2020 was an unforgettable year for our local communities, regional governance, and the world. This year challenged individuals, companies, and communities in a plethora of ways. In the same breath, 2020 provided unique opportunities for individuals, companies, and entities to innovate. Undeniably, 2020 signaled to most that, that we are in a new era of communication and collaboration.
As the co-founder of ecoText, a collaborative digital learning platform that brings academic resources to life while unlocking classroom discussion and insights, I observed the education sector react in a magnitude of ways that will have effects felt years from today. Here is a glimpse of our adventurous journey in 2020, highlighting what we learned, milestones achieved, and our perspective on how we can continue to provide opportunity through affordability in 2021.
The ecoText Mission
ecoText was founded in 2018 with a core mission of helping students save on out-of-pocket academic costs. Parents and students nationwide are expected to budget $1,200 a year for the books they need to achieve an education. As a not-so-removed Electrical Engineering student, I consistently felt this financial burden during my collegiate experiences.
Alongside increasing prices, most of my peers were disappointed with their rare utilization and inability to sell the title back at a modest price. The question was posed, how can students get their books economically while maximizing their engagement?
That was the fundamental vision that started ecoText as we sought to introduce a disruptive perspective into this market space.
Leading up to 2020, ecoText was built slowly. We focused most of our resources and efforts on understanding the edTech market, retrieving customer feedback, and asking many questions to assist with directional product guidance.
2020 for myself and the ecoText team commenced with running small and manageable pilots with our product that was considered pre-MVP. During these pilots, we uncovered a couple of key basic insights:
a) Professors are overwhelmed.
They are to juggling online assignments and assessments while facilitating via a physical textbook. Many of these resources and tools aren’t centralized. As a result, switching out of a particular service or platform tends to lead to more pain.
b) Students are naturally inclined towards digital titles.
We surveyed over 1,000 students and found that roughly 80% of participants would prefer a digital copy if the price is less than its physical counterpart.
c) 30% of enrolled higher-ed students reported taking at least one digital course.
This trend is one that is only projected to increase. Mobility and accessibility are now substantial considerations when selecting courses.
d) Our product at the time was too limited.
Participants indicated that features regarding collaboration needed to be expanded and more robust. The application needed to embody or extend the traditional social, collaborative ecosystems that Millennials and Generation Z are already familiar with.
I concluded that if ecoText wanted to accelerate growth and adequately advance the product, we needed to raise capital to support these endeavors. As a team, we initially aimed to raise capital via equity crowdfunding mechanisms due to our confidence in raising quickly. We set our campaign to launch mid-late March, which was the same time period COVID-19 paralyzed the national economy. We naturally delayed the campaign launch for several weeks. Modifying the launch date presented its own complications; the longer the delay, the less opportunity we would have to be launch-ready by the Fall semester.
Excitement for Innovation
There was a lot of volatility in education throughout the summer. We were receiving mixed signals from academia about their intentions with digital classes and anticipated enrollment impact. We continued to build relationships with professors and prepare them for a product release as we started slowing down the equity crowdfunding campaign.
August aggressively presented itself, and ecoText was available in the final weeks of that month with 65,000 titles. No launch is perfect, we had a couple of bugs and weird technical quirks, but at the minimum, the application was on the market. During this phase, we officially established our pricing. We adopted a dedication of providing all the Open Educational Resource content for free and relying on the collaboration tools as the core product value.
Just within several weeks, we gained interesting traction. We observed sign-ups from users representing 13 different universities. Additionally, we saw a relative explosion in visits, engagements, and clicks from our website and social media platforms.
Our buzz gained the attention of other investors that were curious about the evolving educational space. Fast forward to Q4 of 2020, we raised an additional half a million dollars in funding, closed 2 partnerships (MERLOT & OpenStax), and pilots from a handful of universities across the nation.
We also contributed to the bigger conversations about education, open access, and layers of learning. We were virtually present at the Open Education Conference, held workshops with universities and podcast features.
As a consequence of collaborating and connecting with a spectrum of diverse academic professors, our team further embraced the enormity of impact we could have on the statistical cross-section of collegiate retention rates, transfer rates, and job placement.
a) Low-cost resources reduce barriers for students.
b) Day one access to books increases student performance and decreases transfer/dropout rates.
c) Digital collaboration is now widely seen as a modern skill in the job market.
d) Academically successful alumni are more likely to donate or become a bridge for job opportunities.
With the aid of several statistical resources and studies conducted by programs such as Affordable Learning Georgia, our team now has the tools to correlate the investment of low-cost academic resources to admissions and student performance. By democratizing access to academic resources, we can help schools deliver an optimal digital experience while slashing student costs and providing educators more qualitative tools to engage more dynamically.
Increased Educational Opportunity in 2021
ecoText, at its core, has always been about opportunity. As an undergraduate, I witnessed firsthand my peers countless times forfeit an assignment simply because they did not have their required materials. I observed frustrated students repeatedly attempt to resell their textbooks for cents on the dollar because they had come to the personal conclusion that they needed any financial return available from their academic investment.
Educators are also torn, forced into a delicate balancing act of designing courses with particular goals while ensuring that it is equitable for students. In today’s digital climate, classroom collaboration has decreased, resulting in a lack of shared diverse thoughts, perspectives, and reactions. The ecoText founding team identified these trends years prior, and we established a mission to restore opportunity and democratize academic resources. Whether it’s increasing students’ ability to pursue their educational goals with less financial friction or assisting in sparking discussions within the margins among learners to increase cross-disciplinary collaboration. We have the ability to magnify these opportunities via tech. Our goals remain the same on the other side of the educational spectrum, leveraging technology to give educators more opportunities to understand and facilitate the modern classroom. 2020 was a great year to build the infrastructure needed.
As 2021 commenced, one of the biggest challenges we are looking to solve is the friction of discovering and adopting Open Educational Resource content. Most product-related efforts will be focused on developing more robust mechanisms to help users find titles using educational context.
2021 for ecoText is about echoing the success stories from students, universities, and community colleges leveraging low-cost edTech. 2021 will prioritize growth, measuring engagement impact, and continued strategic partnerships. Our team seeks to become expert listeners, being keen on the user journey and promptly making micro-adjustments in an industry that has been complacent for too long.
Thank you for gifting ecoText the opportunity to impact one’s educational journey. Let’s continue to create opportunity through affordability.
Joel Nkounkou CEO, ecoText, Inc