Since launch, "learning pods" have been controversial in the world of edtech. The term, somewhat synonymous with micro-schools, pandemic pods and small-group learning, describes small clusters of children within the same age range who are paired with a private instructor with the goal of replacing, or supplementing, school learning.
The concept took off last year as working parents looked for a way to supplement their children’s video-based school days with more engaging, personalized material. Some edtech entrepreneurs predicted that the trend would usher in a new wave of homeschooled children, which would disproportionately favor affluent families that could afford pod-learning to begin with. Tyton Partners estimates that 7 million students were enrolled in supplemental learning pods last year, which drove $12 billion in new spend.
Now, nearly a year after the first pods popped up, one startup coming out of Y Combinator has a fresh take on the role that the emerging learning model plays in schooling. KaiPod Learning, founded by the former chief product officer of Pearson Online Learning, Amar Kumar, recently launched its learning pod service that aims to connect homeschooled children with in-person, supplemental learning pods.
The Boston-based startup wants to be the go-to platform for online learners and learning pod families to get in-person interactions into their curriculum. The startup is starting by targeting homeschooling families in need of a boost to refresh existing curriculum.
KaiPod begins by helping parents pick the best online school for their child, whether it’s through a virtual micro-school like Sora Schools or a homeschooling program set up by locals. This process makes sure that students get access to a replacement from a traditional school that still meets core standards. Then, KaiPod tries to serve as a co-working space of sorts for any child that is going through the online school.
“We know we can't do socialization as well in the cloud, we can’t do childcare as well in the cloud, and those are some of the things that parents look to schools for,” Kumar said. “And the fact that we got rid of them by moving everything online shows you that our priorities weren’t in the right place.”
Students are invited to come to a KaiPod center near them where they will interact with learning coaches, a role that Kumar defines as part-time teacher, part-time camp counselor.
The coaches are there to help through online coursework, while also leading enrichment activities meant to give the social edge back to the school day. Learning coaches are juggling a variety of curriculums within their centers, which could be a quality assurance challenge as KaiPod scales.
In the broadest sense, KaiPod is helping students in virtual school go to physical school, but this time with more flexibility and diversity when it comes to what the day looks like. For example, one kid may be following an entirely different curriculum than another; which means the physical space won’t be used for, say, a lecture, but may be used for a Socratic-style seminar that motivates children to share their separate learnings.
A WeWork for education?
Kumar thinks it's a more inclusive approach to pods because it takes care of childcare along with education. The centers are open five days a week from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Kumar pointed to Kumon as an example of how out of school, supplemental models can lead to academic enrichment. Kumon began as one-off centers, and eventually took over the franchise model until it became one of the largest after- school tutoring companies in the global market.
A non-insignificant part of KaiPod’s success depends on if homeschooling is here to stay, beyond the pandemic bump of interest. The National Center for Education Statistics shows that the percent of homeschool households in the United States tripled between 2020 to 2021, but the numbers don’t entirely reflect how the return to school will change those metrics.
In the meantime, KaiPod Learning ran an eight-student pilot program in Boston this year. Kumar said that one learning coach identified the early signs of a potential learning disability in a middle-schooler during a game, a sign he thinks illustrates how a small-group format helps instructors "engage with students in more ways than just didactic teaching." KaiPod plans to open up five to seven more centers in the next few months.
"As we generate more awareness, we think entrepreneurs in other states will want to open centers using our playbook (à la franchise model) and we can power them through our technology layer [which is] affectionately code-named 'KaiPod OS', " Kumar said. The locations of centers could show who KaiPod is selling to, as well as if families come from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
"At this point I have no interest in becoming WeWork for education, or anything like that," he said. "Think of the centers as convenient areas where families can drop off their kids, stop in and see how the pod is doing."