Ep. 322: What’s Up with Learning Pods?

May 26, 2022

Amar Kumar joins the show to discuss his new venture called KaiPod.

Mike McShane: Hey everybody, welcome to another edition of What’s Up with Mike McShane. Today we’re asking the question, what’s up with pods? What’s up with learning pods? A lot of folks heard about this throughout the course of the pandemic, families coming together to comply with social distancing guidelines or because schools were shut down, and so it was these organic things that were created. Maybe they were the next new thing in education, maybe they weren’t. Who knows? Today on the podcast, I have Amar Kumar who is starting a new venture called KaiPod. We’re going to spend some time talking about his venture. It is such an interesting thing. It is as he will describe kind of online learning 2.0. It is creating real world small pods, micro school type environments for students that are participating in online learning, trying to get the best of both worlds, the best that online curriculum has to offer and the best that in person education has to offer. I think it is a super fascinating topic, it’s a super fascinating venture. We will be able to talk about a whole bunch of different topics, both what he’s doing, the online learning in general, maybe even a little bit about for-profits versus nonprofits and what states are more amenable to these types of things. Lots of really interesting stuff to talk about. So I won’t delay any longer. Here is my conversation with Amar Kumar of KaiPod. Well, I think it’s maybe best to start at the beginning here. So, what is KaiPod? What does KaiPod do?

Amar Kumar: KaiPod is designed to be an in person compliment for students who are in online schools or in homeschool programs. So you imagine if you’re in one of these programs, you have decided that you want an alternative learning pathway, that’s more independent, that’s more personalized, that’s more flexible. However, sometimes what that means is you are working from home, you’re working alone, your parents are often your learning coaches. They’re the primary adult supporting you in your education. And that setup doesn’t work for all families. There’s some families for whom it’s not practical for a child to work from home because the parents have to go to work, or it’s not practical for the adult to be the primary learning coach because they may not feel equipped to do so. So we’re trying to solve a problem for that segment of families who are in online schools or homeschooling to say, what if you had a place to go for part of the week or the entire week, where you could be around other kids, you could be supported by an adult who is a learning coach and has been trained to do so. You’re in a professional space that’s been designed to be a great place to learn. You’re doing enrichment activities so that your entire experience is engaging and you’re doing well in school as a result of all that. Right? So that’s really what it’s meant to be, is we want to create a pathway for more students to opt into these nontraditional pathways because it works better for them.

Mike McShane: Where did you get the idea for this?

Amar Kumar: Sure. So I’ve been in online learning for many years at one point in my prior role, I was the chief product officer for Pearson virtual schools, which runs a large network of online schools called Connections Academy schools. And in those schools, I think at our peak, we had something like 80 to 90,000 students studying full time with virtual schools. That would be one of the largest school districts in America, one of the top 20 to 30 largest school districts is what we really had studying in our schools, and my team and I built the curriculum, the technology, the student experience that those students were going through every single day. And when we would survey those kids and we would survey their parents or their guardians, they would always tell us that the academic experience was phenomenal. They loved the flexibility, the personalization, the fact that they could choose to work on math before English, or spend a little extra time with science when they needed it, but they always struggled with the in person side of things. They didn’t have other kids around, they were bored part of the day, their parents weren’t always around to help them. And so, we knew that eventually for online learning to take off, we’re going to have to solve this in person problem, because for most kids, they still want to be around other kids. And most parents want their kids to be elsewhere, not at home during the day. So we knew we had to solve this problem, but we didn’t know how. And then as the pandemic was kicking off and we just started to hear about all these families grouping together with their neighbors or their close friends into pods, that’s when I started to put two and two together to say, what if you could use the small group pod format and pair it with high quality online learning? If you could bring those two things together, you could create an incredible new way to learn, a hybrid way where you could take the best online schools and pair it with the best in person experience. And now you have a small, private, personalized learning experience that isn’t accessible currently, unless you’re willing to pay 50 to $60,000 for it.

Mike McShane: So now you brought up two pieces there that I think we can dive into each one. So, students will have an online experience and they will have an in-person experience. So what does their online experience look like?

Amar Kumar: Sure. So, there is a variety of online learning experiences available today. Right? So this is not Zoom school, you should be very clear if any of you experienced-

Mike McShane: Thank God, thank you.

Amar Kumar: Yes. If anyone experienced the horrors of Zoom school during the pandemic, throw all that away, that should never happen again, it is not effective for anyone. Forget a 10 year old to learn by just watching someone’s video all day. So that’s not it. Online learning spans a huge spectrum, which starts with, one end of the spectrum is completely asynchronous content, which means self-paced, you are reading content, answering questions and reading content, answering more questions. So it’s a mix of activities and comprehension that you’re doing completely at your own pace. And then further along that spectrum is where you start introducing more synchronous time. So it could be videos that you might be watching. So like you might be watching a Khan Academy video. You might be watching a lot of video. So a teacher might be teaching a piece of content, and then that spectrum goes all the way to the other end, which is all synchronous. So you’re watching a teacher teach you everything. So that resembles the school. So there’s a huge spectrum there. And parents should really be able to choose where they want to be on that spectrum based on their kids. So there are some kids who respond really well to completely asynchronous content because the kids are self-motivated, they know how to regulate their time, they know how to set goals. For those kids, a slightly more asynchronous [inaudible 00:07:08] There are other kids who need more motivation, who need a little bit more regulation. And so they might want a little more synchronous time during the day. It’s the same as adults. Right? If you are really well regulated, you can work by yourself at home with no meetings, and you can get everything done, but most adults need a little bit of check in with a manager or with your teammate every so often to keep you on track. So the online learning works the same way. And based on where your kid is, you have a variety of options. So, in most states there is a public online school that’s available. So Connections Academies, they are public online schools, and there’s a variety of other providers where you as a parent can register your child for an online school. There’s no cost to you because it’s paid for by the state or your local school district. It’s a public school. And those schools provide a blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning. So, your child can be enrolled in this online school. That is where you get teachers, you get curriculum, you get technology, laptop, you get everything that’s needed. And then on the other end of that is, if you don’t want to be in a public online school, you’ve got private online schools that offer a slightly different experience. There might be smaller classes, there might be more differentiated curriculum like Montessori style or project based learning style. So there’s a whole segment of rapidly growing private online schools. And then there’s of course the whole spectrum of homeschooling providers. So, you can buy a curriculum that’s a homeschool curriculum. And so it’s your choice of how far down that spectrum of synchronous and asynchronous you want to be, and then do you want to opt into a ready to go school, or do you want a homeschool where you’re pulling things together for your child as they need it?

Mike McShane: So that’s the online experience, what does the in person experience look like?

Amar Kumar: Yes. So the in person experience is what we add on top of the online decisions you make. So you can decide that I want X curriculum that’s provided by my state. Okay? So I’ve decided that. Now you can stop right there. You can say, “This is good enough, and my child will work on that curriculum from home. I will support them, I will provide them the extra help they need. I’ll find other resources when they get stuck, I’ll organize play dates, I’ll organize enrichment activities so that they’re getting social time.” That’s all doable. A lot of parents do that, and in fact, that’s the primary way families do online school and home school.

Mike McShane: And when we think about traditional online schooling, that’s how it looks?

Amar Kumar: And what we’re trying to change is to say all of those things are just not practical for most parents to do, so you can now add in person learning experience, which means three or four things. The first is there is a professional space where these kids can go. So there will be a learning center in your community, that is a KaiPod learning center, let’s say, and it is a retail location that’s been converted into a learning space. Right? So there’s chairs and desks, there’s bean bags and bookshelves, a place for kids to say, “Yeah, this is where I now come to learn.” So that’s the first piece of it. The second piece of it is a group of peers. So in our pods, we never have more than 10 kids per pod. So you have similar aged peers who are in the group with you. So if you’re a 10 year old, right, you might be around other 9, 10, 11 year olds. And so that group meets at the pod to do their courses. Now I could be in a different online school than you, which means we may be working on different courses, but we’re both coming to the same space together to learn. And then while we’re there in person, we’re doing enrichment activities, we’re doing some group projects when we’re not doing our academics. The third thing that’s very important as part of the in person experience is the learning coach. So who is the adult that’s overseeing the experience for these 10 kids?

Mike McShane: That was going to be my next question. So thank you.

Amar Kumar: We call them a coach or a learning coach. And so this person is almost always someone who has a classroom background. So they have been in front of kids of that age before they’ve taught, but crucially, their passion was less about lesson plans and homework and tests or state tests, it was more about supporting kids one on one. And there was something about being in the classroom where the focus was less about kids and more about standards and lesson plans that got them to get turned off to teaching. So we’re looking for the people who say, “I still want to support kids one on one. I still want to be around students in an education setting, but I don’t have to be the one who’s teaching them how to do fractions. I want to be the one who’s helping them figure that stuff out.” So our learning coaches become the glue that brings the whole pod together. So they’re the ones who can mean the pod at the location, and when a student feels like they’re getting stuck [inaudible 00:12:03] bring them back to focus, help them solve a math problem that they’re struggling with. And then that coach leads all those wonderful enrichment activities that keep everything fun and engaging and moving.

Mike McShane: So, from a cost perspective, like how does this work? If I would like to enroll my child, what does that look like?

Amar Kumar: Yeah. So, very simply we really believe a lot in flexibility. So you should be able to choose how often you come to the pod. A pod operates all day, all week. So you can come as little as two days a week, which means stay on Tuesdays and Thursdays, you come to the pod to be around those kids, to do the enrichment activities. And in the other three days of the week, you’re working from home, and some families opt into the full five day plan. So the pricing really differs based on which plan you want to be a part of. And that’s important to us because we want parents to feel free to choose the thing that they really want to do more of rather than be locked into one thing or another. In Phoenix, we’re going to be opening a lot of pods this summer. A two day plan is $50 a week. That means for 25 bucks a day, roughly, your child can be with us for about seven hours, seven and a half hours, and during that time they’re doing all the things that I talked about. So we’re really trying to make it incredibly affordable for more families to then look at these new paths of learning. And now if you multiply that out, even if you want to come five days a week, in Phoenix, that’s less than 4,000 a year. So, you get an online education from your state, which is free. You add in that pot for 4,000, and now for roughly 4,000 a year, you’ve got a very small group, compare that to any other type of private school option that’s available, it’s not even close.

Mike McShane: And I think this is the really cool innovation that you all did, which is they’re enrolled in the online school, all of that stuff is handled. You’re creating a space for them to do that and this wonderful support network around them, enrichment activities. It’s really trying to get the best of both of these worlds, which I think is so cool and so interesting. You mentioned you’re locating in Arizona, I’d be interested to know where else are you planning to grow, and maybe as a related question, why? You could operate anywhere, I’d imagine, why are you choosing where you are choosing?

Amar Kumar: So we want to be smart about where we launch based on where we see trends in families opting into online schools and home schools, and where we see local regulators and states support innovations, because we are so different, we are so between categories like, “Are we a daycare? Are we a tutoring provider? Are we a school?” We’re not any of those things. Right? We’re our own thing. So we have to be a little bit smart about where we operate so that we don’t get squashed by a state regulator who’s a little overzealous. So our first location is in Boston, which is where I happen to live, and I think there’s some interesting education innovation history that I wanted to really leverage, parents really care a lot about their kids’ education in a very visceral strong way. And so, when we talk to them about a new option, they get really excited. Our second state is actually Georgia. We’re launching that pod tomorrow, believe it or not. So by the time this podcast [inaudible 00:15:12]

Mike McShane: Congratulations.

Amar Kumar: Thanks. We’ll have launched this location. And that one is in partnership with another online school that really believes in blended learning. They really believe that their fully online learning is really like 1.0, that 2.0 is blended spaces where students and coaches come together in the community to do work. That’s going to be our second location. The third is actually New Hampshire. So we were just approved last week by the state of New Hampshire to run for publicly funded pilots. So this is another really exciting innovation where now the state of New Hampshire is saying, “We believe that more families want a supplement to their online school. They have a statewide free online school.” And we believe there are a lot of families who are homeschooling because the existing system didn’t work for them. So now we want to create a new option for them. So we’re under contract with the state of New Hampshire to operate four pods for them over this next few school years. And then the final one is Arizona for next year. And we love Arizona for so many reasons. Certainly, parent choice and school choice is really front of mind. For regulators there, they believe in parents making decisions based on what’s right for their kids, rather than being locked into a system. When you speak to a parent in Phoenix, it is mind boggling how they think about education. They have compared 20 different options, they know the pros and cons. They’re really smart about what their kids need. They have tried different options. They know what has worked and what hasn’t worked. So you can have really [inaudible 00:16:48] education about schooling options. And when we speak to parents in Arizona, they tell us our number. Right? Like they tell us when we’re telling them something good or not, because they’re now used to making really smart decisions. And so we love Arizona because it’s going to make us sharper on addressing parent needs in a way that very few other states have. So for us, Phoenix specifically is a market where we’re going to be able to try new things, pilot them and get some instant feedback from parents.

Mike McShane: You are a for-profit company and I would be interested in your thought process of choosing to do this as a for-profit, as opposed to a nonprofit.

Amar Kumar: Yeah, I really appreciate this question. I get it a lot. Yes, we are set up as a for-profit company, extremely intentionally. This was not an accident. And the way I typically think about this question is, when people ask me, “Are you a for-profit or a non-profit?” They’re asking me a question of incentives, not tax filing. Right? They don’t care how I file my taxes. They care what are my incentives for this company? And so I want to tell you truly about the incentives I was thinking about when I decided to set it up. The first is I wanted to attract the best people to work for this company, as learning coaches in my core team, and it’s just much easier to attract a wider pool of candidates when you are set up as a for-profit. And this is, I mean, basically a fact, it’s not to say that people in for-profits are better than in nonprofits, but you just attract more people. And for me that was the number one objective, is I wanted to be able to get the best people as learning coaches. The second reason is, I want to run this company with a hyper focus on what creates the best student outcomes, and not be distracted by anything else. I did not want to be distracted by fundraising all the time versus actually building the company. And then the third and most important reason is, I want this idea to scale in, my life’s work is to build a new solution that’s sustainable, it’s scalable in one that delivers high quality education to more kids. So, if I’ve set this up as for profit, when I do well for kids, I attract more students and then I grow, whereas in a nonprofit, if I do well and I want to grow, I got to go find more funds. Right? And so it just doesn’t scale, and you spend all your time fundraising. So for me, it’s as simple as that. And ultimately both for profits and nonprofits can be driven by the wrong incentives, and both can be driven by the right incentives. Right? There’s good players and bad players in both. And so what I always say to parents when they ask the question is, you have a judgment call to make, because do you think this model is right for your kids? And if you think so, try it. Right? That’s the only thing that should matter, not like what my tax filing status is.

Mike McShane: No, I think that’s super helpful, and I think the for-profit, nonprofit distinction can be one of the dumber dichotomies that happens in education. Right? Because I think you’re exactly right. There are a lot of “nonprofits” that certainly act like for-profits, and there are lots of for-profits that act like non-profits at least in the historical sense of those. I’m really glad you were able to bring up these ideas of talent, funding, scale that they’re just non-profits and for-profits, they’re different than one another. They have their strengths and weaknesses, there’s places for both of them. The question is what is the right tool for the right job? One of the things that you mentioned in there, I do definitely want to ask you about, though, about this talent, your learning coaches, where are they coming from? Are they people who used to be teachers? Where are you getting those folks?

Amar Kumar: Yeah, we attract two populations. One is people who used to be teachers, and two, people who’ve done adjacent jobs like tutoring or counseling. So, generally the people who come [inaudible 00:20:25] common theme. Right at the beginning of the interview, I was fed up, I was leaving my classroom, and then I discovered this thing called KaiPod, like, “Tell me how it works.” Right? Usually they have discovered that their personal incentives or their personal mission to become a teacher was not being addressed by the current structure of the job of a teacher. And I can talk for hours about the job of a teacher and how it’s completely set up to fail. And I think some people have realized that they are going to be set up to fail in that job, and so they’re looking for something else. A lot of them retired during the pandemic or just chose to leave the profession, and that should break everyone’s heart. That fact that these people went in for the right reasons and the system broke them. And so, we attract a lot of those people, thankfully, because they say, “I want to give it another shot. I want to still be in education, but not in the traditional, I’m in front of 30 kids alone with the door closed.” So they want to look for something different. And then the second population, as I mentioned, is people who’ve been tutors, who love the high they get from helping the kid get something or people who’ve been counselors who’ve helped kids with social and emotional issues or been around large groups of kids in camp settings. So we try to attract those people too and bring them into the education world.

Mike McShane: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. I think this is such a super interesting project that you’re working on. I can’t wait to see where it goes in the future.

Amar Kumar: Thank you for having me.

Mike McShane: Well, I hope you enjoyed that conversation as much as I did. I think the tagline that I took away from KaiPod is, you can get two schools for the price of half of one, or depending on where you are in the country, two schools for the price of a third of one. Because if you think about it, you have students that are already enrolled in an online school, and that could be for some kids as was said on the podcast, right, that’s your whole schooling environment, and your parents might be doing stuff on the side, but at least when a lot of those schools were created, that’s what they were designed to be, to be your kind of full-time school that’s there for you. And then there’s other schools, like there’s other micro schools and pods and things that are around the country that they operate in their own way. This is trying to do both this 1.0 versus 2.0 of online learning, I thought was so interesting that’s in there, but it’s trying to say, “Hey, look, you’re going to get the online education that you choose, the best one that works for you. There are free options. There are paid for options, et cetera.” And you’re going to be able to get a cool in person learning experience where you can be around other kids, you have the support, you have a learning coach that’s there. A lot of them sound like super interesting people. This is all super interesting. Obviously it’s early days, they’re in the process of building this out, but it seems like this is a very clear problem. It’s people trying to learn the lessons of the sector and fixing them, and I’m really excited to see what happens there. I was super invigorated by that conversation, I thought it was super cool, can’t wait to see what they come up with. As always, I’m always looking for guests for this podcast, the remit here is, people that are doing cool and interesting things in education. My goal is to scour the country and potentially even outside of the country, we’ll see how it goes to try and find people who are doing interesting things in education that might cause us to ask some interesting and important questions about how our system is structured, how it operates, what incentives that it’s under, how things can change so we can have more awesome learning opportunities for more kids. If you can think of any of them, if you know something cool is happening, feel free to email me, I’m at McShane@edchoice.org. You can find me on Twitter at MQ_McShane, give me a follow, send me a message, tweet at me. Please be kind, most people aren’t, change that norm that’s on there. And please subscribe to this podcast. Obviously, if this is already in your feed, you know that EdChoice, this podcast series, I have mine, we also have folks from our research team, we do our polling work, we have state updates, we have legal updates. So there’s constantly awesome podcast content coming out that’s a mix of a lot of different things. So please like and subscribe, put up reviews on iTunes or any place where we have them so more people can find out about it. Always appreciate y’all listening, and I can’t wait to interview another interesting educational entrepreneur or person otherwise situated in the education space on the next episode of What’s Up with Mike McShane. Take care.