Expanding into Early Childhood Is Good for Edtech Companies. Is It Good...

Early Learning

Expanding into Early Childhood Is Good for Edtech Companies. Is It Good for Kids?

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Dec 15, 2021

Expanding into Early Childhood Is Good for Edtech Companies. Is It Good for Kids?

For years, the global learning platform Kahoot has been growing its foothold in the K-12 space through acquisitions and add-ons to its popular quiz platform. On Wednesday, Kahoot expanded its reach even further, launching a product designed specifically for children 2 through 7.

And no, it’s not more quizzes. Instead, the Norway-based company—which counts Disney as an investor—revealed a new suite of digital games, called Kahoot! Kids, to introduce young children to foundational skills and concepts like social-emotional learning, math and reading.

It’s the latest example of an established K-12 education company moving into the early childhood space. In the last several years, more companies have expanded their existing offerings or launched new apps and features to suit kids as young as 2 or 3.

Whether these executives are seeing dollar signs hovering over the heads of tykes or finally waking up to the wealth of research that exists on the importance of learning and development in the early years, there exists a kind of new energy in this corner of the education market.

“I want to think that it’s a lot of the science over the last 20 years finally convincing organizations,” says Isabelle Hau, an impact investor who studies the field of early childhood. “My perception is [companies] were seeing 0 to 5 as this highly highly fragmented market where they could not build demand for their products or services in a cost-efficient manner. And now, this is getting more and more structured.”

The prospect of national universal preschool and affordable child care on the horizon—both of which will need curriculum and learning tools—certainly isn’t hurting, she adds.

Plus, Hau says, education executives likely want to emulate a model that has worked well in other sectors, “which is to say, ‘Let’s start users earlier and earlier if possible, so they are used to our solution,’” she says. A company operating only in the K-12 market might conclude it is losing out on entire years of potential business for each child. In that case, why not increase the lifespan of their product?

But to cater to a younger user base, these companies have to make a number of accommodations and adaptations. As the founder and CEO of the tutoring platform Outschool points out, there’s quite a big difference between a 17-year-old user and a 3-year-old user. For starters, most 3-year-olds can’t read.

Tailoring to Tykes

Outschool CEO Amir Nathoo says that his company planned to serve children from ages 5 to 18 when it launched in 2015, through its online courses covering both academic and niche subjects. But families wanted their younger kids to have access to age-appropriate classes on the tutoring site, too.

According to Nathoo, parents would reach out to say things like, “My 4-year-old has an older sibling in class, and I really think he’d enjoy it. Can he join?” After enough iterations of that conversation, Outschool lowered the minimum age of its platform in 2017 and added classes with content and concepts suitable for 3- and 4-year-olds.

That’s also the reason Kahoot decided to launch Kahoot! Kids this week, says CEO Eilert Hanoa. Families wanted access to games and content designed for their younger kids. Oftentimes, short of a kid-friendly option, they’d let their underage children use the standard Kahoot app anyway. Hanoa and the Kahoot team figured the safest alternative was to create age-appropriate material tailor-made for them.

At the beginning, Nathoo and his team at Outschool were surprised to learn kids that young could navigate the technology and glean value from the classes. He has since had two children of his own, the elder of whom just turned 3.

“It’s less surprising to me now, as a parent of a 3-year-old—their ability to pick up new technology and adapt,” Nathoo says.

During our interview, Nathoo’s 3-year-old son was in the next room taking an Outschool class that uses animal names to teach kids phonics. It lasted for 20 minutes and paired two students with one teacher. Later that day, the boy was registered to take a 15-minute class focused on movement, singing and dancing.

Small class sizes may be a feature of lessons for younger learners. At Reconstruction, a company that launched less than two years ago to teach “unapologetically Black education,” the ideal class size is six students to one teacher, says Rachel Etienne, the company’s curriculum lead.

Similar to Outschool, Reconstruction offers online classes that help children as young as 4—the company calls them “Shorties”—learn to recognize sounds and letter symbols and, eventually, learn to read.

“From a content perspective, it’s not much different than solid, research-based instruction,” Etienne says. “But they’re learning through songs, poems and dance” related to Black history and Black life. In one reading class, the lesson is built around 10 Stevie Wonder songs. In another, the instructor uses historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to teach letters of the alphabet—for the letter “f,” the kids discuss Fisk University.

In math classes, the “Shorties” are learning counting, numeracy, addition and subtraction, “but in the context of famous Black inventors and Black-owned businesses,” she says. “Every content experience is embedded in a cultural or community framework.”

Beyond straight academics, Reconstruction classes often feature “brain breaks” and “body breaks,” Etienne says, since young children need frequent movement and typically have shorter attention spans. One class has “boogie cards” that the teacher can pull when kids are struggling to focus. The teacher will play music and invite everyone to dance—“just something to get them out of their seats and interacting.”

Etienne, too, has been impressed with 4- and 5-year-olds’ ability to learn and participate in the classes, young as they are.

“Oftentimes we underestimate young kids—what they can do, what they can feel, what they can perceive,” she says. “I've been inspired by the level of engagement of our youngest kids.”

The nonprofit Khan Academy launched its own early learning app, called Khan Academy Kids, back in 2018. It’s an adaptive app for children ages 2 through 8 that covers early literacy, math, social-emotional learning, creativity and physical activity. Like other early education products that EdSurge researched, it seeks to balance academic learning like reading and math with movement, feelings and fun.

Since the app’s launch, Khan Academy has seen 475 million books read by children, 854 million math lessons and 59 million minutes of physical activity such as singing and dancing.

Taking Technology Precautions

The interactive elements of these products are key to keeping them engaging and appropriate for such young kids.

Concerns around technology use and screen time are “valid and important,” says Caroline Hu Flexer, part of the Khan Academy Kids team and CEO and co-founder of Duck Duck Moose, an early education company that is now a subsidiary of Khan Academy.

“We never intend for our apps to be taking away time from other things kids are doing in the sandbox or outside,” Hu Flexer says. “We have designed apps that will give kids a different type of learning experience—play-based and interactive. They’re not just passively staring at a screen.”

She adds: “There’s a big difference between an active learning experience versus that glazed-over look kids get.”

At Outschool, a screen may be facilitating the classes, but there are still real teachers on the other side of it, Nathoo points out. “Our classes are intended to be engaging, with teachers using the same techniques that they would in person—not artificial triggers,” he says.

For kids ages 3 and 4, parent supervision and support is almost necessary, even if it’s just to log in to the classes. Around age 5, most kids are able to do more on their own but still may benefit from parent involvement. Most apps, such as Kahoot! Kids and Khan Academy Kids, rely on heavy imagery and read-aloud technology to meet the developmental needs of young children. “At older ages, kids start shooing parents away,” Nathoo says.

Kahoot, Outschool and other companies say they have in-house early childhood specialists, including pedagogical experts, to help them design and vet content for young children.

Meeting the Demand

Since the start of the pandemic, usage and engagement of the early childhood classes and products has soared, edtech leaders say.

Prior to 2020, Khan Academy Kids saw about 500,000 monthly active users. When the pandemic began, that soared to 1.5 million and has held steady since.

The vast majority of that usage is happening in homes, among families. But an increasing number of teachers are starting to use Khan Academy Kids with their students, and Khan Academy has developed teacher tools to support that shift, especially because, as Hu Flexer points out, “there are not a lot of strong early childhood resources for teachers to use in the classroom effectively.”

She’s proud of that sustained growth, since it means Khan Academy Kids is helping children build foundational skills that they otherwise might not even be exposed to until kindergarten.

“Other companies understand the research and know that these skills—and introducing children to learning early on—is critical,” Hu Flexer says, seeking to explain the reason behind edtech’s growing interest in early childhood. “It’s harder, later, for children to catch up when they start school already behind.”

Outschool’s online marketplace also saw a surge in demand during the pandemic—across its entire user base, yes, but especially concentrated among its youngest users.

Before 2020, Outschool classes taken by children ages 3 to 8 accounted for 20 percent of the company’s overall business. Now, they account for 40 percent.

If other education companies are seeing numbers on par with Outschool and Khan Academy, then Nathoo says he understands why so many companies might be moving into early childhood. But the question is, will they adapt their products appropriately when they make that leap?

“There’s a lot of business incentives for a business to do this. Are they doing this for business reasons or for learner-centric reasons?” Nathoo asks. “It would be bad for customers if businesses say, ‘Oh, the early childhood market is blowing up, we want to be there,’ without asking, ‘What is the valuable, unique experience we should offer for this age range?’”

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