K-12 Learning Pods Post-mortem

We are no longer working on learning pods for K-12. We are full-speed ahead with a related project to open up the college experience.

We are not going to try to help K-12 teachers and parents. The back-to-school situation is a mess, and we want to help parents deal with the mess. On the other hand there is no obvious opportunity to support a business that helps fix the mess. My expectation is that in-school classes will vector back towards normal over the next three months.

What happened

We spent a few weeks working with charter schools. We proposed to help them recruit and organize “coaches” that would work with students during the times that students cannot be with their normal teachers — either full time (possibly in the school), or three days out of five in the “hybrid” model that many schools are using.

We found an infinite demand for this, but no funding. It would be extremely helpful to parents and kids, and it would satisfy government interest in getting kids back to school and parents back to work. It would be logical to pay for this out of the federal funding. The federal government is pushing hard for more in-person classes, and they have the only deep pocket. However, federal funding in the second stimulus bill has been blocked.

So parents are stuck with the bill in both time and money. Can we help them directly? We did a sprint of about ten days with various Facebook groups where parents and teachers are organizing local pods. I thank Morgan Book, Ben Hartvigsen, and Acer Iverson for jumping to research this stage. The teachers and coaches that we found in this market were not the semi-professional gap year kids that can help charter schools. This group was surprisingly professional. We found a number of entrepreneurial teachers and coaches who were organizing pods. This posed an opportunity for us to support them with the basics of marketing, administration, compliance, content, and software. Some of them are organizing under the banner of “nanoschools”.

I ultimately decided that I do not believe there is a long term opportunity to support nanoschool coaches. The problem is that kids rotate out of pod groups fairly quickly. I think that a small group of 10 student clients is too unstable to keep a viable group of clients. It’s much more stable to offer one-on-one tutoring to many clients that move around, or a bigger school that can always fill pods/classes. I believe that for this reason, the disruption of K-12 education by nanoschools is likely to be short-lived.

Onward to Flex College

In contrast, I believe that college is changing permanently. It is experiencing not just inconvenience and delay, but true disruption and reformation.

True, 2020 will see declines in student volumes, and the biggest decline in average pricing since 1978. But the $600B market for higher education is also changing in a way that indicates true disruption. We are very excited about the project that we have come to describe as “Flex College.”

To review: College consists of three basic deliverables: 1) learning something; 2) getting a degree and a valuable credential; 3) “going to college” and having a social and motivational and networking experience. Existing campus-based colleges deliver these things, but with unsustainable fixed costs and inertia. Can we deliver all of that with a more targeted, asset light model? Purely online instruction seems to work well for students that are 22+. Flex College taps into similar resources, for 17–21 year olds that want a better way to “go to college”.

Our next step is to pull together an incubator+dogfooding group. These students will design and build a Flex college program for 2021. And, they will test the concept by pursuing online education in a (eventually) co-located group with on-site coaching.

This group will be significantly larger than a typical startup incubator team. We plan a number of other innovations in the startup process for our first cohort of co-founders. Time to get recruiting.

SaaS entrepreneur/engineer. Founder of MAXOS, Real World DeFi. Previously founded Assembla, PowerSteering Software, on team at SNL Financial.