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Engageli comes out of stealth with $14.5M and a new approach to teaching by video remotely

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Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet have become standard tools for teachers who have had to run lessons remotely since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. But they’re not apps necessarily designed for classrooms, and that fact has opened a gap in the market for those looking to build something more fit to the purpose.

Today, a startup called Engageli is coming out of stealth with an app that it believes fills that need. A video conferencing tool designed from the ground up as a digital learning platform, with its own unique take on virtual classrooms, Engageli is aiming first at higher education, and it is launching with $14.5 million in seed funding from Benchmark and others.

If that sounds like a large seed round for a startup that is still only in pilot mode (you can contact the company by email to apply to join the pilot), it might be due in part to who is behind Engageli.

The startup is co-founded by Dan Avida, Serge Plotkin, Daphne Koller and Jamie Nacht Farrell. Avida is a general partner at Opus Capital who in the past co-founded (and sold, to NetApp) an enterprise startup called Decru with Plotkin, who himself is a Stanford emeritus professor. Koller is one of the co-founders of Coursera and also an adjunct professor at Stanford. And Farrell is a former executive from another pair of major online learning companies, Trilogy and 2U.

Avida and Koller, as it happens, are also married, and it was observing their kids in the last school year — when they were both in high school (the oldest is now in her first year at UC Berkeley) — that spurred them to start Engageli.

“The idea for this started in March when our two daughters found themselves in ‘Zoom School.’ One of them watched a lot of Netflix, and the other, well, she really improved her high scores in a lot of games,” he said wryly.

The problem, as he and Koller saw it, was that the format didn’t do a good enough job of connecting with individual students, checking in with them to make sure they were paying attention, understanding, and actually interested in what was being taught.

“The reason teachers and schools are using conferencing systems is because that was what was out there,” he said. But, based on the team’s collective experiences across past e-learning efforts at places like Coursera — which built infrastructure to run university courses for mass audiences online — and Trilogy and 2U (which are now one company that covers both online learning for universities and boot camps), “we thought we could build a better system from the ground up.”

Even though the idea was inspired by what the pair saw playing out with their high school-attending children, Engageli made the decision to focus first on higher education because that was where it was getting the most interest from would-be customers to pilot the service. But also, Avida believes that because higher ed not already has a big market for remote learning, it represents a more significant opportunity.

“K-12 schools will eventually go back to normal,” he said, “but we’re of the opinion that higher education will be a blend with more and more online learning,” one of the reasons also for the founding of the likes of Coursera, Trilogy and 2U. “Younger kids need face-to-face contact, but in college, many students are now juggling work, family and studying, and online can be much more convenient.”

Also there is a very practical selling point to providing better tools to university classrooms: “People pay those tuitions to have access to professors and other students, and this is a way to provide that in a remote world,” he said.

As it appears now, Engageli lets teachers build and run both synchronous (live) and asynchronous (recorded) lessons, giving students and teachers the option to catch up or replace a live lesson if necessary.

The startup’s idea is also to make it as easy to integrate into existing workflows as possible: no need to install special desktop or mobile apps, as the platform works in all major browsers, and Avida notes that it’s also designed to integrate with the software systems that many universities are already using to organise their educational content and track students’ progress. (Making the barrier to entry low is not a bad idea also considering that many institutions are already using other products, making them more entrenched and increasing the challenges of getting them to migrate to something else.)

But perhaps Engageli’s most unique feature is how it views the virtual classroom.

The platform lets teachers create “tables” where students sit together in smaller groups, where they can work together. With tables, the idea is that either an instructor — or in the case of large classes as you might get with university seminars, teaching assistants assigned to tables — can engage with students in a more personalised way.

When a class is delivered asynchronously (that is, recorded), it means that students sitting at a table can still partly be involved in a “live” experience where they can talk about the work with others in their groups. The tables are also opened up before a class starts, and students can go from one to the other to chat with others before the class begins.

On top of the tools that Engageli has built to record and consume lessons, it’s also building a set of analytics that lets professors (or their assistants) monitor how well audio and video and working both for themselves as we as for their audience, and also collect other kinds of “engagement” information, which could come in the form of getting people to ask or answer questions or take polls and other interactive media.

Together, these features create better feedback to make sure that everyone is getting as much out of the remote experience as possible.

Education has not always been one of the buzziest areas in the world of startups — it’s been something of a boring cousin to more headline-grabbing segments like social media, or those taking on giants like Amazon and Google.

But the pandemic has thrown a spotlight on the opportunities in the field, both to fill a sudden surge of demand for remote learning tools, and to create more innovative approaches to doing so, as Engageli is doing here.

Just yesterday, Kahoot — a platform for building and using gamified learning apps — raised $215 million from SoftBank; and other recent rounds have included Outschool (which raised $45 million and is now profitable), Homer (raised $50 million from an impressive group of strategic backers), Unacademy (raised $150 million) and the Indian juggernaut Byju’s (most recently picking up $500 million from Silver Lake).

On top of the recent spotlight on education, it’s also been interesting to see the proliferation of startups that are also coming out of the woodwork to provide new takes on videoconferencing.

Last week, a startup called Headroom — also started by already-successful entrepreneurs — launched with an AI-driven alternative to Zoom and the rest providing not just automatic transcriptions of conversations, but automatically generated highlights and insights into how engaging your webinars and other video content really was.

Apps like Headroom and Engageli are just the tip of the iceberg, with other innovative approaches also stepping out and raising significant funding. The big question will be whether they will get much attention and time from would-be customers who are already “happy enough” with what they already use.

But in a tech world that thrives on the concept of disruption and companies creating businesses out of simply being better approaches to entrenched markets, it’s a bet worth making.

“Dan, Serge and Daphne have repeatedly built fast-growing, extremely successful companies. I am so fortunate to be working with them again,” said Alex Balkanski, a partner at Benchmark, in a statement. “Investing in a company linked to education is incredibly important to me on a personal level, and Engageli has the potential to enable a truly transformative learning experience.”

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New AI-powered sensor measures starlight distortion to help discover new planets

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Sydney University scientists have invented a sensor that neutralizes a star’s twinkle, which could help astronomers find new planets in distant solar systems.

The sensor uses an advanced light convertor and AI to measure and correct the distortion of starlight caused by the Earth’s atmosphere. It will now be installed on the 8.2m Subaru telescope on the summit of Maunakea, Hawaii, one of the largest optical-infrared telescopes in the world.

“The main way we identify planets orbiting distant stars is by measuring regular dips in starlight caused by planets blocking out bits of their sun,” said study lead author Dr Barnaby Norris in a statement.

“This is really difficult from the ground, so we needed to develop a new way of looking up at the stars. We also wanted to find a way to directly observe these planets from Earth.”

[Read: What audience intelligence data tells us about the 2020 US presidential election]

The “photonic wavefront sensor” will help astronomers directly image exoplanets around distant stars from Earth.

“Unlike conventional wavefront sensors, it can be placed at the same location in the optical instrument where the image is formed,” explained Dr Norris. “This means it is sensitive to types of distortions invisible to other wavefront sensors currently used today in large observatories.”

You can read the full research study in Nature Communications.

Published October 21, 2020 — 17:32 UTC

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Kite adds support for 11 new languages to its AI code completion tool

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When Kite, the well-funded AI-driven code completion tool, launched in 2019, its technology looked very impressive, but it only supported Python at the time. Earlier this year, it also added JavaScript and today, it is launching support for 11 new languages at once.

The new languages are Java, Kotlin, Scala, C/C++, Objective C, C#, Go, Typescript, HTML/CSS and Less. Kite works in most popular development environments, including the likes of VS Code, JupyterLab, Vim, Sublime and Atom, as well as all Jetbrains IntelliJ-based IDEs, including Android Studio.

This will make Kite a far more attractive solution for a lot of developers. Currently, the company says, it saves its most active developers from writing about 175 “words” of code every day. One thing that always made Kite stand out is that it ranks its suggestions by relevance — not alphabetically as some of its non-AI driven competitors do. To build its models, Kite fed its algorithms code from GitHub .

The service is available as a free download for Windows users and as a server-powered paid enterprise version with a larger deep learning model that consequently offers more AI smarts, as well as the ability to create custom models. The paid version also includes support for multi-line code completion, while the free version only supports line-of-code completions.

Kite notes that in addition to adding new languages, Kite also spent the last year focusing on the user experience, which should now be less distracting and, of course, offer more relevant completions.

Image Credits: Kite

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Who is Google’s market power hurting?

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Yesterday, the Department of Justice and 11 states sued Google for violating antitrust law. The complaint argued that Google had become “the unchallenged gateway to the internet for billions of users worldwide,” but that its success depends on unfair and monopolistic behavior. In some ways, the case is an obvious and long-awaited move. But it’s also an early test of how American antitrust law will handle the coming decade’s tech giants.

Since the late 1970s, antitrust cases have typically focused on demonstrating consumer harm, like a company cornering the market on oil and jacking up gas prices with its power. This can be less straightforward with free services like Google search, but it’s hardly impossible. The landmark Microsoft antitrust case — which this complaint is modeled on — started when it released the free but widely disliked Internet Explorer browser while stifling the innovative paid competitor Netscape Navigator and limiting the overall market.

Google has countered by saying that 2020 is a different era. “This isn’t the dial-up 1990s, when changing services was slow and difficult, and often required you to buy and install software with a CD-ROM,” it said in a blog post. “Today, you can easily download your choice of apps or change your default settings in a matter of seconds—faster than you can walk to another aisle in the grocery store.”

The Justice Department lays out a multipronged argument for why this isn’t right. It argues that Google has tipped the scales across web browsers, mobile devices, and emerging products like smart devices, ensuring that “all search access points funnel users in one direction: toward Google.” It pays for placement as Safari’s default iOS search engine — possibly providing a hefty chunk of Apple’s profits — and requires Android phone makers to preinstall search widgets on their phones. Meanwhile, its Chrome browser has around 60 percent of the US browser share, giving Google yet another venue for promoting search. “By using distribution agreements to lock up scale for itself and deny it to others, Google unlawfully maintains its monopolies,” the complaint says.

The filing touches on how this might affect consumers. It notes that some search companies, like privacy-focused startup DuckDuckGo or the subscription-based Neeva, could appeal to consumers who distrust Google’s targeted advertising or data collection policies. “Google’s control of search access points means that these new search models are denied the tools to become true rivals.”

Google disagreed by saying that people proactively choose its product, even when it’s not the first option. In 2014, for example, Mozilla started offering Yahoo as its default search engine. “Most Americans promptly switched their search engine to their first choice —Google,” says Google. Mozilla ultimately terminated the deal early, citing “what’s best for our brand, our effort to provide quality web search, and the broader content experience for our users” as its reasons.

Some of the company’s critics have put forward counterexamples, making a case that Google’s search decisions aren’t actually good for users. In 2015, Yelp and legal scholar Tim Wu released a study arguing that Google’s reviews carousel offers inferior results from its own products rather than more relevant ones from third-party sites. When given a plug-in with alternative results, Google users would click more often on the non-Google offerings.

Yelp and TripAdvisor later launched a site called Focus On The User, which calls on Google to use an “organic, merit-based process” instead of favoring its own products. If this truly provided a better experience and Google faced more pressure to compete, the company would have a greater incentive to take that step. Accordingly, Yelp praised yesterday’s decision, with public policy head Luther Lowe calling it “a critical first step in confronting Google’s anticompetitive abuses and monopoly power in search.”

But there’s a bigger factor in play: lots of people want to overturn this consumer-centric standard, focusing on a much broader definition of harm. And that idea got a big boost earlier this month, when Congress released its sweeping report on monopolistic practices online. The Democratic majority called for establishing a legal standard “designed to protect not just consumers, but also workers, entrepreneurs, independent businesses, open markets, a fair economy, and democratic ideals.”

Critics of Google have offered reasons it fits that bill. “While Google’s anti-competitive practices hurt companies like us, the negative impact on society and democracy wrought by their surveillance business model is far worse,” said DuckDuckGo’s founder and CEO Gabriel Weinberg after the announcement. “The endless data collection and behavioral targeting originated by Google and forced onto the world through its search engine monopoly has led to discrimination, polarization, and the widespread false belief that getting privacy online is difficult.”

But the Justice Department is waiting for Congress to pass new laws that would let it focus on that case. According to some reports, the Department of Justice also rushed the case to announce it before the election. So it’s working with existing laws, at least for now.

Even so, Charlotte Slaiman of Public Knowledge, which praised the Justice Department’s complaint, says the processes can roll out in tandem. “I don’t think the case requires any changes to antitrust law in order to be successful. But I do think that Congress and an antitrust case can be working in parallel at the same time,” Slaiman says. As the Justice Department brings its case against Google, Congress can take a broader view of the industry — and potentially change the course of antitrust cases to come.

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