Can Ed-Tech Democratize Education In Asia Pacific?
Whenever a student from an impoverished background in Asia Pacific gets admitted into a top university like Harvard or Stanford, the story often makes the local news. While the individual student should be celebrated, the underlying reason of the coverage should not: By writing the feature, the journalist is admitting this is not common - people who lack resources rarely if ever go to elite schools.
International students in Asia Pacific from wealthier backgrounds have access to a plethora of resources that even middle-class students do not. These include everything from private tutors and enrichment activities to supplemental courses and one-on-one advising. For the vast majority of people in Asia, these resources are cost-prohibitive.
Can ed-tech address this inequality?
There are a few novel approaches to this problem, each of which are gaining traction in their own way. The first approach is information access, whose central thesis is that the vast majority of students do not take advantage of the opportunities available to them simply because they are not aware of what they are. Information about schools is just not available, or when it is, it’s tough to navigate.
In the Philippines, Edukasyon tries to address this information inequality through a portal where students can research about local and foreign schools, and if they are so inclined, inquire for more information. The platform has already attracted more than 500,000 users, so there is a clear need for a centralized clearinghouse of information and resources. This week they also just announced their Series A, indicating more investor confidence in this model.
Another approach is where education is consummated entirely online. This digital-first method of education makes sense for many different use cases in Asia. Some youth may have part-time jobs helping the family business, such as a farm or neighborhood store, making full-time in-person education not possible. For others, physically attending university may be too time-intensive, such as for students who may have to commute from a remote rural area into the city.
One company providing opportunities for digital education is Topica EdTech Group, which was founded out of Vietnam and is now active in Thailand, Indonesia, and other markets in Southeast Asia. The company runs short skill courses, such as providing English language tutoring through an augmented reality app. Most notably, the company offers degree courses, which allows people to develop credentials in a way that still accommodates their different living situations. Topica makes “going away to college” as simple as walking over to your home’s desktop, which makes education much more inclusive.
Ed-tech Goes Bleeding Edge
Though ed-tech in Asia is still nascent, some ventures are already applying the latest bleeding edge technology to the space. One such example is Tenopy, which was founded in 2017 in Singapore and has raised S$1.5 million from venture capitalists in Singapore, China, and Japan.
Tenopy is a live online teaching platform, which sounds common enough, but the twist comes in the solution itself - the solution is enhanced via technology. During the class, the interface is improved with additional features that play to different types of learners, including video for visual learners, audio for auditory learners, and text chats for kinesthetic learners. The mixture of tools ensures that students are engaged and retain more information.
The data across these different streams is tracked and the company’s in-house algorithms help to personalize the learning experience of students further. Tutors receive this data, enabling them to customize their lessons to the individual learning needs of each student.
Given that Tenopy has attracted 1500 students who have collectively taken 3500 courses, there seems to be a clear business case for more sophisticated tech solutions to better cater to the varying needs of students across Asia. Such technologies could include everything from artificial intelligence and blockchain to automation and the cloud.
The challenge with creating deeper tech solutions in ed-tech is that most of the best technologists in the region gravitate toward other fields, such as more general consumer-facing industries such as ride-hailing, fin-tech, or ecommerce. Ed-tech tends to attract people whose background is more on education and less on the technology, though Soh Chong Kian, the founder of Tenopy, is a notable exception (he holds a Masters in Management Science and Engineering from Stanford University).
How can the industry attract more technologists with the engineering and product development skills to create the next generation of ed-tech products?
There needs to be an industry-wide push that cuts across all companies and institutions in the space to communicate both the business case as well as the social impact of the field: In ed-tech, founders not only get to create value for their organization, but shape change the world while doing so. Now that should be an elevator pitch that more founders should get behind.