THE BLOG
11/04/2013 01:59 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Education Integration: How One Company Is Revolutionizing Ed-Tech

Education technology startups are rapidly changing the way we learn. But they haven't gotten there alone - in fact, many startups lean on technology developed by others to shake things up.

One innovative company doing just that is ed-tech startup 2U, formerly known as 2tor. Founded in 2008, 2U partners with elite colleges and universities to build, administer and market comprehensive online degree programs. So far, prestigious institutions like George Washington University, Wake Forrest University, UC Berkeley and Washington University in Saint Louis have partnered with the company.

But 2U does more than merely provide online degree programs: the company welds together and synthesizes several different technologies to provide students with a total college experience that radically raises the bar for online education.

2U is unique in that it caters to students in a very personalized manner, taking a page out of social networking sites like Facebook. In fact, the company aims to replicate campus life on the Web - and by many accounts, it succeeds. Creating a supportive environment and a sense of community is a full-scale operation. To help reach this goal, the startup wields an arsenal of technological tools from the likes of Salesforce, Adobe Connect and Kaltura, as well as technology developed by 2U itself.

Let's take a look at the tech ingredients that aid 2U's success:

Salesforce: Making Administration And Service Easy

2U has built its entire learning management system on Salesforce, which provides cloud-based customer relationship management (CRM) software. 2U uses Salesforce for all of its internal business systems and customer service purposes.

"[Salesforce] is the best, most intuitive, and efficient way to do what we do," explained James Kenigsberg, 2U's CTO and a founding member of the company.

Starting with the application process, Salesforce is used to manage students' records, demographic information and contact information all throughout their academic career until graduation. Students can call 2U 24/7 and expect to speak to a real person who will address the student by name. Each student is assigned a personal 2U representative he or she can contact for anything from tech support to financial aid to difficulties navigating administration. The representatives have all of the students' information at their fingertips, which allows them to provide students with the utmost care and assistance.

Representatives will even contact students or administration to follow up or inquire about their wellbeing. Using an early warning system, Salesforce can indicate whether or not a student's level of interaction with the program is strong or weak. For example, the system shows frequency of logins, views of lectures and interaction with professors and students. A student who is 'trending' negatively will receive a call from a 2U representative for a check up. In some cases, a representative will contact the administration or an academic advisor, meaning 2U students may be less likely to fall through academic cracks that lead to missed assignments, bad grades or drop-outs.

2U also uses Salesforce to make the application process faster, easier and less stressful. Students can use 2U to keep track of their applications and access materials and resources to assist them in filling out their applications. Rather than sifting through mountains of paper, university admissions faculty can access students' applications with a click of their smartphone. 2U has made what is often an arduous process - something that can take anywhere from three to nine months - into a breeze. In fact, 2U students can find out whether or not they were accepted to a degree program within a day of sending their applications. Further, every service 2U provides - from admission applications to video lectures to live classes to customer support - is mobile compatible with Android and iOS.

Adobe Connect Gives Students And Faculty Face-Time

Sure, it's great to have a CRM system keeping records in place. But students and professors need technology to help them meet in real-time, too.

For these purposes, Adobe Connect offers conference call software that 2U has used to rev up its online learning environment. Students use the program for online classes, in which each student can see one another as well as the professor via live streaming video. The professor has complete control of the classroom and can choose when to activate each student's microphone. In fact, employees at the new 2U waterfront office in Chelsea Piers, Manhattan also use the program for conference calls.

Kaltura Takes Care Of Videos

Kaltura, a leading provider of open source video software, helps 2U meet all of its video needs. It helps 2U produce what it calls 'Oyster videos' - the first video lecture 2U produced was about oyster shucking. With the help of Kaltura's platform, the startup is able to provide students with high-quality, 'movie-style' videos, complete with professional actors that help bring classroom lessons to life.

Professors are given creative leeway to design videos that serve as case studies, complete with humorous movie trailers. In one example, a course for social workers includes a series of videos in which actors act out therapy sessions. And in an Oyster video series created for a course on Shakespeare, scenes from the famous playwright's productions are acted out while the professor adds commentary and asks viewers questions. Students can then submit answers using Salesforce Chatter and see the answers submitted by their fellow students. The videos create an engaging and interactive learning environment that successfully bridges the gap between education and entertainment.

An Online Robot Offers Unparalleled Experience

Yep, you read that right. 2U also offers students the help of an online robot named Gus.

Gus is a simulated patient that medical students, nursing students, midwives-in-training and others can use for online classes that require more hands-on instruction. Gus can get sick, give birth and generally give students the ability to practice physical care from behind their computer screens, all in the comfort of their own homes.

Original Technology Keeps Things Social

Finally, a sophisticated social network has been created from code 2U employees wrote themselves. Constructed in a manner that resembles Facebook, the social network is divided into two parts - academic and social. Students can choose which part they want to activate at any given time.

The academic platform provides class updates, assignment reminders and other notifications. The social portion allows students to 'friend' one another and interact with professors.

The network is instrumental in replicating the campus experience on the Web, says Kenigsberg. "Students who use 2U come away with friendships and a sense of pride and school spirit just like on-campus students," he says. "In fact, many students who complete online degree programs using 2U often enthusiastically fly out for the in-person graduation ceremonies at their own expense."

Fueled by the enthusiastic support of progressive university administrations, faculty and students, 2U has grown to become one of the most successful ed-tech startups in the world. The startup has raised the bar for online education not just by adapting the latest technology and partnering with traditional educational institutions, but by creating a sense of community and a state-of-the-art educational and social experience for all.