How a K-12 Education Business Pivoted During COVID to Teaching Online

With Rosy Cohen, founder of Grupology, a business specializing in after-school educational experiences for K-12 students.

A girl behind a laptop watching an online class raises her hand.

In this interview with Rosy Cohen, founder of Grupology, we learn how one small business, a K-12 education company that had a business model dependent largely on face-to-face interaction, pivoted to operating entirely online during COVID shutdowns.

Transcript:

Dan Biewener: The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way a lot of small businesses do business. I'm Dan Biewener, your Fundbox Podcast host, and today I'd like to introduce you to Rosy Cohen, the founder, and educator at a fairly new company called Grupology that specializes in designing afterschool educational experiences for K-12 students. Now, since instructor-led education was an industry that was turned on its head in a matter of days this year, I'd like to share this story of fast adaptation to the new normal. Hey, Rosy, welcome to the show.

Rosy Cohen: Well, hi, Dan. It's great to be here and thanks for having me. I'm Rosy Cohen, the founder of Grupology, an education online platform.

Dan: Now, tell us a little bit about what Grupology does.

Rosy: So Grupology is an online learning platform and also in-person, but what we do is beyond the classroom. We provide afterschool classes, we provide workshops, we provide summer camps and at the same time, provide private organized learning for students who might have an elective that they want to take, whether it's business, whether it's Spanish, whether it's geography or learning some core subjects like math. What we do is we make sure that the students or parents have that on-demand if they need it.

Dan: Okay, so it's extracurricular, not like intramural sports because it's not necessarily tutoring either, but electives to help kids broaden their own education with regular classes.

Rosy: The way I like to think about it is we provide organized electives. If kids are interested in math, if they're interested in business, if they're interested in learning a new language, there's stuff that can be learned beyond the classroom. And we try to provide that in-person or online and in some ways, we cater to families so that it's flexible. Sometimes it's at school, sometimes it's in the home and sometimes it's virtual.

Dan: Right. Now, before you founded Grupology, you had a couple of decades of experience in the finance industry. So you're no stranger to the needs of funding a business. How did this knowledge help you to start and grow Grupology?

Rosy: So, yes, my background, I was in the banking industry for a very long time. I had years as a credit analyst and as an investor and doing that kind of role allowed me to know what worked, what failed many times, a lot of issues around management, and also most importantly, understanding business models. And so when I started Grupology, it was very important to me- to me to be able to have a business model that would work and if it didn't work, it was okay because failure is okay, but that I would be able to basically continue. And so with some of the savings that I had, I was able to fund it.

One of the classes that I teach is entrepreneurship, and I teach entrepreneurship, uh, to low-income students at a local middle school. And I really wanted to create a company that had a sound business model that wasn't capital intensive to start because I wanted to show them that you- sometimes you don't need a ton of money and you don't need to have a lot of assets to credit or capital so that you can start it. And that's how I thought about Grupology when we started it.

Dan: That's great. And it sounds like you made some terrific inroads that had some great success, but with a mix of home learning after school programs and even camps, what happened when the shelter in place started in schools and all not essential face-to-face contact had to stop?

Rosy: So it's-it's quite interesting because when COVID hit, everybody automatically thought that Grupology would potentially shut its doors and stop, and we would not be doing our in-person teaching and that's absolutely correct. We have to stop that model and we were in the process of launching it. So we had expanded to new cities, new schools, new communities, and, um, just like with all educators, we needed to pivot.

We need to pivot quickly and because our curriculum was very sound, our educators who were, uh, professionals and knew how to pivot, then what we- we did, what most companies did, we went online and it ended up actually being quite a success. Our most important thing was that we always wanted to provide a service where we could connect with the child and when you're connecting with the child, it doesn't necessarily have to be in-person.

Connecting can be online, it can be virtual and if you have the right setup, the right curriculum, the right teacher, the right connection to connect with folks, one-on-one, it can be as engaging as in-person.

Maybe that's a little bit of a stretch, but I think we were able to make that happen.

Dan: So it's the learning that's important, not necessarily the platform, whether it's face-to-face or in-person. Now, I know the shutdown must've affected your summer camps, especially. Ha-has the online component absorbed a lot of that pretty well?

Rosy: Yes, the online component, we supported it very well. I think that when COVID hit schools, and a lot of businesses were shifting, and still trying to figure out how is it that we engage with children and students and provide that excellent learning over Zoom, or over any online platform. But with us, because our curriculum was extremely sound and our teachers, we're able to provide the learning the way that children like, you can have it be interactive, have it be moving. It's, uh, it's-it's going back to the basics and being able to have the student move around, have the students be able to use manipulatives.

Have the students be able to have the different forms of learning whether it's audiovisual text, basically writing. You can do that, you can do that over online. Educators, you just need to have time to absorb that professional development. But once you get it, it can be extremely successful.

Dan: Let's talk about that initial transition. So when suddenly, you know, you couldn't do face to face anymore. How long did it take for you to get all your ducks in a row so that you could still function not only as a business but educate your students as best as possible?

Rosy: We really launched this year in February. And we were going to expand in the spring and the summer. We have partnerships with different communities, basically, with cities and we had different partners with schools. That was going to be the big party, right? We were expanding, and we were going to be in person. And I always thought it was very important for us to be in person because I wanted us to connect with people, I wanted that face to face interaction. Because there was always a complaint about too much screen time. That made me really want it to be in person before we launch our online platform.

When COVID hit and we could no longer be in person, they automatically thought that it was just like, "Oh, what a bummer." Grupology was going to do this for communities, right?

And we're no longer going to be in person. I actually always knew that I want it to be online, but that's not how we wanted to start. So when COVID hit because we were already comfortable with Zoom, because that's how we would conduct our meetings, we were very comfortable with an online platform. And so we said, "Let's do it. Even if we were going to do International Spy School in person, we can now use Google Earth, we can now use really cool slides, we can now use really cool images, we can now use our imagination with our pencil katanas. Right? And kids would be super excited about that." So I think it's just really getting out of our comfort zones and trying to be really creative of how you can draw that child in. If we did that right, which we did do it right.

In the spring, I said, "Let's give it a shot." And so when we did that, in the spring, we gave it a shot and the kids' eyes lit up. That's what we're here for.

Dan: Now, how about the background of your instructors, do they come from traditional education, or was teaching online something they found easy to adapt to for the classroom setting? Or what special skills came into the balance?

Rosy: It was not like we had a ton of online experience ourselves, to begin with, I'll be honest. It's being able to adapt and be flexible. And to not say, "Oh, I can't do it, I'm just going to give up." Because that's always so much easier. But to have the attitude of let's give it a try. That's what others are doing. And I think it was a mix of having professionals who are- who have been in the industry, a combination with ex-teachers, and collaborating.

And so when you collaborate you put those two, three, four, five minds together with different backgrounds, then you just always end up with a better service or a better product. And that's what we chose to do. And then going out and doing the research and asking the right people. So you have your group of core people that- who are going to provide the service. But at the same time we reached out to say, "What is it that this company, this school, this independent school, this public school is doing well." Listen to what the parents and also the students.

The students will tell you what works, what doesn't work. I don't know that as adults, we asked students enough, what works, what doesn't work what do you like? And uh, having a house with kids and having a ton of nephews and nieces, I just asked them, what would you like?

Dan: Oh, that's great. So you had this whole summer to experiment with this, what have been some of the things you've learned in this process that really worked particularly well? Specifically, about the physical aspect, how did you adapt the whole, getting kids up and moving around part into online activities?

Rosy: It's funny because I teach this class called International Spy School. And when I stopped and I looked at this class, it's fun. Everybody wants to be a spy, right? But the foundation behind that was to take the core subject of geography, teach them geography in a very fun way. But when you start thinking about International Spy School, they also think about physical movement. And so I would always introduce okay, Spies have to have physical movement. When you think about it, is it martial arts? Is it a defense? Is it tiptoeing? Is it hiding? So sure enough, every session for 10 minutes, whether I was teaching them how to box, teaching them how to be a Ninja and being creative and saying, "Go get your- go get your swords, go get your chopsticks, go get your pencils and this is going to be your katana's today because you are ninjas."

And you just get them to move, but playing with them, having that aspect of that you're a teacher, play with them, but in a way where they're so excited about it that they actually think that the two pencils that they have in front of them are swords. And that movement gets them engaged and then we can lead into the fact that we're not headed to Japan if that's basically where we were headed on our spy class that day, but that's just one example of how we introduce movement.

I can give you another example where we have our Spanish teachers. After a long day, maybe they don't want to learn Spanish, but when you're learning Spanish, Spanish could also be PE. Kids will tell you that they love PE. So why not do PE in Spanish? And that's one way where you can introduce physical movement. You're also learning the language and they're having fun.

Dan: Wow, those are great ideas. So do you share what you've learned with other institutions? I imagine the things you're learning now could really improve education as a whole, especially for K-12.

Rosy: Yes, so right now, we're really helping parents. Any time that parents are coming to us or teachers are coming to us and asking, "What is it that you're doing that works?" We are always sharing ideas. We are trying to partner with nonprofits, but some of the issues with the nonprofits right now is that they're dealing with the same issues where attendance is low because of lack of access to technology. So we are willing to share information with anybody who wants to see what we are doing? What's working. So we're reaching out and as folks reach out to us, we're willing to share what-what works for us.

Dan: Right, that's great. So I know this is a big question, but how do you think this is affecting education as an industry overall?

Rosy: Well, there's a big shakeup. When we think about the world of education and how it's changed and whether it's even when, hopefully, soon COVID is over and we find a vaccine, I think it's eye-opening, right? It's eye-opening of what works, what doesn't work. What do parents need? What do teachers need? It's sad to say that COVID is shaking things up, but I think it was going to be shaken up, regardless.

Whether it's at the higher education level, the colleges are being shaken up and everybody's questioning what's the value proposition. Everybody is always wondering, you know, what works, what doesn't work, and whether things move too slow, can we pivot quickly? When it comes to technology, should we be using, should we not be using? And I think that folks that were afraid of technology need really, truly understand now that they need to see what's out there and adapt and be able to use it in the classroom, even when COVID is not here.

So I think it's a big wake up call. Part of the reason why I started Grupology was I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to be in the classroom setting, but my biggest fear was that creativity would not be able to shine through and by creating Grupology, I could navigate quicker. I could pivot quicker. I could adapt quicker, and I could really just do what parents and students wanted.

Dan: Yeah, that's great. So do you have any feelings about schools opening now?

Rosy: I think, you know, every situation is different, every school is different and every city is different, right? So I think being cautious, I am a cautious person when it comes to my kids, so if a school is not ready to open, I understand that. I'm really lucky that we- we're in a good community. I think our public school is doing a really good job. I care less right now about the in-person, but effective educational minutes. I don't like thinking about: “Is it 240 minutes or is it 300 minutes?” I care about high-quality instruction.

If you engage my child in 60 minutes or 120 minutes, and then you follow up with asynchronous learning, where they are engaged in what they're doing, then I could care- then I could care less about the fact that it wasn't four hours of instructional limits. When we're talking about their learning, I care about high-quality instructional minutes followed up with independent learning. So we're teaching kids how to learn and focusing less on how many minutes you were in the classroom.

Dan: Okay, right. Now, talk a little bit about the asynchronous learning, particularly for people that don't understand that term.

Rosy: Asynchronous learning is basically independent learning. Let's say in our class, it's called tinker lab, kids love to tinker. Kids love- basically love to build. So in the online format, if it's a class that they're taking with one of our instructors basically for 45 minutes and they're learning how to build that bridge, learning how to build that skyscraper and they're seeing what works and what doesn't work.

But after that classroom ends, it's seeing them build that bridge on their own, let it fall five times, six times, however many times, and seeing what they show up the next day. During that time, during that independent time that they're learning and that they're building and that they're using their hands, it's surprising to see what they will show up with the next day. They share that, they share what they did and the next thing you know, you'll see other kids who are using that same idea as well.

Dan: You know, that's a- that's a great way to incorporate all the different strengths of learning through different modalities. How do you predict coronavirus will affect your business and education really for the next six months?

Rosy: I always like to prepare for the worst and so I-- While I hope that we're all back in schools and I hope that this is over sooner, rather than later, we all have to prepare that this is going to be here for a while. So what we're navigating through all of this, for us, I would say that the shift has been to maybe before, when it was enrichment, now they're also looking for core stuff, for example, let's say math, reading, and writing. Some of the stuff that you would traditionally be taught in school.

So we're always trying to make sure that the content that we're providing is what students want. And I think if students want it and parents see that this is- this is something that they want, but at the same time that their learning, parents' response would be like, "Great. They're learning, they're having fun. This is a win-win situation," and it's actually a recipe that I think works over the long run.

Dan: Now, this transition, when you pivoted, what were some of the things you learned, especially regarding technology? Are-are there some things that you wish you had or some things that you really think could improve with whatever the platforms you're using?

Rosy: We are using Zoom. [chuckles] Everybody who didn't have a Zoom account, including your grandmother or your aunt, right? All of a sudden, they adapted. I mean, I think they're using Google Classroom and Zoom and so we were using Zoom before, but now everybody that you know, it's like Zoom is an everyday vocabulary word. Do I wish I had more technology as it relates to my classes? Absolutely. Can I create these amazing visuals and slides and video graphics and sketch noting, that's to come. And that's what I'm excited about building. We don't have all of that, but I am a big, big fan of sketch noting. I am a big fan of visuals and videos.

That's a type of educational technology that I'm gonna be looking into so that when we're thinking about how kids absorb information, I want to make sure that we're providing more.

Dan: Okay, that's great. Well, I think my last question is, is there anything that you wish were better about online learning?

Rosy: I just wish everyone had access to Wi-Fi. We spent all this money with schools, we spent all this money and I'm like, "But that should never be an issue." I'm like, "Every child should have access to Wi-Fi." So it should not be because one child has glitches in their home and another child doesn't have glitches. Here, it's just like, "Well, you know what? Everybody should be dealing with a glitch," is what I would say, right? I think everybody should have Wi-Fi. I think everybody should have access to all that top. I think those are just like essentials. I wish that every single child had it at their fingertips.

Dan: It's really fascinating hearing your story and I just want to say one more time, thank you for joining us, Rosy, and telling us about how Grupology works.

Rosy: Thanks for having me. It's been a pleasure, Dan.

Dan: You could learn more about Grupology at grupology.com. That's G-R-U pology.com. I'm Dan Biewener for Fundbox, and you can learn more about business lines of credit at fundbox.com.

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