Request for pre-K–12 ed-tech startups that are helping with distance learning — COVID-19 and beyond!

(Originally published on Medium)

At Runa Capital, one of the verticals we invest in is education, because of the lifelong impact it has on kids, adults, and the massive market it serves. COVID-19 has created unprecedented challenges for students, parents, and schools.

As a father of two kids (a five-year-old and ten-year-old), I have watched my kids engage in synchronous distance learning via Zoom and Google Meet, as well as asynchronous distance learning on Khan Academy, Brainly, Outschool, Seesaw Learning, Epic, etc. Here are the things I noticed:

  • Students aren’t ready to learn remotely.
  • Teachers aren’t well-trained to teach remotely.
  • Schools aren’t well-equipped to facilitate remote education.

However, with the variety of restrictions and precautions in place that could last well beyond 2020, we believe schools will rethink their education strategy and move to a hybrid model of in-person and online learning. As a result, we think some of the following types of products, which address the weaknesses listed above, will be highly sought after in the coming months and years:

● A focused curriculum with continuous assessment of both engagement and academics

While most schools are doing some sort of distance learning in bits and pieces, no one has thought about a bottoms-up, focused curriculum for online learning, and I haven’t seen a company that offers a comprehensive product to address it. Such a curriculum should include continuous micro-assessments (formative assessments) to understand what level each child is at, and should augment distance-learning classes with one-to-one sessions for kids who need additional help.

● A new learning model that is similar to the way adults work

We need learning models that use the business concept of objectives and key results (OKRs for companies). Teachers and students can come up with a list of objectives and key results. Students can then work on those and regularly present their progress to their teachers, asking for help whenever they are stuck. For high-performing kids, some “stretch goals” can also be added. I haven’t seen a product that helps schools implement this type of learning. We believe this model would work much better when teachers aren’t in the classroom all the time with the students.

● A reward system that motivates students, without all-day teacher oversight

Not all kids are self-motivated, so they tend to get distracted without a teacher present. Having some sort of reward system can help to keep them engaged and motivated. While there are some traditional PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) systems, having a product that can work in both online and in-person classrooms would be a game-changer. Rewards could be offered in the form of digital vouchers for online games, shows, etc.

Another interesting idea I saw in my daughter’s class: the teacher had students work on a project throughout the week, and then showcase their work to the rest of the class. The reward of being able to show off her work was compelling enough to keep my daughter motivated.

● Twenty-percent projects or electives

Companies like Google keep their employees engaged by allowing them to spend 20 percent of their time on a side project. Kids need something similar to keep them motivated when they are learning independently. They could choose topic-focused online classes similar to those provided by Outschool, ActivityHero, online language learning, or Kidzania (where kids can learn about various professions and participate in projects that give them a hands-on feel for a profession). While some products like these exist in a silo, a product that integrates well with students’ overall study/career plans could help parents really understand their children’s interests and increase kids’ overall engagement.

● Playtime and socializing

A big reason my kids love going to school is playtime and socializing with other kids. I haven’t seen a product that offers schools a method for creating that environment of playtime and socializing, as well as the ability to schedule online playdates. Such products could facilitate online socializing and re-create the playtime environment with age-appropriate activities such as a talent showcase or a treasure hunt inside students’ homes and can also have rewards associated with it for the work that kids put in(similar to Sweatcoin)

● Online care

Parents working from home during this pandemic, while also taking care of their kids, really understand the value that schools provide beyond just education. The most significant need I noticed was for a company that could provide online care for kids, and that can keep them engaged without a lot of parent involvement.

● After-school learning and summer school

In the short term, a lot of students will be behind their grade level in math, language, and other subjects. We need startups that schools can work with to offer supplemental learning and reduce the gap. This offering could include online education provided by existing school teachers, retired teachers, or newly graduated college students who are looking for jobs.

Thank you to Galen Li, Joe Siedlecki, John Danner, Forum Desai, Konstantin Vinogradov, Michael Fanfant, Adam Pearson, and many others who influenced my thinking on this topic. If you are a startup that is involved in solving any of the above challenges, we would love to hear from you.

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