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Edtech firms are filling crucial gaps in Southeast Asia

Written by Zhixin Tan Published on   4 mins read

The sector could be an equalizer that carries a generational impact.

Education is a right. At its core, governments normally make the provisions that ensure their citizens are literate and hold a certain level of knowledge about our world. But what happens when public schools are unable to offer the level of instruction demanded by their students?

One way of considering the need for edtech firms is to look at the literacy rate of Southeast Asian countries. The average adult literacy rate across the region stands at 94.9%, but Laos trails behind at 58.3%, as for Cambodia and Myanmar at 73.9% and 75.6%, respectively. Yet even in nations where the literacy rate is much higher, a high quality education isn’t guaranteed. Governments across the region aim to upgrade their public education systems, but tight budgets often make improvements incremental at best.

To address this demand, edtech firms in Southeast Asia are filling the gap. Here are a few measures adopted by edtech platforms that have cropped up in the past few years, and the companies providing those services.

Gamify Education

Parents know this: sometimes, it takes a little extra work to hold onto a child’s attention. According to child developmental experts, an average child’s attention span varies from two to five minutes for each year of their age. This means a five-year-old will likely only stay focused for no longer than 25 minutes. To ensure that young users benefit from their courses, edtech firms are gamifying their lessons.

It’s a relatively new concept for Southeast Asian companies that operate in this sphere, but it’s effective, particularly for one big fish in the pond—Thailand’s Taamkru. Backed by 500 Startups and M&S Partners, among others, Taamkru offers an app-based learning platform to users in Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam. Taamkru targets preschoolers with gamified lessons to teach mathematics, science, and English. The company says kids who use its app over a 15-day period see an average improvement of 26.8% in their scores in the app.

Level the Field

From metropolises to small towns to rural villages, the quality of education can vary greatly within one nation, much more so from one country to another. The variance in standards can be attributed to an unequal distribution of resources. For instance in Indonesia, schools in Papua and some regions in West Java are often badly built and on the verge of collapsing, and have few teaching material or other facilities. The best teachers tend to seek employment in big cities, so students in remote regions fall behind. With that in mind, technology can bridge the gap. One Indonesian startup, Ruangguru, set out to do just that.

Founded in 2014, Ruangguru is the largest online platform for tutoring in Indonesia, with over 7 million users. This five-year-old startup packages itself as a company for “one-stop learning”. It connects students with tutors through their website, but also has a mobile app offering videos and tests in a variety of subjects, as well as an a homework assistance service where students can send images of assignments that they are struggling with, receive help almost immediately, and consult registered tutors over audio calls or chat boxes. With over 80,000 registered qualified teachers across Indonesia, a student in Papua can now access a plethora of learning materials and teachers easily.

Stay Flexible for Working Adults

Across Southeast Asia, there is an increasing demand for highly skilled workers as various countries jump on the bandwagon to develop a digital economy. A handful of edtech firms have sprung up to furnish adults with online degrees.

Two names are especially big in the region: Indonesia’s HarukaEdu and Vietnam’s Topica Edtech Group. Besides offering online degree programs, the latter also operates Topica Native, the world’s first online English speech tutoring course that uses augmented reality, as well as Topica Edumall, a platform that carries a vast variety of short courses that cover a range of topics, from the usage of Microsoft Office applications and basic computer programming, to lessons on playing guitar and child-rearing. The Vietnam-based startup recently raised US$50 million in its Series D round led by Northstar Group. Like Topica Edtech Group, HarukaEdu is also an educational portal that allows anybody to follow online classes for free. Class schedules are flexible so students can adapt them to fit their work schedule. 

Boost Existing Skills

It’s important to continually upgrade our skills and adapt to the changing demands in the economy, whether it’s learning a new language or becoming proficient in something entirely new. Startups likeSqulineand Bahaso operate an online platform for foreign language learning. In particular, Squline offers one-on-one, video call-based classes conducted by teachers who are native speakers. WhereasKyna.vn(an abbreviation of ky nang, which means “skills”) is an e-learning platform that offers online courses by both domestic and foreign experts. Kyna.vn aims to help Vietnamese build up their soft skills and professional skills through videos and Q&A sessions. It even has a gamification feature—after completing practices and assessments, users earn “kpoints”, which can be spent in exchange for books or vouchers for other courses. 

Edtech is instigating a paradigmatic shift in the education sector by transforming the way we learn, while making it accessible and affordable. In theory, this will have a generational impact, not only improving education as a whole but also lifting individuals out of poverty.

Peel Away from Screens

There is one drawback in digitised learning. It removes an important function of the classroom, which is to provide a setting for socialisation between students. Currently, only a few edtech startups adopt a hybrid approach that incorporates both the social aspect of a brick-and-mortar classroom with the convenience that virtual platforms provide. One of them is Vietnam-based Yola, which set out to disrupt the way people learn the English language. Yola uses an online-to-offline model, with its app offering instruction in basic English skills, but drawing its users to one of the company’s training centres in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Yola is an outlier; across the board, the social element is still an issue that ed tech firms need to address. At the end of the day, technology should not be a substitute for classical instruction, but a supplement in a well-rounded education.

Editor: Brady Ng


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