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Education technology is a weird little industry. But you may never fully appreciate exactly how weird until you start to dig into the numbers for 2014 — a record year for investment in education technology companies.

How weird is it? It’s an industry that has entirely different approaches for sales to K-12 schools, to higher education institutions, to corporations for training and to individuals for lifelong learning. It’s an industry that can’t agree on whether it should be abbreviated as “edtech,” “ed-tech,” “edu-tech” or “Ed Tech.” One of its fastest-growing events, the five-year-old SXSWedu conference, is held every March in the city of “Keep Austin Weird” fame.

edtechfundingrecord

Yet none of that stopped edtech (my fave) from definitively hitting record highs for accelerator and venture capital firm investment in startups and more established companies last year. No matter how you define or abbreviate it.

  • Edtech information site EdSurge tallies U.S. edtech investment in 2014 at a record $1.36B, up from $1.2B the year earlier.
  • Venture capital database CB Insights puts global (not only U.S.) edtech investment at a record $1.87B, up from $1.2B in 2013.
  • Market research firm Ambient Insight tags global edtech investment at $2.34B, the first time it’s put the total at more than two billion dollars, and up from the earlier record $1.64B last year.

For those who haven’t been around a classroom since the turn of the century, the term edtech can cover everything from custom-designed hardware for education (such as data collection sensors by Ward’s Science and tablets by Amplify), to software and apps used for instruction (think Khan Academy for math or Duolingo for world languages), to tools and platforms to support course delivery and administration (including Blackboard’s learning management system or teaching resource marketplace TeachersPayTeachers).

Last year’s biggest single deal was online IT and developer training firm Pluralsight’s $135M. But that already has been dwarfed by the $186M raised this month by online course company Lynda.com, which CB Insights has described as the largest investment in an edtech company since at least 2010. Both are approaching one billion dollar valuations, a benchmark CB Insights colorfully calls “unicorn valuation territory.”

Setting aside the small matter of a few hundred thousand dollars here and there (methodologies, and definitions of what constitutes “education technology,” vary), and sporadic talk of a bubble, there is universal agreement: 2014 made records. As did 2013 before it. As might 2015 ahead.

But beyond that is where the details begin to get a little weird, odd, and very interesting, with potential lessons for entrepreneurs and investors alike.

China, and international, are surging

A stunning 24% of all the investment dollars that Ambient Insight tracks went to companies operating in China. That’s up from six percent in 2013 and “a meager 1 percent” in 2012, says Ambient’s Sam Adkins. EdSurge’s Betsy Corcoran also has noticed the rise in international investments by investors, “eager to fund companies in their geography to build education technology.”

It’s not just about the student at school

Say “edtech,” and outsiders usually think of kids at computers or tablets. But that’s not where all the deal action is, even in the U.S. “In 2014, there were only 26 VC-led deals for curriculum products, amounting to $57M in funding,” notes EdSurge’s Corcoran. “That’s a ‘plink!’ in the funding ocean: just 9% of the total number of VC deals and 4% of the total amount of funding.”

Adkins of Ambient Insight says there’s a global trend he calls ‘Retail Education:’ “The massive amount of money going to consumer-facing companies across the planet is amazing and escapes the attention of most analysts that tend to focus on corporate or academic companies.”

A later-stage funding wall looms

There’s a ton of edtech action at the seed and Series A levels. But much beyond? Compared to all types of tech investments by round, the number of U.S. edtech deals is “pretty equivalent,” says EdSurge’s Tyler McNally. But looking at dollars, “Things are pretty out of whack. On a percentage basis, there is just not a lot of capital out there for edtech in later stages,” he explains.

Ambient’s Adkins observes, “It appears the investors are willing to invest in more startups in the last two years, but not willing to take on much risk with them.”

It’s not just about startups

The largest edtech investments, Adkins says, are going to established companies. And, measured in tech years, old ones. CB Insights’ Matthew Wong points out Lynda.com, “is 18 years old and profitable, while (course delivery platform) Desire2Learn ($85M) was founded back in 1999.” On the flip side, home-school messaging startup Remind ($40M) and school district single software sign-on startup Clever ($30M) are newbies, founded in the past few years.

Yet despite all the records and excitement, edtech investment is, well, relatively lame. Uber alone raised $2.4B last year – more than the entire, most optimistic, worldwide education technology investment figure for all of 2014. Edtech venture funding is a rounding error in blockbuster tech terms.

As if in subconscious acknowledgement of the difference of scale, a startup innovation competition at this month’s Florida Education Technology Conference was dubbed not the Shark, Octopus or Orca, but the “Goldfish Tank.”

So edtech, at least in terms of investment, is a little weird. But in that charming, awkward kindergartener kind of way, like someone who — with or without epic funding numbers — may still grow up to be a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.

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