The rise of pandemic learning pods is showing signs that it may have staying power. That momentum is fueling investor interest in learning pod solutions, including KaiPod Learning, which has raised $1.5 million in seed funding from a combination of investors, including Y Combinator, GSV Ventures, EO Ventures, and Verissimo Ventures, among other strategic investors that have founded other education companies.
As traditional brick-and-mortar schools across the country have resumed more conventional, in-person schedules, many students aren’t returning. Many of those students are enrolling in learning pods. According to Tyton Partners, roughly 1.5 million students were enrolled in microschools or learning pods this fall.
To put that number in perspective, prior to the pandemic in the fall of 2018, 3.3 million students were enrolled in charter schools—or 7 percent of the K–12 student population in the United States. Roughly 5.7 million students were enrolled in private schools in the fall of 2017. Although estimates vary dramatically, homeschoolers numbered around 1.7 million before the pandemic—or 3.3 percent of the schooling population.
In other words, the enrollment is significant.
Pods that have an institutional structure behind them, rather than being fully parent-run, seem to not only be surviving, but thriving. They are finding their niches and growing.
Amar Kumar is the founder of KaiPod Learning, one of the many education startups that emerged in response to the pandemic. Before KaiPod, he served most recently as the chief product officer at Pearson overseeing their online learning division, including Connections Academy, Pearson’s virtual schooling program.
That means that Kumar is familiar with full-time virtual programs. He knows where and why they’ve struggled to serve certain students.
One of his big observations is that students struggle in full-time virtual schools today because they don’t have the in-person supports around them that can give them the structure they need to succeed. Most parents can’t make that commitment.
But many families would still like the benefits that online learning promises—the ability to move through the learning at your own pace, the flexibility, an escape from social dynamics in traditional schools where there may be bullying and so forth.
Microschools or learning pods can help by providing personalized in-person supports in a small adult-to-learner ratio that complement the online teacher a virtual school provides. The pods offer a small, intimate community such that they can create a space free from the negative dynamics of a traditional school.
“COVID has irreversibly altered the role of technology in the classroom,” Kumar said. “We are now driving toward a world where schools will have two groups of educators. One who are experts in the content and delivering online instruction. And another group who are tasked with providing students the in-person structures and social-emotional support they need.”
For many families, this feature of pods is appealing. It captures why, even prior to the pandemic, many families were moving to microschools that cost less than a traditional private school and mitigated challenges with homeschooling. As I’ve written, microschools have historically presented themselves as a potential disruptive innovation to traditional private schools.
But how to make such an experience accessible for even more families regardless of their ability to pay has been a challenge.
This is another place where Kumar’s experience is valuable. KaiPod takes advantage of public full-time virtual schools, which allow students to enroll for free in a school like one powered by Connections Academy. KaiPod then offers a place for students to learn alongside in-person instructors and daily enrichment activities at a charge for two, three, or five days a week.
“In today’s education system, parents are often presented with a false dichotomy of public education versus private schools,” Kumar said. “We are trying to create a new path, where online public schools can be supplemented with privately-funded learning spaces that round out the student experience and provide much-needed support to parents.”
The result is a schooling experience more affordable than private schools, and the ability to offer scholarships based on financial need.
KaiPod ran its first pilot over the summer in Newton, Mass., a suburb outside Boston.
When I visited, I observed nine children seated at three tables configured in a U-shape working on their own online lesson. After their 25-minute “Pomodoro” cycle—a time-management technique designed to optimize one’s ability to focus on a specific task—the students broke for a variety of outdoor recreational activities, from badminton to Banagrams. Later that afternoon several of the students planned to join a yoga session.
The summer pilot lasted for four weeks. Kumar reported that satisfaction was high with a stunning 100 net promoter score. Academic progress was great as well, with students making 12 weeks of academic progress on average.
KaiPod has now launched its first full pods, with one in Newton and three in Harrisburg, Penn.
The Newton-based pod enrolls six students ages 9 to 13. The students are enrolled in a range of schools, including Pearson Online Academy, TEC Connections Academy, and a variety of homeschool programs.
The Harrisburg-based pods were launched in partnership with the Center for Education Reform and Rock City Learning Center. With 21 students enrolled from the surrounding Allison Hill community–one where many students on free and reduced lunch live, the children ages 8 to 14 are enrolled in REACH Cyber Charter School, a public school, for their formal curriculum and schooling experience. KaiPod anticipates that enrollment will reach at least 30 students.
In these pods, in contrast to the ones in Newton, KaiPod is supporting the learning coaches rather than running the program directly. The students meet at The Rock Church in three separate learning spaces.
With a range of well-known education backers supporting KaiPod and some early momentum, it will be among a handful of learning-pod and microschool players to watch as it seeks to scale in the years ahead.