Top Hat Monocle snags $8M to turn students’ cell phones, laptops into tools for in-class learning

Over the past few years, the use of hand-held “clickers,” which enable students to respond to professors and live polls during class, has seen adoption on college campuses nationwide. But Toronto-based Top Hat Monocle is angling to replace the remote control-like devices with software that can turn any student device — smartphone, feature phone and laptop — into a more robust tool for classroom learning.
Since launching its service in 2010, the company has spread to more than 150 colleges and universities worldwide (although it’s mostly in the U.S. and Canada). But with a new $8 million investment, announced Wednesday, the company plans to ramp up sales and marketing to more aggressively push into the higher education market. The Series A financing was led by Emergence Capital Partners and iNovia Capital, and also included SoftTech VC, Version One Ventures and Golden Venture Partners.
“The idea is to transform the student experience from passive to active and engaging,” said Mike Silagadze, CEO and founder of Top Hat Monocle. “In the last couple of years, every student has a mobile device that they bring with them into the classroom. This presents a remarkable opportunity to transform the classroom without having to go through the university.”
Traditional clicker companies, such as iClicker and Turning Technologies, sell their devices to the universities. But Silagadze said his company’s approach has been to target the professors themselves with a model similar to that employed by textbook companies. The professors use the platform for free and recommend it to students, who then pay $20 per semester to use the software on the devices of their choosing. Not all students choose to purchase the subscription, Silagadze said, but, on average, opt-in rates are 90 percent.
Web-based platform enables live polls, quizzes, contests
Competitor clicker companies, like the ones mentioned above, are also starting to roll out programs that bring their services to students’ smartphones. But while those programs tend to only offer polling functionality, Top Hat Monocle’s platform goes beyond polling to enable live quizzes and collaborative discussions, which Silagadze said are like Reddit threads for the classroom because students can submit responses on different topics and then react to their classmates’ replies. He also said professors can use the platform for mini experiments and demonstrations, in which students see supplementary content on their own devices, as well as contests and competitions.
On average, the company said its research shows that students who use the Top Hat Monocle platform increase their grades by three to five percent and report higher levels of satisfaction with the classroom experience.
Software productively engages technology that could otherwise be distracting
For students who are increasingly used to multi-tasking and dual-screen experiences, this could seem like a natural new way to interact in the classroom. The platform could also bring in the voices of those who have something to say but are too shy to raise their hands in front of a big classroom. Professors who view cell phones and other devices as competition in capturing students’ attention could see this as an opportunity to engage the new technology productively, as long as it doesn’t detract from old-fashioned modes of classroom interaction, such as verbal discussion.
In the short term, asking students to pay $20 on top of the $30 to $40 they may already have to shell out for a traditional clicker is a lot to ask. But, the $20 subscription lets students use the software in any classroom, Silagadze said. So while the company is targeting professors individually, as more teachers at a given school use the software, the value to students will increase.
The investment from Emergence, which also backed Yammer(s MSFT) and Salesforce(s CRM), made sense, Silagadze added, because of the parallels between the ways in which those software-as-a-service companies penetrated enterprise and the way Top Hat Monocle is entering higher education.
“[They] got into large organizations through the ground up,” he said. “In the same way, we get a few professors and students using it at a university and then it spreads virally through the organization.”