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

For years, global learning platform Kahoot has cemented its foothold in the K-12 space through acquisitions and additions to its popular testing platform. On Wednesday, Kahoot expanded its reach even further, releasing a product designed specifically for kids from 2 to 7 years old.

And no, not more tests. Instead, the Norway-based company — which counts Disney as an investor — has unveiled a new line of digital games, called Kahoot! Children, to introduce young children to basic skills and concepts such as socio-emotional learning, mathematics and reading.

It is the latest example of a well-established K-12 education company moving into the early childhood field. In the past several years, more and more companies have expanded their existing offerings or launched new apps and features to suit children under the age of two or three.

Whether these executives see dollar signs hovering over children’s heads or are finally waking up to a wealth of existing research on the importance of learning and development in the early years, there is some kind of new energy in this corner of the education market.

“I want to think that a lot of the science over the past 20 years has finally convinced organizations,” says Isabel Howe, an influencer who studies early childhood. “My imagination is [companies] They were seeing 0 to 5 because this is a highly fragmented market where they could not build the demand for their products or services in a cost effective manner. Now, this is getting more and more organized.”

She adds that the prospect of comprehensive national preschool and affordable childcare on the horizon — both of which require curricula and educational tools — certainly doesn’t hurt.

Additionally, Howe says, education executives will likely want to emulate a model that has worked in other sectors, “which means, ‘Let’s start users earlier and earlier if possible, so they are familiar with our solution’.” “A company that only operates in the K-12 market might conclude that they are losing whole years of potential business to each child. In that case, why not increase the life of their products?”

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

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Outschool CEO Amir Nathu says his company planned to serve children aged 5-18 when it launched in 2015, with its online courses that cover both academic and specialized subjects. But families wanted their young children to have access to age-appropriate classes on the tutoring site, too.

According to Nathoo, parents have been reaching out to say things like, “My 4-year-old has an older brother in class, and I really think he would enjoy that. Can he join in?” After enough repetitions of that conversation, Outschool lowered its platform age limit at 2017 added chapters with content and concepts suitable for children aged 3 to 4 years.

This is also the reason why Kahoot decided to launch Kahoot! Kids this week, says CEO Elert Hanwha. Families wanted access to games and content designed for young children. Oftentimes, due to the lack of a child-friendly option, they let their minor children use the standard Kahoot app anyway. The Hanoa and Kahoot team have come to the conclusion that a safer alternative is to create age-appropriate materials designed just for them.

At first, Nathoo and his team at Outschool were surprised to learn that young children could navigate technology and extract value from the classroom. Since then, he has two children, the oldest of whom is 3 years old.

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

During our interview, 3-year-old son Nathoo in the next room was taking an out-of-school class that used animal names to teach kids phonics. It lasted for 20 minutes and involved two students with one teacher. Later that day, the boy was enrolled in a 15-minute class focusing on movement, singing, and dancing.

Small class sizes may be a feature of lessons for young learners. At Reconstruction, a company that started less than two years ago to teach “unreasonable black education,” the ideal class size is six students for every one teacher, says Rachel Etienne, the company’s curriculum leader.

Similar to Outschool, Reconstruction offers online lessons that help kids 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 from solid, research-based education,” Etienne says. “But they learn through songs, poems, and dances” about black history and black life. In one reading class, the lesson is built around 10 Stevie Wonder songs. In another case, the teacher uses historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to teach the letters of the alphabet – for the letter “f,” children discuss Fisk University.

In math classes, “abbreviation” learns counting, arithmetic, addition and subtraction, “but in the context of black inventors and black-owned businesses,” she said. “Every content experience is embedded within a cultural or societal framework.”

Unlike straight academics, reconstruction classes often feature “brain breaks” and “body breaks,” Etienne says, since young children require frequent movement and usually have shorter attention spans. One classroom has “boogie cards” that the teacher can pull out 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 interact”.

Etienne was also impressed by the ability of 4 and 5-year-olds to learn and participate in classes, when they were young.

“We often underestimate young children – what they can do, what they can feel, what they can perceive,” she says. “I was inspired by the level of interaction of our young children.”

The non-profit Khan Academy launched its early education app, Khan Academy Kids, in 2018. It’s an adaptable app for children aged 2-8 and covers early literacy, math, socio-emotional learning, creativity and physical activity. Like other early education products that EdSurge has researched, it strives to balance academic learning such as reading and math with movement, emotion, and fun.

Since the app was launched, 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.

Take technology precautions

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

Caroline Ho Fleiser, part of the Khan Academy Kids team and CEO and co-founder of Duck Duck Moose, an early education company now affiliated with Khan Academy, says the concerns about technology use and screen time are “correct and important.”

“We never intend for our apps to take time away from other things kids are doing in sandbox or outside,” Hu Flexer says. “We have designed apps that will give kids a different kind of learning experience – play-based and interactive. They don’t just stare at the screen passively.”

“There is a big difference between the active learning experience and the bright look the kids get,” she says.

At Outschool, the screen may be making the classes easier, but there are still real teachers on the other side of it, Nathoo points out. “Our classes are meant for engagement, with teachers using the same methods they personally use — not artificial stimuli,” he says.

For 3- to 4-year-olds, parental supervision and support is almost essential, even if it’s just for logging into classes. By around age 5, most children are able to do more on their own but can still benefit from parental involvement. Most apps like Kahoot! Kids and Khan Academy Kids is based on heavy pictures and read-aloud technology to meet the developmental needs of young children. “At older ages, children start turning away from parents,” says Natto.

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

Accepting the request

Since the start of the pandemic, use and participation in early childhood classes and products have skyrocketed, educational technology leaders say.

Before 2020, Khan Academy Kids saw around 500,000 monthly active users. When the pandemic began, the number rose to 1.5 million and has continued ever since.

The vast majority of this use occurs in homes and between families. But an increasing number of educators are starting to use Khan Academy Kids with their students, and Khan Academy has developed teacher tools to support this shift, particularly because, as Hu Flexer notes, “there aren’t many solid early childhood resources for teachers to use in the classroom effectively.”

She’s proud of this sustainable growth, because it means Khan Academy Kids helps kids build essential skills they might not be exposed to until kindergarten.

“Other companies understand the research and know that these skills—and introducing children to early learning—are critical,” Hu Flexer says, trying to explain why the interest in early childhood education technology is growing. “It’s hard, later, for kids to catch up when they start school already late.”

Outschool’s online marketplace has also seen a surge in demand during the pandemic – across its entire user base, yes, but it’s particularly focused among younger users.

Prior to 2020, out-of-school classes attended by 3- to 8-year-olds represented 20 percent of the company’s total business. Now, they account for 40 percent.

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

“There are a lot of business incentives for companies to do this. Are they doing it for business reasons or for learner-centric reasons?” asks Nathoo. “It would be bad for customers if companies said, ‘Oh, the early childhood market is exploding, we want to be there,’ without asking, ‘What valuable and unique experience do we have to offer this age group? “

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