As the COVID-19 pandemic forced traditional schools to shut down, a new educational option sprang up — “learning pods” that combine online training with in-person instruction. Now, even though schools have reopened, a tech startup in Newton is betting that learning pods are here to stay.
KaiPod Learning, founded in March, offers a hybrid approach to education. Students take online classes but instead of working at home alone, they gather in small physical classrooms where they can socialize and help each other. And the pod is supervised by a learning coach, an experienced teacher who can provide in-person assistance and encouragement.
KaiPod provides the learning space, the learning coach, and tools for extracurricular activities. The startup lets students and their parents choose from a variety of online programs used by homeschooling parents.
Learning pods emerged as schools nationwide were shuttered during the first year of the pandemic, and students were forced to rely on Internet instruction. Research firm Tyton Partners estimated recently that about 7.5 million US students now participate in learning pods. Many pods were cobbled together by anxious parents dissatisfied with online-only education.
But KaiPod founder Amar Kumar plans to build a national network of learning pods that will continue to thrive even after COVID is a bad memory.
“If you can effectively blend technology and human relationships, then you can actually have the best of both worlds,” Kumar said.
These days everybody agrees that online-only classes are a poor fit for many students. But Kumar saw it coming. He was formerly chief product officer for Pearson Online Schools, a major provider of online instruction. While Kumar has nothing but praise for Pearson’s educational offerings, he said the company had annual customer turnover of well over 40 percent before the pandemic. Parents complained that their children made no friends and had little opportunity to study enriching subjects like art and music.
Last year’s Zoom-based pandemic classes were even worse, he said, because schools didn’t have time to tailor their existing curriculum for Internet delivery. Instead, they just dumped it online. “That’s not online learning, “ Kumar said. “That’s just, like, emergency teaching.”
Instead, KaiPod works with students who have signed up to use products that were built specifically for online instruction. These include Pearson Online Academy, which can cost up to $7,700 per year for high school students, or the TEC Connections Academy Commonwealth Virtual School, a state-funded online school that’s free of charge.
KaiPod charges a student $135 a week to visit the pod two days per week, or $265 per week to attend five days a week. Pods can include no more than 10 students. The company’s first pod, in Newton, only serves six. KaiPod also supports three other pods in Harrisburg, Pa., and plans to open several more in Greater Boston at the start of the 2022 school year.
“We’re thinking about Framingham, Worcester, Fall River,” Kumar said. The company ultimately plans to sell pod management software and services to independent operators looking to set up their own learning pods.
In a learning pod, students can be of different ages and grade levels. At the Newton pod, 12-year-old Michael Sochivko does seventh-grade work while his 9-year-old brother Boris does his fourth-grade assignments. Meanwhile, 14-year-old Karinna Fairbanks has begun introductory college courses because she’s already burned through all her high school materials.
“I want to do college work,” Fairbanks said, but added, “I’m still not comfortable being around college-age peers yet.” At KaiPod, she can study advanced courses on any subject while still hanging out with people her age and even with her siblings Lexie and Kennedy, who also attend.
Ashley Jochim, a researcher at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, said because learning pods are so new, there’s no solid evidence that they produce better-educated children. But Jochim said early surveys find that many parents prefer them over traditional schools, largely because they offer more personalized instruction. “Overall, about two-thirds of families cited a benefit over pre-pandemic learning,” Jochim said.
Her research also found that the learning coaches who manage the pods find the work far more rewarding. Since class sizes are much smaller, and the online teachers do most of the instructional work, the coaches can focus on providing extra help to lagging students.
“I think this is a great way to retain that magic of teaching,” said veteran teacher Kim Brown, now a KaiPod learning coach. “You’re doing something meaningful, and kids are learning, and you are not just so exhausted at the end of the day that you can’t move.”
Angela Fairbanks, mother of Karinna, Lexie, and Kennedy, said her children are delighted with KaiPod. “I keep getting woken up at 7 in the morning by my kids nudging my husband because they want to get to school,” she said. “Knowing I could give them this opportunity is phenomenal.”
It’s possible that interest in learning pods will wane as the pandemic fades. Besides, KaiPod isn’t cheap. The five-day-a-week program costs $9,500 per academic year per child, not counting the cost of the online courses. But the pandemic proved that when it comes to their children’s education, plenty of parents will do whatever it takes.