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教育技术角逐升温,豪强新秀联手出击

Scott Olster 2011年11月04日

教育行业中的顶尖企业正在积极行动,为未来早做筹谋,即便这意味着必须与一家在过去完全可能一口吞下的初创企业联袂合作。培生最近与初创企业Knewton达成的合作就是一个很好的例子。

    出售公司、迅速变现和功成身退可以说是现如今许多初创企业创始人的梦想。目前市场动荡,谁又能谴责这种做法呢?

    然而,总部位于纽约的Knewton公司却没有动摇,坚持做自己的业务。这家在线教育公司于周二宣布,将与出版商培生(Pearson)携手,将其自适应学习技术融入到培生的在线课程之中,该合作将从大学程度课程开始逐步推进。

    Knewton非但没有卖掉公司,反而与原本可能是公司潜在收购者的教育行业巨擘达成了合作协议。随着新型教育技术市场日趋升温,这宗交易只不过是初创企业开始与业内重量级企业平等对话的最新例证。

    Knewton所使用的算法能够跟踪学生的学习方式,根据学生个人的优缺点提供不断增大难度的定制化课程。该系统旨在随着学生用户人数不断增加而提升智能化程度,与谷歌(Google)的搜索结果颇为类似。

    培生的近900万大学适龄在线学生将在Knewton系统内进行学习,从而创建一个有关学生在线学习方式的庞大而宝贵的数据库。培生则将获得Knewton自适应学习技术的部分专有权。而对于在最近由培生和风险投资公司Founders Fund领投的风险投资中获得3,300万美元融资的Knewton而言,它将基于培生(PSO)的在线学生数量,享受利润分成。Knewton创始人兼首席执行官乔斯•费拉雷称:“培生具有强大的网络效应。”

    市场对在线教育的需求正呈现爆炸式增长。研究机构Ambient Insight的报告显示,到2015年,预计全球的学校和企业在线学习市场将由2010年的321亿美元增长至约500亿美元。并非只有培生这一家公司希望从这种增长中分得一杯羹。新闻集团(News Corp)于去年11月斥资3.6亿美元收购了总部位于布鲁克林的教育技术供应商Wireless Generation 90%股权。高等教育项目供应商阿波罗集团(Apollo Group)于今年8月斥资7,500万美元收购了自适应学习公司Carnegie Learning Technology。此外,NBC环球(NBCUniversal)、甚至迪斯尼(Disney)等公司也开始涉足在线学习领域。

    培生在收购方面无疑已经是老手。据投资银行Berkery Noyes透露,培生今年迄今为止已完成了六宗收购。该出版商于今年9月刚刚以4亿美元现金收购了总部位于巴尔的摩的网络虚拟学校运营商Connections Education。1月份,培生还以1.27亿美元收购了总部位于印度班加罗尔的在线学习初创企业TutorVista 76%的股权。

    据Berkery Noyes表示,今年迄今为止,教育行业并购活动合计规模达到78亿美元,较2010年全年的63亿美元有所上升。“业内正出现某种程度的圈地运动,”塔克说道,“培生等公司目睹传统业务正在缩水,所以正纷纷买入并投资于视线所及的一切目标。”

    过去的情况并非如此。教育行业与新闻和音乐等行业不同,作为媒体世界一部分,这个行业在某种程度上遏制了数字技术的颠覆性影响。该行业的主要业务合作伙伴是学校体系和大学,也就是所谓的正规市场,而这个市场的变革速度之慢令人发指。该市场与主要出版公司之间根深蒂固的业务关系亦丝毫未受电子技术的影响。

    小型公司通常很难在这个市场有所作为。费拉雷指出:“初创企业过去甚至从未曾试图涉足正规市场。与整个学区建立合作的可能性很小。这种情况确实限制了小公司的发展壮大。”

    但是,随着平板电脑逐步进入课堂和大学校园,以及传统课本出版以外的网络教育资源日益普及,一切都已开始改变。现在,该行业中的顶尖企业正在积极行动,为未来早做筹谋,即便这意味着必须与一家在过去可能会全盘收购的初创企业展开合作。“这看来就像他们(培生)所说的那样,‘既然我们面临这被颠覆的命运,不如让我们自我颠覆吧’”,总部位于华盛顿特区的教育智库Education Sector的董事总经理比尔•塔克这样说道。

    那么培生为何不自己开发一个类似产品呢?毕竟,2010年自由现金流总额达到14亿美元的培生早已在其被广泛使用的MyLab和Mastering软件中推出了类似特点。“市场上已经存在Knewton这样的公司,它专注于一点,并且表现出色。在这种情况下,培生很难复制它的成功,”培生教育出版集团(Pearson Education)高等教育数学部门总裁格雷格•托宾说。“我们可以做同样的事情,但这必然将花费我们更长的时间。”

    这样一来,Knewton这样的公司在讨价还价中就处于很有利的地位。有了重大支持和一流合作伙伴作为后盾,现在剩下的问题是,Knewton是否能以足够快的速度行动起来,满足市场的需求。“我们有点受宠若惊”,乔斯•费拉雷承认。“我们原本只是一个70人的团队,但到明年底可能将扩大至150人,甚至200人。”

    如果Knewton能够成功达成目标,它将成为教育行业大浪淘沙后幸存的公司之一。“只有少数公司能够成功完成这种过渡,”Education Sector的比尔•塔克称。“大部分公司要么会被淘汰出局,要么功亏一篑。”

    Selling out, cashing in and calling it a day seems to be many startup founders' dream these days. And in a shaky market, who can really blame them?

    New York-based Knewton is hanging tough. The online learning company announced on Tuesday that it is pairing up with Pearson to add its adaptive learning technology to all of the publisher's online courses, starting with its college-level programs.

    Instead of selling itself, Knewton has entered into an agreement with the industry giant, which might otherwise have been an acquirer. The deal is just the latest sign that some startups are holding their own with the industry's heavyweights as the market for new educational technology heats up.

    Knewton uses an algorithm to track how students learn, tailoring courses incrementally based on a student's individual strengths and weaknesses. The system is intended to grow more intelligent as more students use it, much like Google's (GOOG) search results.

    Pearson's close to 9 million college-age digital students will work within Knewton's system, creating a massive amount of coveted data on how student learn online. Pearson will get semi-exclusive access to Knewton's adaptive learning technology. And Knewton, which recently raised $33 million in venture capital funding in a round led by Pearson and Founders Fund, will get a share of proceeds based on the number of Pearson's (PSO) online students. "Pearson is a network effect wrapped up in a bow," says Jose Ferreira, Knewton's founder and CEO.

    Demand for online education is exploding. The global market for online learning at schools and businesses is expected to grow from $32.1 billion in 2010 to approximately $50 billion by 2015, according to research firm Ambient Insight. And Pearson is far from the only player that's fighting for a piece of that growth. News Corp (NWS) purchased a 90% stake in Brooklyn-based Wireless Generation for $360 million last November. Apollo Group (APOL) purchased Carnegie Learning Technology, an adaptive learning company, in a $75 million deal this past August. And companies like NBCUniversal and even Disney (DIS) have begun to dip their toes into the online learning business.

    Pearson is certainly no stranger to buying the competition. It has completed six acquisitions this year so far, according to investment banking firm Berkery Noyes. The publisher acquired Baltimore-based virtual school provider Connections Education in a $400 million cash deal in September. And in January, the company acquired a $127 million 76% stake in TutorVista, an online learning startup based in Bangalore, India.

    According to Berkery Noyes, there has been a total of $7.8 billion worth of mergers and acquisitions activity in the education industry so far this year, up from $6.3 billion for 2010. "There's a bit of a land grab going on," says Tucker. "Folks like Pearson are buying and investing in everything in sight because they are seeing legacy businesses disappear."

    It wasn't always like this. Unlike journalism and music for example, education has been the one part of the media world that has, more or less, kept digital disruption at bay. The industry's primary business partners -- school systems and universities, the so-called formal market - are notoriously slow to change. Deeply entrenched business ties with the major publishing companies don't hurt either.

    Smaller firms have traditionally had a hard time making much impact. "Startups have historically not even tried to take on the formal market. It's not that likely you are going to get a school district to work with you. It really limits growth," Ferreira says.

    That has begun to change as tablet computers make their way to classrooms and college campuses and as web-based education resources outside traditional textbook publishing become increasingly available. Now, the industry's top firms are rushing to secure their future -- even if it means partnering with a startup that it would have acquired outright in the past. "It seems like they [Pearson] are saying, 'if we are going to get disrupted, let's disrupt ourselves,'" says Bill Tucker, managing director at Washington, D.C.-based think tank Education Sector.

    Why not create a similar product in-house? After all, Peason, which reported a total of $1.4 billion in free cash flow in 2010, already offers similar features in its widely used MyLab and Mastering software. "When you have a group like Knewton, focused on doing one thing and one thing well, it's hard for Pearson to replicate," says Greg Tobin, president of the higher education math division at Pearson Education. "You could say that we could do the same thing, but it sure as heck would take us a lot longer."

    That puts firms like Knewton in a good position to bargain. With major backing and a first tier partner, the question is whether Knewton can mobilize quickly enough to meet demand. "We are overwhelmed," admits Knewton's Ferreira. "We're 70 people now and I think we'll grow to 150, maybe 200 by the end of next year."

    If they can pull it off, they will be among very select company within the education industry. "Few companies make that transition," says Education Sector's Bill Tucker. "They either get taken out or they don't make it."

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