currency and Data Privacy Considerations” hearing included Marcus saying:

  • The U.S. should “absolutely” lead the world in rule-making for cryptocurrencies
  • The Libra Association chose to be headquartered in Switzerland “not to evade any responsibilities of oversight” but since it’s where international financial groups like the Bank for International Settlements, though Calibra will be regulated by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network
  • “Yes,” Libra will comply with all U.S. regulations and not launch until the U.S. lawmakers’ concerns have been answered
  • “You will not have to trust Facebook” because it’s only one of 28 current and potentially 100 or more Libra Association members and it won’t have special privileges
  • “Yes I would” accept compensation from Facebook in the form of Libra as a show of trust in the currency
  • It is “not the intention at all” for Calibra to sell or directly monetize user data directly, though if it offered additional financial services in partnership with other financial organizations it would ask consent to use their data specifically for those purposes
  • Facebook’s core revenue model around Libra is that more online commerce will lead businesses to spend more on Facebook ads
  • When repeatedly asked why Facebook is pushing Libra to happen, Marcus noted that blockchain technology is inevitable and if the U.S. doesn’t lead in building and regulating it, the tech will come from places “out of reach of our national security apparatus,” raising the spectre of China

But Marcus also didn’t clearly answer some critical questions about Libra and Calibra, and may be asked again when he testifies before the House Financial Services Committee tomorrow.

Unanswered Questions

Chairman Crapo asked if Facebook would collect data about transactions made with Calibra that are made on Facebook, such as when users buy products from businesses they discover through Facebook. Marcus instead merely noted that Facebook would still let users pay with credit cards and other mediums as well as Calibra. That means that even though Facebook might not know how much money is in someone’s Calibra wallet or their other transactions, it might know how much they paid and for what if that transaction happens over their social networks.

Senator Tillis asked how much Facebook has invested in the formation of Libra. TechCrunch has also asked specifically how much Facebook has invested in the Libra Investment Token that will earn it a share of interest earned from the fiat currencies in the Libra Reserve. Marcus said Facebook and Calibra hadn’t determined exactly how much it would invest in the project. Marcus also didn’t clearly answer Senator Toomey’s question of why the Libra Association is considered a not-for-profit organization if it will pay out interest to members.

Senator Menendez asked if the Libra Association would freeze the assets if terrorist organizations were identified. Marcus said that Calibra and other custodial wallets that actually hold users’ Libra could do that, and that regulated off-ramps could block them from converting Libra into fiat. But this answer underscores that there may be no way for the Libra Association to stop transfers between terrorists’ non-custodial wallets, especially if local governments where those terrorists operate don’t step in.

Perhaps the most worrying moment of the hearing was when Senator Sinema brought up TechCrunch’s article citing that “The real risk of Libra is crooked developers.” There I wrote that Facebook’s VP of product Kevin Weil told me that “There are no plans for the Libra Association to take a role in actively vetting [developers],” which I believe leaves the door open to a crypto Cambridge Analytica situation where shady developers steal users money, not just their data.

Senator Sinema asked if an Arizonan was scammed out of their Libra by a Pakistani developer via a Thai exchange and a Spanish wallet, would that U.S. citizen be entitled to protection to recuperate their lost funds. Marcus responded that U.S. citizens would likely use American Libra wallets that are subject to protections and that the Libra Association will work to educate users on how to avoid scams. But Sinema stressed that if Libra is designed to assist the poor who are often less educated, they could be especially vulnerable to scammers.

Here @SenatorSinema cites my article warning that we need protection from Facebook Libra’s unvetted developers https://t.co/gYeYIQVFLj pic.twitter.com/QSqVDztpCU

— Josh Constine (@JoshConstine) July 16, 2019

Crypto openness versus a dangerous Wild West

Overall, the hearing was surprisingly coherent. Many Senators showed strong base knowledge of how Libra worked and asked the right questions. Marcus was generally forthcoming, beyond the topics of how much Facebook has invested in the Libra project and what data it will glean from transactions atop its social network.

Some of the top concerns, such as terrorist money laundering, encompass the entire cryptocurrency ecosystem and can’t be solved even by strong rules around Libra. Little regard was given to how Libra could improve remittance or cut transaction fees that see corporations profit off families and small businesses.

Still, if Libra actually becomes popular and evolves as an open ecosystem full of unvetted developers, the currency could be used to facilitate scams. Precisely because of the lack of trust in Facebook that many Senators harped on, consumers could go seeking Libra wallet alternatives to the company that might push them into the hands of evildoers. The Libra Association may need to shift the balance further toward safety and away from cryptocurrency’s prevailing philosophies from openness. Otherwise, the frontiers of this Wild West could prove dangerous, even if its civilized regions are well-regulated.

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Reliance Jio partners with Facebook to launch literacy program for first time internet users in India

Posted by | Akash Ambani, Asia, Education, Facebook, india, Mobile, Mukesh Ambani, reliance jio, TC, WhatsApp | No Comments

Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man, has enabled tens of millions of people — if not more — to come online for the first time with his disruptive telecom network. He has changed how many Indians, once thrifty about each megabyte they spent browsing the internet, consume mobile data today.

But many of these first-time internet users are increasingly struggling with grasping the nuances of the internet — often ending up trusting everything they see online and, in extreme cases, causing major chaos in the nation. Ambani now wants to help these people understand the ins and outs of the digital world.

His telecom network Reliance Jio announced today a literacy program called “Digital Udaan” for first-time internet users in India. The two-and-a-half-year-old telecom network, which has amassed more than 300 million subscribers, said it has partnered with Facebook to create “the largest ever digital literacy program” that will offer audio-visual training in 10 regional languages.

As part of the Digital Udaan program, Reliance Jio will hold training sessions to help its users learn about internet safety, and how they should engage with popular services and its devices. The operator said it will hold these sessions each Saturday and also provide training videos and information brochures to users.

Reliance Jio said Facebook helped it build and curate modules that are relevant for people in cities and small towns in India. In the first phase of the program, Jio will conduct these training sessions in about 200 different locations across 13 states. It will then expand to more than 7,000 locations, where “millions of JioPhone users and other first-time internet users” live.

“Facebook is an ally in this mission, and we are delighted to partner with Jio in attracting new Internet users and creating mechanisms for them to unleash the power of that access,” Ajit Mohan, VP and MD of Facebook India, said in a statement. Facebook and WhatsApp count India, where they reach about 350 million users, as their largest and fastest growing market. There are more than 500 million internet users in India.

Akash Ambani, director of Reliance Jio, said he hopes to “help eradicate barriers of information asymmetry and provide accessibility in real time. It is a program for inclusive information, education and entertainment, where no Indian will be left out of this digital drive. Jio envisions to take this to every town and village of India, achieving 100% digital literacy in the country.”

Reliance Jio, through its free voice calls and low-data prices, has significantly helped accelerate the growth of India’s internet and smartphone ecosystem. The platform has brought the nation, now the world’s second largest internet and smartphone market, to a point that many thought would have taken more than five years to reach.

But this growth has also accompanied new sets of challenges. WhatsApp, which is the most popular app in India, continues to grapple with the spread of false information in the nation, for instance. Other social media services are facing similar challenges as well. Last year, WhatsApp began to air TV commercials in India to help users become more cautious about the messages they share on its service. It also partnered with Reliance Jio to pay for teams of performers to travel across India to hold roadshows to help people better understand the rampant rise of fake news.

Prabhakar Kumar, co-ordinator of CMS Medialab, an organization that monitors media trends in India, told TechCrunch in an earlier interview that the level of literacy among the users who are coming onboard now is much lower than those who came online before them.

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Calm raises $27M to McConaughey you to sleep

Posted by | Apps, calm, Education, Entertainment, funding, Fundings & Exits, Health, lightspeed venture partners, meditation, Mobile, Recent Funding, sleep, sleep aid, Startups, TC | No Comments

Meditation app unicorn Calm wants you to doze off to the dulcet tones of actor Matthew McConaughey’s southern drawl or writer Stephen Fry’s English accent. Calm’s Sleep Stories feature that launched last year is a hit, with more than 150 million listens from its 2 million paid subscribers and 50 million downloads. While lots of people want to meditate, they need to sleep. The seven-year-old app has finally found its must-have feature that makes it a habit rather than an aspiration.

Keen to capitalize on solving the insomnia problems plaguing people around the world, Lightspeed tells TechCrunch it has just invested $27 million into a Series B extension round in Calm alongside some celebrity angels at a $1 billion valuation. The cash will help the $70 per year subscription app further expand from guided meditations into more self-help masterclasses, stretching routines, relaxing music, breathing exercises, stories for children and celebrity readings that lull you to sleep.

Calm App

The funding adds to Calm’s $88 million Series B led by TPG that was announced in February that was also at a $1 billion valuation, bringing the full B round to $115 million and Calm’s total funding to about $141 million. Lightspeed partner Nicole Quinn confirms the fund started talks with Calm around the same time as TPG, but took longer to finish due diligence, which is why the valuation didn’t grow despite Calm’s progress since February.

“Nicole and Lightspeed are valuable partners as we continue to double down on entertainment through our content,” Calm’s head of communications Alexia Marchetti tells me. The startup plans to announce more celebrity content tie-ins later this summer.

Broadening its appeal is critical for Calm amidst a crowded meditation app market that includes Headspace, Simple Habit and Insight Timer, plus newer entrants like Peloton’s mindfulness sessions and Journey’s live group classes. It’s become easy to find guided meditations online for free, so Calm needs to become a holistic mental wellness hub.

While it risks diluting its message by doing so much, Calm’s plethora of services could make it a gateway to more of your personal health spend, including therapy, meditation retreats and health merchandise from airy clothing to yoga mats. But subscription fees alone are powering a big business. Calm quadrupled revenue in 2018 to reach $150 million in ARR and hit profitability.

Calm is poised to keep up its rapid revenue growth. After the launch of Sleep Stories, “it was incredible to see the engagement spike up and also the retention,” says Quinn. Users can choose from having McConaughey describe the wonders of the cosmos, John McEnroe walk them through the rules of tennis, fairy tales like The Little Mermaid and more.

Quinn tells me “Sleep Stories is now a huge percentage of the business, and also the length of time people spend on the app has gone up dramatically.” She tells me that so many startups are “trying to invent a problem where there isn’t one.” But difficulty snoozing is so widespread and detrimental that users are eager to pay for an app instead of a sleeping pill. Having the Interstellar actor talk about the universe until I pass out sounds alright, alright, alright.

Alright Alright Alright

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India’s Unacademy raises $50 million to grow its online learning platform

Posted by | Apps, blume ventures, byju's, edtech startup, Education, funding, india, Media, Mobile, Nexus Venture Partners, Startups, Steadview Capital, Unacademy | No Comments

Big money continues to flow in India’s growing education market. Bangalore-based Unacademy, which operates an online learning platform to help millions prepare for competitive exams in India, has raised $50 million to further scale its reach.

The Series D financing round was led by Steadview Capital, Sequoia India, Nexus Venture Partners and Blume Ventures, with Unacademy’s own co-founders Gaurav Munjal and Roman Saini also participating in it. The new round means the startup has raised close to $90 million to date.

The four-year-old startup is aimed at students who are preparing for competitive exams to get into a college and those who are pursuing graduation-level courses. Unacademy allows students to watch live classes from educators and later engage in sessions to review topics in more detail. It has 10,000 registered educators and 13 million learners — up from 3 million a year ago.

The startup said it will use the new fund to expand the number of educators it has on the platform, and also add more exam courses, Unacademy CEO Munjal told TechCrunch. It will also improve its product and expand the team.

Unacademy began its journey as a YouTube channel, but has since expanded to its own app where it offers some courses for free and others through a recently launched subscription business. The subscription service — called Unacademy Plus Subscription — has 50,000 users.

Unacademy also maintains an archive of all the classes, giving students the option to reference older lectures at any time through the app. The startup says YouTube is still its largest distribution channel. Overall, the platform sees more than 100 million monthly views across the platforms.

“We are seeing unprecedented growth and engagement from learners in smaller towns and cities, and are also very humbled to see that top-quality educators are choosing Unacademy as their primary platform to reach out to students. In the last few months, we have taken bigger strides toward achieving this mission. We have more than 400 top educators from across the country taking live classes every day on Unacademy Plus. This is available to every student, irrespective of their location,” said Munjal.

Unacademy competes with unicorn Byju’s, which is widely believed to be the largest edtech startup in the world with its valuation nearing $4 billion. Byju’s, which has more than 2.4 million paid subscribers (and over 30 million users), offers courses for students in kindergarten to year 12, in addition to those preparing for competitive under graduation level courses.

India has the largest population in the world in the age bracket of 5 to 24 years. The education space in the nation is estimated to grow to $35 billion in the next six years.

In recent months, Unacademy has grown more aggressive with marketing. Last year it tied up with web-production house The Viral Fever to fund a show called “Kota Factory,” which revolves around the lives of students who are preparing to go to an engineering college. In the midst of it, Unacademy also offered low-cost, discounted subscription plans to attract users to its subscription platform.

Unacademy has presence in Indonesia as well, where as of last year, it had about 30 educators. The startup did not offer an update on how its international ambitions are holding up. A representative of Unacademy told TechCrunch recently that the platform does not rely on ads for monetization.

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Maker Faire halts operations and lays off all staff

Posted by | Education, Entertainment, Exit, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, Hack, hardware, layoffs, MAKE, maker faire, Maker Media, Media, Personnel, robotics, Startups, Talent, TC | No Comments

Financial troubles have forced Maker Media, the company behind crafting publication MAKE: magazine as well as the science and art festival Maker Faire, to lay off its entire staff of 22 and pause all operations. TechCrunch was tipped off to Maker Media’s unfortunate situation which was then confirmed by the company’s founder and CEO Dale Dougherty.

For 15 years, MAKE: guided adults and children through step-by-step do-it-yourself crafting and science projects, and it was central to the maker movement. Since 2006, Maker Faire’s 200 owned and licensed events per year in over 40 countries let attendees wander amidst giant, inspiring art and engineering installations.

Maker Media Inc ceased operations this week and let go of all of its employees — about 22 employees” Dougherty tells TechCrunch. “I started this 15 years ago and it’s always been a struggle as a business to make this work. Print publishing is not a great business for anybody, but it works…barely. Events are hard . . . there was a drop off in corporate sponsorship.” Microsoft and Autodesk failed to sponsor this year’s flagship Bay Area Maker Faire.

But Dougherty is still desperately trying to resuscitate the company in some capacity, if only to keep MAKE:’s online archive running and continue allowing third-party organizers to license the Maker Faire name to throw affiliated events. Rather than bankruptcy, Maker Media is working through an alternative Assignment for Benefit of Creditors process.

“We’re trying to keep the servers running” Dougherty tells me. “I hope to be able to get control of the assets of the company and restart it. We’re not necessarily going to do everything we did in the past but I’m committed to keeping the print magazine going and the Maker Faire licensing program.” The fate of those hopes will depend on negotiations with banks and financiers over the next few weeks. For now the sites remain online.

The CEO says staffers understood the challenges facing the company following layoffs in 2016, and then at least 8 more employees being let go in March according to the SF Chronicle. They’ve been paid their owed wages and PTO, but did not receive any severance or two-week notice.

“It started as a venture-backed company but we realized it wasn’t a venture-backed opportunity” Dougherty admits, as his company had raised $10 million from Obvious Ventures, Raine Ventures, and Floodgate. “The company wasn’t that interesting to its investors anymore. It was failing as a business but not as a mission. Should it be a non-profit or something like that? Some of our best successes for instance are in education.”

The situation is especially sad because the public was still enthusiastic about Maker Media’s products  Dougherty said that despite rain, Maker Faire’s big Bay Area event last week met its ticket sales target. 1.45 million people attended its events in 2016. MAKE: magazine had 125,000 paid subscribers and the company had racked up over one million YouTube subscribers. But high production costs in expensive cities and a proliferation of free DIY project content online had strained Maker Media.

“It works for people but it doesn’t necessarily work as a business today, at least under my oversight” Dougherty concluded. For now the company is stuck in limbo.

Regardless of the outcome of revival efforts, Maker Media has helped inspire a generation of engineers and artists, brought families together around crafting, and given shape to a culture of tinkerers. The memory of its events and weekends spent building will live on as inspiration for tomorrow’s inventors.

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Science publisher IEEE bans Huawei but says trade rules will have ‘minimal impact’ on members

Posted by | Android, Asia, China, Education, fedex, Gadgets, huawei, IEEE, Intel, New York, Policy, Qualcomm, smartphone, telecommunications, U.S. government | No Comments

The IEEE’s ban on Huawei following new trade restrictions in the United States has sent shock waves through global academic circles. The organization responded saying the impact of the trade policy will have limited effects on its members, but it’s hard at this point to appease those who have long hailed it as an open platform for scientists and professors worldwide to collaborate.

Earlier this week, the New York-headquartered Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers blocked Huawei employees from being reviewers or editors for its peer-review process, according to screenshots of an email sent to its editors that first circulated in the Chinese media.

Unbelievable, IEEE is forced to ban Huawei employees from peer-reviewing papers or handling papers as editors. pic.twitter.com/pkvQeOUI07

— Junhui Qian (@qian_junhui) May 29, 2019

The IEEE later confirmed the ban in a statement issued on Wednesday, saying it “complies with U.S. government regulations which restrict the ability of the listed Huawei companies and their employees to participate in certain activities that are not generally open to the public. This includes certain aspects of the publication peer review and editorial process.”

In mid-May, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security added Huawei and its affiliates to its “Entity List,” effectively barring U.S. firms from selling technology to Huawei without government approval.

It’s unclear what makes peer review at the IEEE a technology export, but the science association wrote in its email to editors that violation “may have severe legal implications.”

Whilst it’s registered in New York, the IEEE bills itself as a “non-political” and “global” community aiming to “foster technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity.”

Despite its removal of Huawei scientists from paper vetting, the IEEE assured that its compliance with U.S. trade restrictions should have “minimal impact” on its members around the world. It further added that Huawei and its employees can continue to participate in other activities as a member, including accessing the IEEE digital library; submitting technical papers for publication; presenting at IEEE-sponsored conferences; and accepting IEEE awards.

As members of its standard-setting body, Huawei employees can also continue to exercise their voting rights, attend standards development meetings, submit proposals and comment in public discussions on new standards.

A number of Chinese professors have reprimanded the IEEE’s decision, flagging the danger of letting politics meddle with academic collaboration. Zhang Haixia, a professor at the School of Electronic and Computer Engineering of China’s prestigious Peking University, said in a statement that she’s quitting the IEEE boards in protest:

This is Haixia Zhang from Peking University, as an old friend and senior IEEE member, I am really shocked to hear that IEEE is involved in “US-Huawei Ban” for replacing all reviewers from Huawei, which is far beyond the basic line of Science and Technology which I was trainedand am following in my professional career till now.

…today, this message from IEEE for “replacing all reviewers from Huawei in IEEE journals” is challenging my professional integrity. I have to say that, As a professor, I AM NOT accept this. Therefore, I decided to quit from IEEE NANO and IEEE JMEMS editorial board untill one day it come back to our common professional integrity.

The IEEE freeze on Huawei adds to a growing list of international companies and organizations that are severing ties or clashing with the Chinese smartphone and telecom giant in response to the trade blacklist. That includes Google, which has blocked select Android services from Huawei; FedEx, which allegedly “diverted” a number of Huawei packages; ARM, which reportedly told employees to suspend business with Huawei; as well as Intel and Qualcomm, which also reportedly cut ties with Huawei. 

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Eyeing an entry into China, Roblox enters strategic partnership with Tencent

Posted by | children, China, Education, games, Gaming, kids, Roblox, STEM, Tencent | No Comments

Kids gaming platform Roblox has its sights set on China with today’s news that it has entered into a strategic relationship with Chinese tech giant Tencent. The companies announced a strategic partnership that will initially focus on education — specifically, coding fundamentals, game design, digital citizenship and entrepreneurial skills.

The joint venture — still unnamed — will be based in Shenzhen, Roblox says. And its eventual goal is to bring Roblox to China. This is something Roblox has been steadily working toward ahead of today, most recently by adding support for Chinese languages and making its coding curriculum available for free in Chinese.

The first initiative from the new JV will be a scholarship fund that sponsors 15 young developers, who will fly to the U.S. to attend a week-long creator camp at Stanford University. The camp, taught by iD Tech, will teach the students game design, including how to create 3D worlds, along with programming fundamentals using Roblox’s developer tools and Lua code.

Roblox and Tencent, together with the China Association for Educational Technology (CAET), are calling for applications from creators ages 10 through 15. Teachers will be encouraged to nominate their students, who can apply online on Roblox’s website. The submissions close on June 14, and scholarship recipients will be notified on June 28.

The first camp will run the week of July 23, and a second session will run the week of August 18. During camp, students will work, eat and stay at Stanford.

“I’m extremely excited to partner with Roblox,” said Steven Ma, senior vice president of Tencent, in a statement. “We believe technological advancement will help Chinese students learn by fueling their creativity and imagination. Our partnership with Roblox provides an engaging way to reach children of all ages across China to develop skills like coding, design, and entrepreneurship.”

“Tencent is the perfect partner for Roblox in China,” added Roblox founder and CEO Dave Baszucki. “They have a deep understanding of the Chinese market and share our belief of the power of digital creation and our vision to bring the world together through play.”

The multi-year JV will continue to invest in educational initiatives, including local coding camps, training programs for instructors to build custom courses and more.

Unlike other gaming companies, Roblox has to do more than just finding a way into China with the help of a local partner — it also has to create an active community of game creators in the region. That’s because Roblox is a gaming platform, not a game maker itself. Instead, third-party creators build their own games on Roblox for others to play.

Roblox gets a share of the revenue the games make through sales of virtual goods.

In 2017, Roblox said it paid out $30 million to its creator community, and noted that number would more than double in 2018. In April, Roblox noted that game players and creators now spend more than a billion hours per month on its platform. Now valued at more than $2.5 billion, Roblox claims more than 90 million monthly active users — a number that could dramatically increase if Roblox launched in China.

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Xprize names two grand prize winners in $15 million Global Learning Challenge

Posted by | Android, bangalore, california, carnegie mellon, carnegie mellon university, cci, Education, Elon Musk, Google, kenya, machine learning, musk, New York, pittsburgh, Seoul, south korea, Speech Recognition, Tanzania, TC, technology, transhumanism, United Kingdom, United States, XPRIZE | No Comments

Xprize, the nonprofit organization developing and managing competitions to find solutions to social challenges, has named two grand prize winners in the Elon Musk-backed Global Learning Xprize.

The companies, KitKit School out of South Korea and the U.S., and onebillion, operating in Kenya and the U.K., were announced at an awards ceremony hosted at the Google Spruce Goose Hangar in Playa Vista, Calif.

Xprize set each of the competing teams the task of developing scalable services that could enable children to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills within 15 months.

Musk himself was on hand to award $5 million checks to each of the winning teams.

Five finalists, including New York-based CCI, which developed lesson plans and a development language so non-coders could create lessons; Chimple, a Bangalore-based learning platform enabling children to learn reading, writing and math on a tablet; RobotTutor, a Pittsburgh-based company, which used Carnegie Mellon research to develop an app for Android tablets that would teach lessons in reading and writing with speech recognition, machine learning and human computer interactions; and the two grand prize winners all received $1 million to continue developing their projects.

The tests required each product to be field-tested in Swahili, reaching nearly 3,000 children in 170 villages across Tanzania.

All of the final solutions from each of the five teams that made it to the final round of competition have been open-sourced so anyone can improve on and develop local solutions using the toolkits developed by each team in competition.

Kitkit School, with a team from Berkeley, Calif. and Seoul, developed a program with a game-based core and flexible learning architecture to help kids learn independently, while onebillion merged numeracy content with literacy material to provide directed learning and activities alongside monitoring to personalize responses to children’s needs.

Both teams are going home with $5 million to continue their work.

The problem of access to basic education affects more than 250 million children around the world, who can’t read or write, and one-in-five children around the world aren’t in school, according to data from UNESCO.

The problem of access is compounded by a shortage of teachers at the primary and secondary school levels. Some research, cited by Xprize , indicates that the world needs to recruit another 68.8 million teachers to provide every child with a primary and secondary education by 2040.

Before the Global Learning Xprize field test, 74% of the children who participated were reported as never having attended school; 80% were never read to at home; and 90% couldn’t read a single word of Swahili.

After the 15-month program working on donated Google Pixel C tablets and pre-loaded with software, the number was cut in half.

“Education is a fundamental human right, and we are so proud of all the teams and their dedication and hard work to ensure every single child has the opportunity to take learning into their own hands,” said Anousheh Ansari, CEO of Xprize, in a statement. “Learning how to read, write and demonstrate basic math are essential building blocks for those who want to live free from poverty and its limitations, and we believe that this competition clearly demonstrated the accelerated learning made possible through the educational applications developed by our teams, and ultimately hope that this movement spurs a revolution in education, worldwide.”

After the grand prize announcement, Xprize said it will work to secure and load the software onto tablets; localize the software; and deliver preloaded hardware and charging stations to remote locations so all finalist teams can scale their learning software across the world.

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