Google Capital Makes First Education Investment

Partnership may raise data privacy concerns.

Students work on computers in the classroom.

Google Capital will invest $40 million in education technology company Renaissance Learning.

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Renaissance Learning, an assessment and learning data analytics company, announced Wednesday it had received a $40 million investment from Google Capital.

As a result of the investment – the third Google Capital has made overall and its first investment in education – a representative of Google Capital will sit on the company's board of directors. 

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"All over the world, technology has opened new doors for students to learn both in the classroom and at home," Gene Frantz of Google Capital said in a statement. "For many educators, the question is not whether to embrace new technology, but how to embrace technology in a way that makes teachers' lives easier and meaningfully boosts student achievement." 

Jack Lynch, chief executive officer of Renaissance Learning, says any partnership with Google naturally brings questions of data privacy and security, and that those "are very good concerns." Still, he says nothing will change as a result of the investment and the company's new board member. 

"All the data we have that references personal students is highly secure. It's for teachers and parents and students only," Lynch says. "We're unambiguous about it. We meet the highest data privacy standards that are out there."

Although data privacy concerns have been brought into the spotlight in recent months, data collection in schools has been around for decades. Software created by Renaissance Learning, such as its Accelerated Reader and Accelerated Math products, is in use in about one-third of all schools in the U.S. The Acclerated Math software, for example, uses a plot progression to track what students know and don't know, based on how they answer certain questions. Then, the teacher can use that data to help inform their subsequent instruction. 

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But Lynch says the company is not looking to use technology to improve student achievement, but rather wants to harness technology "to unlock the power of the teacher in the classroom." 

"We have this abiding belief that only a teacher really knows the specific challenges that student is bringing into her classroom, whether they're school-related, home-related or challenges the student was born with," Lynch says. 

Lynch says the combination of falling digital device prices (some Chromebooks start at less than $250) and "one-to-one" initiatives, which seek to equip every student with a digital device, will cause the ratio of students to learning devices to continue to close. That closing gap, he says, opens up opportunities to create more engaging and immersive instruction for students who are "digital natives," as well as more personalized instruction for those who are struggling. 

The Subtext e-reading platform Renaissance Learning acquired in August, for example, allows teachers to embed videos, audio or questions directly into the texts students are reading. This can be particularly helpful for aligning instruction to the Common Core State Standards, Lynch says, which put an emphasis on close reading. 

"There are Common Core probes a teacher will ask to ensure the student knows how to cite evidence in an argument," Lynch says. "Along the way, it helps the teacher track how well students are achieving Common Core objectives."

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Moving forward, Lynch says he hopes to use the investment to build and strengthen a relationship with Google. Currently, he says, many teachers use products such as Google Docs to upload test reports and share the results with parents. 

"There are natural synergies educators are taking advantage of," Lynch says. "We're looking to really maximize the opportunities that exist between our two companies."

Corrected on Feb. 19, 2014: This article previously misstated the investment amount.