BenchPrep raises $6M to win ‘hearts and minds’ of students

The battle over students’ time and attention is heating up. Chicago-based education technology startup BenchPrep today announced that it has raised $6 million to bring personalized and interactive test prep materials to students via the internet and mobile.
The funding round, which was led by New Enterprise Associates (NEA) with participation from Revolution Ventures, follows a $2.2 million investment last year from Lightbank (whose founders backed Groupon (s grpn)).
“The vision is to become the one single platform where a student would come and study any subject from any publisher on any device,” co-founder Ashish Rangnekar said. “We want to be sure that the experience of the student is top notch. If we don’t win the attention and heart and mind of the student, nothing else matters.”
Launched last year, BenchPrep licenses textbooks from more than 20 publishers and then re-organizes the content into interactive courses for high school, college and professional certification students tailored to their learning needs. For example, as students read text, they can mark their confidence level, indicating material that might need further review later on. Or, after they complete tests, the platform can recommend additional reading based on questions they missed.
It also provides flashcards, games and other engagement-oriented features based on the textbooks, as well as reports and analysis on student performance. Eventually, it wants to build on its adaptive learning platform to become a general learning platform that also enables social networking between students and teachers.
Rangnekar said the company doesn’t want to focus on content — which it thinks is already adequately provided by traditional publishers, as well as newer organizations such as Khan Academy — but on how that content is delivered to students.
But it’s not the only ed tech startup tackling that problem. New York-based Knewton has been working since 2008 to bring adaptive learning to students around the world, Pearson-backed Alleyoop has an adaptive learning program for teens and San Francisco-based Grockit also offers customized, online test prep materials. When it comes to social networking, startups Schoology, Lore (formerly Coursekit) and Edmodo all offer platforms which serve that function in some way. Also, similar to BenchPrep, Boston-based Boundless Learning, which uses open source content to provide textbook alternatives, aims to turn the static, linear textbook experience into something more fluid and customized.
It’s still early days for the education technology sector, so it will be interesting to see how the different startups mature. BenchPrep competes with different companies across different parts of its business, but its goal of being a platform that can work with different players and its early move to mobile could serve it well.
Founded in 2009 by Rangnekar and Ujjwal Gupta as Watermelon Express, BenchPrep (which changed its name last year) said it has about 250,000 student users who can choose from a selection of more than 500 course titles. The company said 25 percent of its students are in high school, 50 percent are in college and 25 percent are professional certification students.