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Rethinking kids’ education in the year of covid

A Neobael collaborative learning session in progress. In this model, the teacher is mostly a facilitator or coach for self-learning and collaboration.Premium
A Neobael collaborative learning session in progress. In this model, the teacher is mostly a facilitator or coach for self-learning and collaboration.

  • Neobael and Square Panda show what’s possible in edtech when startups think beyond test prep and online classes
  • Bootstrapped so far, early validation for Neobael has come from being awarded Singapore’s Startup Founder grant

When the pandemic and lockdowns forced schools to move their classes online, Aradhana Iyer Vohra and Kaiesh Vohra became much more heedful of flaws in the education system. “What became apparent to me very quickly as a parent in the home-based learning was that education wasn’t personalized," says Aradhana.

While personalization is limited even in physical classrooms, where a teacher handles 25 or more kids, it can get exacerbated in remote classes. Working and learning from home have raised awareness of how much time was being wasted earlier on commutes and other low-quality activities.

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“Kids spend about seven hours a day at school. How much of that is to fill the time, and how much is actual learning and collaborating? There needs to be a better system, because if they’re spending seven hours at school and some more hours on commuting and extracurricular activities, where’s the childhood?" asks Aradhana.

Aradhana was involved with fundraising in the education sector in Singapore. And her husband Kaiesh is the co-founder of sales AI startup Lucep, based in Singapore and Bengaluru. They pulled their kids—10-year-old Arricah and her 8-year-old brother Kaavin—out of the international school they were going to and started exploring homeschooling options.

Think different

They looked at a number of edtech platforms but felt dissatisfied with how these offerings aligned with what they wanted for their kids, which was inquiry-led learning. “I didn’t want my kids to learn to remember things; I wanted them to learn to apply it to real-world problems," says Aradhana. “The edtech platforms we tried were either not collaborative, because they were webinar-style, or they were just getting you to prepare for an exam."

Then, they did what comes naturally to people from a financial, tech and entrepreneurial background—they decided to build an edtech platform of their own, called Neobael, which launched last month. After all, they weren’t alone in wanting a different learning experience for their kids. “I’m part of a group of 300 families that homeschool their kids and that’s just one of several such groups," points out Aradhana.

In July, she started reaching out to educators in her network to build a curriculum that would be pedagogically sound but delivered using a methodology that prompts students to apply their minds, ask questions, communicate ideas and take up projects. The teacher is mostly a facilitator or coach for self-learning and collaboration. Each coach handles an online pod of six children at a time, aiming to give enough scope for personalized attention.

For example, a three-hour module on the periodic table starts with an interactive session to characterize the elements and their groups or ‘social networks’, then goes on to experiment with how they react to one another, building a deeper engagement than a typical chemistry lesson does.

Elaine Chew, who led curriculum development for United World Colleges South East Asia, came on board as a co-founder with Aradhana, while Kaiesh became an adviser for developing AI-based real-time analytics of learner performance to be able to adjust their reinforcement learning material.

“One element of personalization that hardly anybody talks about is what the child enjoys doing," says Kaiesh.

For example, a 30-hour module on running a football club involves maths for budget control as well as creative writing or coding a game to bring in fans.

The challenges Neobael faces in rolling this out are many. It’s hard, and expensive, to communicate a unique value proposition in a crowded market where heavily funded edtech players promise the moon. Also, building inquiry-led learning modules and training teachers to unlearn old ways and adopt this mode presents significant scaling issues. “What we’re trying to do is specify the instructions to be given and the resources for students to use. There is wiggle room there because the point of Neobael is that we want education to have personality and not be a rinse and repeat. So, the extra factor is the time it takes to develop these," admits Chew.

Bootstrapped so far, early validation for Neobael has come from being awarded Singapore’s Startup Founder grant. It has drawn early interest from students and teachers across Southeast Asia and India.

Playful learning

While Neobael and others address schooling for kids aged 7 or more, the pandemic’s impact on younger kids is often overlooked. Many parents haven’t given much thought to toddlers missing a year of kindergarten or playschool, but that’s a huge setback for them, says Ashish Jhalani, MD in India for Silicon Valley startup Square Panda, which has a gamified system for making young kids literate. Pre-K years are when most of the brain and neural networks are formed, but most edtech platforms focus on older kids. “When it comes to foundational learning in early childhood, there are very few players. The reason is it’s harder to build content for this segment compared to test prep or teaching algebra to grade 5 students," he says.

Square Panda has a proprietary playset with a tray where kids place letters as in Scrabble. But these are smart letters that get connected to a user’s tablet. A digital phonics tutor and a library of downloadable games help the kids learn the sounds of letters and meanings of words, until they’re able to start reading on their own.

Tennis legend Andre Agassi, who wrote about his own struggle with schooling in his autobiography Open, became a leading investor in Square Panda in 2016. While the startup sold hundreds of thousands of the $99 phygital playsets in the US and other markets like China, it has recently taken a B2B approach to scaling up.

In India, for instance, where it launched about a year ago, it is rolling out a programme in Uttar Pradesh government schools and anganwadis where teachers learn to use Square Panda to get young kids up to hone their English. To make it affordable, Square Panda has done away with the playsets, letting the kids use virtual keypads on smartphones to play around with letters and words in the downloaded games. The startup is in talks with several other states to implement this in 2021.

“We initially ran a pilot programme in Chhattisgarh where we took out the playsets and kids were just interacting with games from their smartphones. It’s not our total system, but it avoids the challenge of states having to buy playsets and maintaining them for millions of kids," says Jhalani. “What we’re concentrating on in India is the government and B2B market." This would be a subscription or licensing model.

It has been a difficult year with the pandemic. But it has also opened the doors for fundamentally reshaping children’s education, whether it is in early childhood or later years.

Sumit Chakraberty is a Consulting Editor with Mint. Write to him at chakraberty@gmail.com

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