COVID-19 has, in many cases, brought families closer together than ever—literally, since the pandemic has meant many kids have nowhere else to go. Parents became friends and entertainers. It wasn’t easy, as many struggled with the triple burden of being breadwinners, caregivers and teachers. But families figured it out, and kids largely made it through the 2019/2020 school year. As September inched closer, however, concerns around education continued to pop up: How would schools create safe environments? Was the parent-led homeschool method sustainable? And, importantly, what’s to be done about the seismic gaps in the education systems around the world? It’s hard to log into a virtual classroom if kids don’t have a computer at home, after all.
As kids continue to shift to online learning, there are three big gaps in their access to schooling, says Stefania Maggi, a psychology professor who specializes in educational development at Ottawa-based Carleton University. First, there’s a lack of access. For people in the middle or upper financial brackets, it’s easy to underestimate how many kids have to make do without computers or internet access at home.
In 2018, around 94% of three- to 18-year-olds in the US had home internet access, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The majority of children (88%) had access through a computer, but 6% only had access through a smartphone. A recent study from Common Sense Media and Boston Consulting found that nearly 16 million kids and 10% of teachers lacked a way of logging in to classes. The problem is particularly pronounced among BIPOC and minority homes, with 26% of Latino/Latina kids and 50% of Black families lacking access, compared to just 18% of white households. Globally, the UN estimates that just slightly more than half of the worldwide population had internet in 2019, leaving more than three billion people offline.
The second barrier to distance education is that many kids simply do not learn from lecturing, Maggi says. Teachers play a crucial role in identifying those students and finding new ways of reaching them. In a fully online environment, that can be a challenge.
And finally, according to a study by University College London, upwards of 10% of kids have a learning disability and require specialized and individual care—something that’s virtually impossible to provide in a Zoom classroom, adds Maggi.
COVID-19 has created a very real need for resources to help children learn. More than half of US elementary and high school students are only attending school virtually this fall, according to a recent study commissioned by calendar platform Burbio. Just one in four students will go to school daily, while 19% are doing some form of hybrid schooling (a few days in school mixed with a few at home).
To bridge this gap, kidtech companies like iD Tech, Encantos (pictured, above) and Curious World are rolling out new physical content and inking deals with schools.
“You can’t just put a kid in front of Zoom all day and expect them to learn,” says Encantos CEO Steven Wolfe Pereira. “Even if they have access to the tech, kids learn in many different ways. More than ever, parents are looking for additive content that can help because they just can’t rely on schools anymore. The more resources we can have out there for families now, the better.”
London-based preschool education app Curious World sees itself as part of kids’ learning toolkits. And while it can’t replace schools, it can supplement learning by making videos about physical and basic daily activities, like making breakfast, to give children a dose of content they don’t get in a virtual classroom, says product manager Chloë Meyronnet.
The app—which is aimed at kids ages two to seven—features videos, books and games. As a result of the pandemic, Curious World began producing videos about a variety of topics it previously hadn’t addressed, like meditation and mindfulness, as well as live-action clips showcasing different parts of the world, says Meyronnet.
“Because kids are socializing at school, there’s a lot of learning that goes on beyond subjects like math and literacy,” she says. “Behaviors—like how kids are supposed to be around others—are reinforced. But kids aren’t getting exposed to that in the same way [at home], so now we have to pivot to help them learn lessons they might not be getting anywhere else.”
Curious World is building its catalogue with videos about art projects and simple science experiments, as well as adding new features like a nighttime filter, which is softer on children’s eyes. There are also read-alongs to make sure kids aren’t spending too much time on the app.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the company teamed up with private institutions to get its content into classrooms. To reach families in the public system, it’s also working to ink deals with school boards so parents can get access to the content while schools take care of the billing and fees, says Meyronnet. The app costs US$7.99 a month, with a seven-day free trial. And during the pandemic, the trial was extended with subscriptions offered at a discounted price.
Looking forward, Curious World is working to make all of its content available offline or via printable worksheets, so families can access content even if their internet fails.
The demand for educational support products was already growing prior to the pandemic—about 63% of kindergarten to grade 12 teachers in the US used tech in the classroom in 2017, up from 55% in 2016, according to the University of Phoenix. But the pandemic spurred a spike as parents had to suddenly lead their kids’ education, and as schools needed resources to help keep children engaged from a distance, adds Meyronnet.
“Parents have become the educators for their kids, and we’ve seen a rise in school demand for resources that can make sure kids are learning,” she says. “Before COVID-19, schools were looking for more content to use in the classroom, but now the work kidtech companies are doing has become an important supplement to help kids wherever they are.”
California-based educational platform iD Tech is looking to give kids a more engaging online learning experience. Ahead of the return to school (in whatever form that may be), the tech company launched its Squads After School program, which connects small groups of kids online with an experienced teacher to learn about STEM, while simultaneously getting a chance to just hang out—something many still aren’t able to do as a result of social distancing measures, says CEO Pete Ingram-Cauchi.
“What matters to kids is a fun and educational experience, and you have to avoid the tutor-heavy approach or you’ll lose them,” he says. “With the pandemic, it’s not just about giving them exciting content, they also want a chance to socialize and make new friends.”
The company offers a variety of courses for more independent learning through its website, including Minecraft- and Roblox-themed programs that teach kids how to code through content. To make sessions more engaging, iD Tech uses a gamified approach to online learning whereby kids can level up once they complete certain lessons.
iD Tech also recognizes there’s a fundamental gap in access to tech for many kids, and the company has previously partnered with businesses such as Salesforce and Nokia on sponsorship programs to send computers to underserved communities. (iD Tech hasn’t yet figured out a fix for kids who lack internet access, he adds.)
This isn’t a short-term play for iD. While the pandemic spurred a more immediate solution to support kids’ Zoom-led learning, there’s also a need for the next generation of employees to have STEM skills and a knowledge of coding to fill available jobs, Ingram-Cauchi says. Schools were only just starting to tackle these topics meaningfully in class- rooms before COVID-19 hit, and edtech companies had already been working to fill the gaps. Kidtech- led school support is only going to continue to grow in demand, even once kids are back in class in full force, he says.
A new blend of education
For Wolfe Pereira at Encantos, education should focus on entertaining and representing diversity, which is a far cry from the traditional school format of teachers lecturing to students. Now, the company is rethinking distance education by rolling out new physical products to supplement kids who can’t learn from a screen, he says.
Recognizing that some kids are tactile learners (which could be lost in a home environment) or have learning disabilities, Encantos has developed a new range of physical products to run alongside its content.
The idea originated during the pandemic, and in the coming months, Encantos will launch a new range of subscription boxes that include branded puzzles and other learning tools. The puzzle line, specifically, should also help foster independent learning and can be used offline for those who don’t have computers or internet access at home, says Wolfe Pereira.
Encantos also sped up the launch of its new food-focused brand, Issa’s Edible Adventures, which was originally scheduled to roll out in 2021. The company partnered with influencer Aliya LeeKong, and in April began releasing videos and printable sheets on its website showcasing basic meal prep, recipes and safety tips for the kitchen.
Wolfe Pereira also sees an opportunity for personalized learning tech. With the onus on kids and parents to manage their distance learning, it can be easy to become frustrated with the lack of guidance and simply give up. Teachers play an important role in identifying kids’ unique learning styles and needs, and helping them stay on track—something families may not be able to tackle themselves, he says. To address this, Encantos’ tech team is led by engineers who helped build IBM’s Watson Education and are now building a new personalization platform for blended learning. Though it’s early days still, the AI software should be able to create bespoke education plans for kids based on their existing skillsets and understanding of different subjects.
“Homeschooling is on the rise, and families are looking for brands that are direct-to-learner, digitally savvy and enriching because their kids are not going back to school anytime soon,” says Wolfe Pereira. “Until there’s a vaccine, many parents won’t be comfortable with sending their kids back to school, and that might not be for at least a year. This is our new reality.”