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This Silicon Valley startup is empowering children with early literacy through an adaptive learning platform

Roshni Balaji ( )
·7-min read

Andrew Butler’s seven-year-old daughter used to find it extremely difficult to remember sequences, identify colours, or even grasp new words. When he found out that she was dyslexic, he began channeling all his energy on conducting research and identifying resources to support her. 


Andrew (popularly called Andy) made it a point to read multiple studies and literature on the neurology of reading, early childhood education, as well as language skill acquisition. However, he was not able to find appropriate tools which could bolster his daughter’s learning curve. So, he along with his wife met a slew of neurologists and special educators to figure out ways to assist her along the journey. 

Square Panda

Andrew Butler (left) and Ashish Jhalani.

Meanwhile, Andy began thinking about other parents who might not be able to access any tools. This pushed him to innovate and launch interventions to bring about an impact in the area of foundational literacy. 


In 2014, he established Square Panda, a startup dedicated to empowering children with literacy and language skills through a fun, game-based adaptive learning platform. Though it is based in Sunnyvale, US, Square Panda has been leaving its footprints in India and China. 


A significant proportion of children in India experience some difficulty when it comes to interpreting written words. According to the National Achievement Survey of 2017 under the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), one in three students in Class III cannot read simple English text with comprehension. The findings of the 2018 data are even more stark — only 50 percent of Class V kids belonging to rural areas could read a Class II book. 

“Around 85 percent of the mental and cognitive faculties of kids gets developed between six and eight years of age. But, unfortunately, crores of young minds do not have the means to access any foundational education resources. We at Square Panda wanted to bridge this gap by applying technology and building a lively multisensory system,” Ashish Jhalani, Global CMO and Managing Director, Square Panda, tells SocialStory.  

Square Panda

A teacher helping the students navigate through Square Panda's learning platform.

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Baby steps 

Though the seeds for Square Panda were sown in 2014, it took about two years for its offering to launch in the market. 


Andy, a graduate from Stanford University, took time to conduct research, run experiments and efficacy tests, and also build the initial set of algorithms. Since he had a rich experience in the electronics, product development and technology sectors, the journey turned out to be relatively smooth. 

SquareLand

SquareLand's interface with its characters - Panda and Cameo.

The two main offerings of the startup are – SquareLand and SquareTales, meant for any child between the ages of two to 10.  


SquareLand is a playset that takes children on an adventure through a series of games in which they can travel as they learn new words. Two characters named Panda and Cameo act as guides on the journey. The entire circuit of SquareLand is designed in such a way that it involves letter recognition, phonetics, letter-sound articulation, and word building.   

“Kids can navigate SquareLand by themselves and also learn at their own pace. The multisensory gameplay allows them to see, touch, feel, listen to the English alphabets and words; so, almost all senses stand covered – visual, tactile, kinesthetic, and auditory. Besides, we have incorporated cool down periods as part of the system so that the young ones stay engaged,” Ashish further explains.  

Square Panda

A child trying to learn new words through games.

On the other hand, SquareTales is a platform that acts as a virtual phonics tutor with sequenced curriculums which assists children with decoding and pronouncing words as well as forming sentences using them. Its objective is to help them read books with ease. 


Both SquareLand and SquareTales is integrated with a portal where teachers or parents can monitor the progress of students. 


The startup launched its pilot project in India at seven government schools in Chhattisgarh and six private schools in Mumbai and Indore. 

Schools

The teacher at a government school in Dhamtari district enabling children to read through Square Panda's platforms.

Square Panda particularly targeted more government schools in the beginning since they were the most deprived when it came to digital infrastructure and quality facilities. As part of their pilot study, students from Class I to III in a school at Dhamtari district, Chhattisgarh were given access to the digital tools to learn spellings and words. The kids used it for three days each over five weeks, with each session lasting 20 minutes. The results were overwhelming. 

“At the end of it, we found that the children who played the games had improved their word reading by over 300 percent and sentence reading by more than 125 percent. Similar outcomes were noticed among students studying in schools across other cities too,” adds Ashish. 

Square Panda collaborated with the state government to reach out to the government schools in Dhamtari. The team trained some of the teachers to use tablets and smartphones to navigate the startup’s platforms. The teachers, in turn, equipped the kids to play educational games. 

Square Panda

The team of Square Panda.

Just when the startup was planning to approach other schools for a full-fledged roll-out, the COVID-19 pandemic reached India’s shores, followed by the closure of all educational institutions. Nevertheless, Square Panda and its team of 115 people have not given up. They are in talks with the state governments of Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, and Madhya Pradesh to expand their endeavour. 


Square Panda’s platforms can be subscribed for a duration of one to three years, inclusive of all the tools and lesson plans. While the price generally varies based on the number of estimated users, the average cost that needs to be borne is Rs 2,000 per child per year. So far, the startup has positively impacted the learning capabilities of more than 40,000 children in India.    

“In addition to our presence in India, we are offering platforms to children in the US and China. Around 3,500 schools in the US are using Square Panda and over one lakh of them are being benefitted in China, where we stick to a B2C model,” says Ashish. 

The retired tennis legend Andre Agassi is one of the prime investors in the startup. However, other accredited and angel investors have also pitched in to run the show.  

Andre Agassi

Andre Agassi watching kids use the startup's tools.

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Creating a lasting impact 

One of the major transformations that Square Panda is bringing about is better learning retention among kids. Not only did they find that the kids were able to form words more coherently, but also, demonstrated a higher reading proficiency.


Nitin Shriyans, who is a father to a 5-year-old, has been witnessing marked improvement in the reading skills of his child.  

“My daughter loves being active. She loves to play, but she simply was not willing to spend time on reading. When I introduced her to SquareTales, she started reading small sentences and even made her some of her own! I am very excited to see what else she learns from these digital tools and PDF books,” he says.  

Parents

A father assisting his son as he learns.

Square Panda is planning to develop a few new learning systems targeted specifically to aid children in getting a hold on pronunciations. It is also working to leverage artificial intelligence and neural networks to personalise the offering.    

Edited by Kanishk Singh

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