“My ambition is for children to feel more confident in the real world,” says Sneha Biswas, the founder of education start-up Early Steps Academy. Using a combination of digital technology, expert teachers, and an education model based on the teaching style of Harvard University, Biswas believes she can equip millions of children for success in a world that is changing at breakneck pace.
“What children are learning in school is not necessarily what will help them to succeed in life,” Biswas argues. “The world has changed so much over the past decade, and it is very difficult for any school to keep up.”
Biswas’s argument is not that schools are doing a bad job. Rather, she says, they don’t have the time or the bandwidth to provide everything children need during their educational journey. In most schools around the world, she points out, children spend most of their time learning the same lessons and subjects that their parents were taught a generation earlier. And it’s difficult to encourage children to learn how to think and question independently within the confines of school curricula.
The result, Biswas says, is that schools are producing young adults who feel unsure about their place in the world. “It’s what you know that makes you feel more confident, but children need to learn in a way that’s relevant to today,” she adds. Modern technologies will automate large parts of the economy in the years ahead, Biswas points out; the jobs remaining will require creativity, independent thought and an ability to problem solve.
The big idea underpinning Early Steps Academy is that the case study style of learning employed by Harvard could revolutionise children’s learning. The start-up offers a huge curriculum, with teaching available in areas ranging from entrepreneurship and cryptocurrency to space technology and applied mathematics, but the approach is the same across all its courses. Each week, children are given a case study and asked to think about how to resolve it with what they’re learning – to turn theory into practice, in other words.
Lessons are delivered online, with children encouraged to discuss the case study with each other and with their teachers (though Biswas prefers the term “moderator”). “The aim is to deliver real world learning where children think about the practical applications of what they’re finding out about,” she says. “We focus on emotional intelligence and skills such as empathy and collaboration – the kind of skills that employers will really value in the future.”
It’s a model that Biswas has developed based on her own experience of education and work. “I grew up in East India in the sort of place where you might expect opportunities to be limited, but my parents constantly encouraged me to be curious and to try new things – to develop the skills I would need later in life,” she says. She went on to study at the Indian Institutes of Technology and at Harvard, while managing stints of teaching herself, and then worked for multinationals including the oilfield services company Schlumberger and the consulting firm Bain.
Eventually, Biswas launched Early Steps Academy, attracting funding from investors including Beenext from Singapore and Taurus Ventures from the US. The company has grown quickly, and has so far worked with more than 20,000 students in just over 20 countries around the world.
The start-up’s courses are aimed at children aged eight to 18 and cost between $18 and $25 a week. For that, children get access to a live online class delivered each week by the course moderator – typically with industry experience of what they’re teaching – and access to Early Steps Academy’s learning platform, which provides a range of background material and support.
The company is developing its model based on analysis of the learning experience of children and their families. Biswas says feedback from families suggest children are 10 times more confident after going through one of Early Steps Academy’s course – happier to participate at school and elsewhere, for example, and able to engage with peers more collaboratively and openly.
The next challenge for Biswas and her team is to scale up the model. She points to the size of the global market, with 2 billion children around the world currently of school age. Survey evidence suggests nine in 10 of them don’t feel confident about the real world. “The key is to reach many more children while being absolutely confident that we are not compromising on the quality of the education we offer,” she says. “There is no point in doing it unless we feel we are meaningfully changing children’s lives.”
One big step forward will be to develop course content in languages other than English, Biswas says. Currently, Early Steps Academy is only reaching children comfortable learning in English, so moving into new languages has the potential to substantially expand the company’s market.