Qualcomm, the giant $26 billion wireless technology conglomerate, acquired EmpoweredU - a mobile-first learning platform available for the education market. What does this acquisition mean?
Who is EmpoweredU?
The company was created by CEO Steve Poizner in 2011 in partnership with Creative Artists Agency, the world's largest sports and talent agency, under the name "Encore Career Institute". The initial work was to offer continuing ed classes targeted at Baby Boomers through the UCLA extension. ((These are certificate programs for $5,000 - $10,000 total tuition.)) In essence, this was an Online Service Provider (OSP) model similar to Embanet, Deltak, Academic Partnerships and 2U. As described by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2011:
Poizner, in an interview at the firm's headquarters this week, said the company combines "three of California's greatest assets" - its famed public university system, the creative know-how of its technology center, Silicon Valley, and the cutting-edge marketing savvy of Hollywood. [snip]
In addition to its employment potential for Baby Boomers, Poizner said, the collaboration could bring new revenue for cash-strapped UCLA and thousands of new students from around the nation to its online courses.
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The company changed names to Empowered Careers and then eventually settled on EmpoweredU.
In the meantime they figured out that the OSP model is high risk and expensive, often requiring investments of $1 - $10 million per program by the OSP, with revenue-sharing profits occurring several years later. EmpoweredU has pivoted over the past year to become a mobile-first learning platform with content services.
The platform is built on top of the Canvas open source version offered by Instructure and started pilots at 15+ schools this spring (including specific programs at USC, UC Berkeley, U of San Francisco, etc). This may be the most significant use of open source Canvas, and it might end up competing with Canvas, at least indirectly.
As we'll see later, EmpoweredU is also attempting to create a learning ecosystem that can combine multiple technologies.
Why is Qualcomm making an ed tech acquisition?
I interviewed Vicki Mealer (Senior Director, Business Development, Qualcomm Labs, which is the unit acquiring EmpoweredU) and Steve Poizner today. Vicki's description of Qualcomm's interest in ed tech is that they are all about mobile technology, and they have had a philanthropic interest in education for years (donating over $240 million cash to various institutions). Qualcomm wants to be a behind-the-scenes cheerleader, but they also need an ecosystem for each market. Qualcomm Labs started looking at education a year ago, trying to identify and overcome barriers for adoption of mobile technology. Some of the perceived barriers:
- The digital divide leading to students having gaps in their connectivity (wi-fi vs. cellular);
- Vendor lock-in and lack of modularity, causing school leaders to have painful technology replacement decisions to move into a mobile strategy; and
- A lack of software and tools for instructors to take advantage of mobile features and be able to develop curriculum that leverages the technology - partially to have instructors catch up to where the students are.
For Qualcomm Labs, EmpoweredU can provide the modular ecosystem for education and shares their device-agnostic views. This will help them accelerate adoption of mobile in education.
Steve is becoming the SVP of a new business unit within the Labs, called Qualcomm Education. The EmpoweredU unit will combine with a separate Mobile Learning Framework initiative and broaden its focus to K-20.
Should we care?
I visited the company in May of this year and saw a very different design approach than the current generation of browser-based learning platforms that have added mobile features as after-the-face enhancements. At this point EmpoweredU is a niche player only targeting specific academic programs that can afford an iPad one-to-one approach or similar methods to ensure that all students have tablets. Longer term they see this need broadening out to entire institutions. The technology has a full browser interface, so the company could target institution-wide opportunities should they choose.
What is meant by mobile-first in this case is that the platform was conceived and designed around the iPad, directly integrating device features such as location as well as camera and microphone input. In addition, the platform uses push notifications to alert students to assignments or due dates.
One feature that I find quite important for the mobile world is automatic caching to allow offline access. The default setup syncs the current, past, and next week's material to the device while connected, allowing offline work that will be re-synched when back on the network.
While the platform was written originally for the iPad, they now support multiple devices and have one pilot that is web only.
In a nod to their OSP origins and content-generating experience, EmpoweredU offers "content sherpas" and a content authoring system. The idea is to support faculty and designers who are attempting to design courses and content that take advantage of the mobile platform.
They released initial analytics support in the spring.
During the interview, it became apparent that Qualcomm is interested not just in the learning platform, but in EmpoweredU's broader plans to create an ecosystem.
I pushed them to describe who would be their competitors, either in higher ed or K-12, but they would not directly answer. They kept coming back to the ecosystem and the ability to provide a modular approach and not force rip and replace strategies. I can see this in theory but question what this means in reality.
From an initial look at the company, it will be interesting to watch to see if Qualcomm's financial backing will allow EmpoweredU to move beyond a niche provider for select programs and attempt to directly compete in the LMS market for institutions or at least compete more broadly. It will also be interesting to see if they are successful in their entrance to the K-12 market. If so, the learning platform market will get even more interesting.
As for the full ecosystem, there are not enough details to understand how seriously to take this approach. Are schools even ready for this approach? How does this ecosystem relate to the LTI specifications that are fundamentally changing the ed tech market? I have many questions in this area that we'll have to watch over time.
Update: Corrected University of San Francisco reference (and not UC San Francisco) per comments below.