North Carolina’s community colleges were among the first to embrace an NC IDEA-funded online tutoring platform called Upswing
They saw the big vision of founder Melvin Hines to reverse traditionally high dropout rates, by offering his company’s on-demand virtual tutoring, advising and coaching and using its powerful analytics to track student performance over time.
Their initial support helped Upswing win the grant
that’s now funding development of its mobile platform, along with more than $800,000 from a mix of local investors like the Charlotte Angel Fund, Hines' Duke Fuqua School of Business Professor Ashish Arora
and Triangle resident Linda Bohnel
, and national ones connected through the Tech Wildcatters accelerator program Upswing completed in Dallas in 2014.
And those investors, along with early success with 29 community colleges around the nation, have prompted Upswing to grow faster, this time through acquisition.
Late in 2015, the Durham and Austin-based company acquired Boston’s AskOnline
to become the fourth largest online tutoring platform for higher education. The terms of the deals weren't disclosed.
The deal allows Upswing to reach 500,000 students in 52 schools, along with providing access to more than a decade of student data that Hines plans to use to improve the product and service moving forward. It's the latest big news for the Triangle's growing EdTech community, and represents the nationwide focus on innovation in the field. According to edSurge, funding to EdTech startups topped $1.85 billion last year, setting a new funding record.
AskOnline was a good match for Upswing because of the analytics and deep experience accumulated over 13 years in business, Hines told me on the phone last week.
AskOnline was founded by then Harvard student Mac Dougherty in 2003. It was initially a way for undergraduates at the college to tutor middle and high school students in Boston public schools, but evolved into a platform that has served 125 colleges and high schools across North America. Rather than provide coaches like Upswing, it serves as a platform for existing tutors (and advisors/counselors) to manage curricula, scheduling, reporting and workload, along with offering online chat rooms and Skype integration.
AskOnline had 18 customers at the time of acquisition, Hines says. A larger cohort of students gives Upswing a larger sample size to study, in hopes of ensuring better outcomes for every student.
"We want to identify that similar students with particular backgrounds are much more able to be successful if they take a set of recommended steps," he says. "For us to be confident to say that, we needed a bigger cohort."
The deal means Dougherty joins the Upswing board of directors, one of its employees moves to Durham and another, a developer, stays remote to oversee the AskOnline platform. Hines is still deciding whether to keep AskOnline—renamed AskUp—separate from the Upswing platform or to integrate it into Upswing's existing mentor, tutor and advising offerings.
He also hopes to finish the mobile platform soon—three colleges are testing it now—and to expand into four-year colleges. Upswing's goal has always been to shift from an online tutoring company that collects data to a data company that does tutoring. Hines wants to help as many colleges struggling with attrition as possible.
As he told me back in 2014 when he earned the grant: "We want to be considered experts in the field when it comes to education retention. That's where we see the next step in our growth."