Even before the pandemic, the world of education was changing rapidly.
The majority of kids under eighteen own one to three devices and several social media accounts. The content they consume—whether it be news, videos, or tweets—can all be ingested in one minute.
Confronted with the omnipresent screens, video games, apps, and base entertainment, many parents are worried about their children’s future. The Internet, it seems, has made students less focused in school, less physically active, and the pressure from the pandemic seems to be compounding these issues.
I was doing some research on the subject of online school when my own university moved online. I saw the major ways it affected my friends and colleagues mentally. They were holed up in their homes surrounded by electronics. As a computer science major, I actually somewhat enjoyed learning on the Internet.
I was curious as to whether there were some students somewhere who loved working online. I chatted with an old friend from high school who happened to be working at a burgeoning online company. The odd thing was that he used to work in investment banking and was now teaching. But the even odder thing was how he discussed that his students loved learning online. In fact, they were doing better than ever in school and taking more courses outside of school.
I decided to take a further look. He introduced me to the CEO, and when I mentioned to her the ongoing educational issues that the pandemic was raising, her rapidly growing Singapore-based education technology company Ascend Now had a blunt response: school should be online.
“The Internet isn’t limiting kids, it’s expanding their worldview,” says founder Devi Sahny, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker and Georgetown graduate who started the company in 2018. “If you give a kid an iPhone they’ll spend time scrolling through TikTok. But if you teach a kid about the uses of that iPhone, about their own personal power and influence on the world, they’ll use that iPhone to build a business, a film, a program, anything. Kids have a luxury we didn’t have; they can literally start functioning businesses from their bedroom.”
Sahny, an entrepreneur at heart and the kind of casually inspiring Type A friend you like to grab dinner with on Saturdays (when they have one hour of free time), started her own education consultancy in high school. She spent the last ten years considering how technology wasn’t hindering education, but just another tool, an egg that hadn’t been cracked open just yet. Her consultancy was a small way for her to practice business skills and make money when she wasn’t in the library studying: a product of her stubborn desire to pay her university tuition back to her parents. She loved helping students of all ages get their grades up, study for tests, and get into their dream school, often by assigning them unusual, unstructured tasks: write a paper about an Instagram post, compare this New York Times article to this Buzzfeed quiz, create a supply demand curve graph using House of Cards characters. She used her youth to her advantage: unlike her students’ teachers, Sahny had a general idea of how kids would procrastinate on their iPhone when they tuned out of lectures. She used those distractions as learning tools.
“If you told me three years ago I’d have a company with fifty teachers and working with some of the best schools in Singapore like UWCSEA and Dulwich, I wouldn’t have believed you!” she exclaims.
Her company Ascend Now is a sky school providing personalized academic and extracurricular support, and has enrolled 600+ students worldwide. Its most impressive statistic, however, is its retention rate: 95%.
“Kids usually sign up for some academic help at first,” says Chief Operating Officer Pavan Sampath. “Maybe it’s with a writing coach or a standardized test coach to get their grades up. But when they realize how fun it is to log onto Zoom and hang out with their coach, they start to sign up for more lessons. Very often ones that involve starting their own businesses.”
Ascend Now, according to its website, provides two kinds of academic coaching: Academics and Beyond Academics. However, students don’t enroll in “courses” or specific subject areas. They bring what they need to the table and work with their coach to craft a curriculum specific to them and what they want to learn. If a student is struggling in math but also aspires to be a graphic designer, their coach creates a curriculum where they receive math help and get to design their own project. An Ascend Now coach, either using their own expertise or with the help of their colleagues, can morph graphic design tenets and aesthetics into their mathematics material. If the student finds they’re addicted to TikTok, their coach can morph that into their lesson plan as well.
Head of Curriculum Ethan Barnes, a certified teacher, has observed that unlike the schools he usually works at, Ascend Now staff work together to help the student.
“I didn’t think an IB biology examiner in India, a writing instructor in the U.S. and an Economics PHD in Cairo would ever have a meeting together to combine resources in helping the same student,” he says with interest. “But I see it every day at work. It’s quite neat.”
The key to Ascend Now’s success? Their philosophy of personalized learning. It makes them boldly stand out in the sea of impersonal education technology companies, most of which assign you a tutor and then charge you. Ascend Now is more concerned with quality than quantity. Top management knows the name of every single student, their interests, and their learning and communication style.
“We spend a lot of time with prospective students, trying to find the right instructor and curriculum just for them,” says Sampath. “We take note of their personality, their learning style, and what’s missing in their education. Then we assign a coach that fits that personality.”
Ascend Now coaches vary in skills and experience, from passionate IB Examiners to former investment bankers to filmmakers to recent graduates. Sahny embraces the diversity of a teaching staff to mirror the diversity of the students.
“No two students are ever alike,” she says confidently. “So, no two curricula will ever be the same. The fundamental assumptions in the education system are flawed; why do two grade nine students, of different aptitude and skill set, have to graduate at the same time simply because they were born in the same year?”
“It’s simple really; each child is different so we want our teachers to form a relationship with them,” says Barnes, who is a certified teacher in Singapore and also one of the most popular coaches at Ascend Now. “We want to know their interests so that we can tie academic concepts to these specific interests while teaching. In order to do that, you need to spend time connecting with students in a reciprocal relationship. I want my students to know me as well as I know them, particularly my own trials and tribulations. You can’t have success without failure.”
It begs the question as to what exactly makes this method different from traditional tutoring. Isn’t all tutoring just one-to-one personalization for good grades? Sahny emphasizes the unique kind of support that Ascend Now can give its students right in the comfort of their own homes. “We have the familial energy of a school, a trustworthy institution where they can explore new ideas and build expertise, but we also provide the one to one support of a close friend or a mentor. And they can text us on their iPhone whenever they want!”
One of Ascend Now’s coaches, Caitlin Ouano, agrees. “I’ve tutored at other companies, but most of them just care that the kid’s grades get better and that the parent is happy. On the other hand, my colleagues who teach at big schools have so many students they can’t cater their curriculum to every learning style. Ascend Now is that oddly perfect happy medium; the coaches actually care about how the student is feeling, whether their experience is positive or negative. Devi is in a group chat with every student and checks in with them once a month. She knows them personally.”
The incredible side effect of enrolling at Ascend Now (an unintentional one, Sahny claims) is that many students become more vocal and confident, unlike the vast global majority of students who are glued to videogames. The centerpiece of Ascend Now’s philosophy is its Entrepreneurship Curriculum, a way for students to apply what they’ve learned in school and extracurricular activities to build, communicate, and lead their own business. They prepare a pitch and compete with a judge panel of real investors, including Sahny’s and Sampath’s colleagues from Goldman Sachs.
“A lot of our kids came from different backgrounds and with different interests, but we saw how they all had ideas and wanted to really apply them in the real world,” said Sampath. “Entrepreneurship became our most popular curriculum.”
“Our company empowers kids to own their uniqueness and their perspective,” says Barnes. “What better way for them to show the pinnacle of their uniqueness than allow them to apply it in a real world way?”
This year’s Shark Tank competition drew over two hundred contestants, including a few not even enrolled at Ascend Now. Five hundred people watched the competition from all parts of the world. It was a sign of the company’s rapid growth. But the impact of Ascend Now on its students is what will ultimately make Sahny’s company stand out. The nine Ascend Now students between the ages of ten and fifteen who were Shark Tank finalists logged onto Zoom and gave incredibly confident, creative presentations about their dream businesses, answering harsh questions by the judges about market research, financial planning, and quality assurance, with the coolness and intelligence of seasoned CEO’s. They were undeterred, focused, and sharp.
Barnes tells me Ascend Now kids have published books, designed video games, and written blog posts. It’s not out of the ordinary for an Ascend Now student to apply what they’ve learned. “The personalized learning makes them form a positive association with education. They start to become more mindful and motivated to work outside of class, or use class to work on something they’re really passionate about.”
The Zoom courses work to Ascend Now’s advantage. Because students are in their own homes, using the Internet, chatting with mentors, and applying their Instagram and Netflix knowledge, they start to turn their focus inwards to their own strengths and then outwards to how to apply it. While social media is a passive device that can often make kids insecure, personal Zoom coaching has the opposite mental effect: it allows kids to virtually and actively partake in their own education. The Internet is no longer something they can submerge themselves in, but something they intentionally participate in.
Sahny notices how Ascend Now students are outliers. “When parents tell me their kids are digitally addicted or just sitting at home watching television passively, I’m proud to say that our students just aren’t.” She recounts how one twelve year old student made a pitch presentation to his parents highlighting the “economic” merits of buying him a new videogame; his coach had integrated some basic marketing and supply/demand curve concepts into his math and english support curriculum.
Though a majority of big ed tech companies like Wyzant and Vedantu have seen major increases in enrollment, it’s the mid-size consultancies like Ascend Now that have actually been delivering the results. In addition to reporting solid 50% increases in SAT scores, IB exams, and academic grades, Ascend Now parents on average, according to Sampath, note that after just five to ten lessons with their coach (Ascend Now’s staff checks in with parents daily), students are 25% more focused, confident, and present. Even students who simply enroll in a fashion marketing or blog writing curriculum see academic improvement in school because, in Sampath’s words, “they’re just in a better, more confident mood. The mentorship we provide seeps into every part of their life.”
“The best thing parents tell me is that their child put the phone down at dinner and actually talked to them about what they learned in school or with us,” says Ouano. Barnes is in agreement: “You see the good habits they’re forming just by having a mentor ask them who they are and what they want to be. Devi tells us to prioritize that above all.”
Sahny concludes the interview because she has a fifteen year old student in Europe to coach.
“Her homework was to finish Calculus then build a website inspired by Brandy Melville and Billie Eilish,” she laughs. “Safe to say, she has about four mockups to show me.”