The growing prevalence of massively open learning platforms and open education resources is bringing a sea change to the educational landscape. High-profile institutions have begun to adopt and launch open courseware initiatives (like EdX and Coursera) and, in so doing, are changing the ways we think about — and even define — the learning process. As a result, we’re seeing less and less value being placed on content as a means of defining and structuring the learning process, with the focus shifting instead to engagement, interactivity, and collaboration.
When we last spoke to BenchPrep CEO Ashish Rangnekar, the vision he laid out for his business was very much influenced by this transformation. At the time, he said that the most effective educational content no longer comes in book or even eBook form, but is instead fundamentally interactive, dynamic and cross-platform.
This interactivity is not a gimmick or a feature, it’s a kinetic interplay between design, digital content and interface that is built into the service or software or app itself. It’s not a wrapper or badges, it takes advantage of both hardware and software and fundamentally improves the learning experience of the user.
It’s an uphill battle, but the BenchPrep founders have been on a mission to build an adaptive, API-based learning hub for interactive courses that sits on top of a reservoir of content — where students define the value of the content based on engagement and whether or not it resonates with their personal learning style.
To this point, the BrenchPrep co-founder tells us that, based on what he’s seen, students now think about content ownership in a very different (and probably more nuanced) way than they did five years ago — or even when I was growing up. Students now look at educational content more as a service than as a product.
As a result, the startup is beginning to position itself as an “Education-as-a-Service” provider as a reflection of how the learning process is being redefined. To this point, BenchPrep is today dropping its old pricing scheme in favor of a subscription model, throwing out its per-course pricing in which students paid $100 and up for each course. Beginning today, BenchPrep is instituting a $30/month subscription rate that provides unlimited access to the startup’s courses, whether it be from their computers, phones, or tablets.
Beyond eliminating the need to purchase individual courses, the new subscription model also reduces the cost of interactive coursework for students, allowing them to navigate between courses to explore new areas or brush up on old ones.
The motivation behind this is fairly transparent. Under the new model, students have the ability to explore a variety of courses without having to pay $100 for each course. Rangnekar tells me that the old pricing kept students from branching out and exploring unrelated topics, sticking instead to the ones they’d bought, not wanting to shell out $100 every time they saw a course that interested them.
Obviously, the new pricing takes BenchPrep from on-demand to subscription, so, as much as I like this move (hey, it’s worked for at least a few software companies), it’s hard to imagine that there won’t be any friction in terms of adoption. College students (thanks to the U.S.’ one trillion-dollar loan debt) aren’t exactly flush with cash. They’re hesitant to shell out more than $20 for anything.
So, it’s obviously about proving the value proposition. A big part of that is the ability for Students to create their own learning programs by combining different types of courses and content across a range of subjects. And since BenchPrep has forged partnerships with the top-tier publishers, like McGraw Hill, Princeton Review, Wiley, Cengage Learning, and O’Reilly, they’re using this amazing educational content to build an interactive course library that turns flat education into an interactive learning experience.
With the new subscription strategy, for example, a student taking a college math course on BenchPrep could easily go back and take a refresher course on lower level math without paying for two different classes. And going forward, making it easy to navigate across courses could help make it easy for students to create their own learning program.
As to the long-term trajectory of BenchPrep, certainly the $30/month subscription pricing scene seems like it’s a shot across the bow of higher ed. And while the CEO envisions a day when BenchPrep’s platform could actually provide an alternative to traditional higher ed, in the near term he sees it as a complimentary tool. This means that BenchPrep could, say, perfect their curriculum for Intro-level college courses, so that traditional universities can focus on more advanced courses.
For BenchPrep it’s all a sign that its starting to cull together the best and most engaging aspects of its platform’s learning experience, whether in content or in gamification. Launching more courses, striking content partnerships and opening those APIs will see BenchPrep.
BenchPrep landed $6 million in series B venture funding in July, a round that was led by NEA and Revolution, with participation from Lightbank. The company has raised $8.2 million to date.