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Edtech startups want to reform education in Myanmar, but systemic challenges hinder mass adoption

Written by Stephanie Pearl Li Published on 

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As Myanmar’s education sector learns from the challenges presented by COVID-19, edtech can remove geographic and socioeconomic barriers to quality education.

Every March, hundreds of thousands of Myanmar students sit for their matriculation exam, which takes years to prepare for. Private tutors not only discuss the question format in painstaking detail, but also help the students memorize key points or make predictions about examination coverage. When the exam results are released, the schools with the highest pass rate are rewarded by the government.

Passing the college entrance examination translates to a better future, but only 32% of Myanmar’s 910,229 high school graduates managed to do so in 2020, while 61,134 students who registered did not even sit for the exam.

However, passing the test is just the first step. “If you want to enroll in high ranking university, you have to score as high as possible,” said Aye Min Thein, a mechanical engineering student at West Yangon Technological University.

The 23-year-old student said, “It took me one and a half years to prepare for the examination, as it is the only way to enter university. The problem is, you cannot answer the examination questions with your own ideas, so we have to study or memorize every single word, step, and method. It is very stressful.”

Hla Hla Win, founder and CEO of a local edtech firm 360ed, agreed that rote learning features prominently in Myanmar’s education system. She said the education system is mostly “teacher-centric,” leaving students to obey the orders of the teachers, with little emphasis on independent thought. “Students don’t have the confidence to pick up anything, and this is what we want to tackle.”

While the pandemic has forced education systems to adopt online learning and students are under pressure to adjust to the new normal, most schools in Myanmar have ceased operations entirely, both online and offline, adding stresses to a frail education system that is characterized by low enrollment and high drop-out rates. There are other systematic issues, such as weak government support and outdated curricula.

Myanmar has one of the lowest education budgets in the ASEAN region. In the fiscal year 2018/2019, only 8.79 % of Myanmar’s total government expenditure was allocated to the education sector, while Indonesia and Malaysia both dedicated 20.6% of their budgets to education, followed by Thailand at 19.1%, Vietnam at 18.5%, Laos at 12.19%, and Cambodia at 9%, according to data from the World Bank.

As the Burmese government is still undecided on reopening the schools, which normally takes place from June 1 to March 31, a clutch of edtech startups have risen to fill the demand.

However, there are still plenty of problems making it difficult for startups to achieve large-scale edtech adoption in Myanmar—including students’ lack of familiarity with online learning, the format’s unaffordability, and a lackluster funding landscape.

Bringing Silicon Valley edtech products into Myanmar

360ed is one edtech venture that hopes to bridge the learning gap and empower Myanmar’s youth. The company leverages augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) accessed via smartphones to offer interactive learning materials.

“I’m a mom. I want my daughter and our future generations to have full access to quality learning, regardless of where they are. So we came back home from the US, where my daughter could have the best possible education, and built a company here,” said Hla Hla Win.

360ed Universe is a free English learning app for primary students in Myanmar. It is accessible offline and students can learn at anytime, anywhere. Screenshot of the 360ed Universe app.

“One major pain point that we’re trying to solve is the access to quality education. Before COVID-19, ethnic minority groups who live in remote areas, or whose socioeconomics are marginalized, didn’t have access to education. Those are the problems that the government cannot do much to address,” she said. “Before COVID-19, people did not think that edtech was a necessity.”

Incubated at NASA Research Park in Silicon Valley in 2016, the firm now sells its app packages covering an array of subjects including physics, chemistry, and English for primary and high school students, with a one-time fee starting from MMK 9,500–14,500 (USD 6–11).

In Myanmar, English language education is one of the compulsory subjects in the matriculation exam, and speaking the language well can greatly increase career prospects. However, the nation’s current curricula does not fully equip the students with English proficiency, only requiring the students to memorize sentence structures and grammar patterns. 

360ed solved the pain points of learning English by offering free English learning apps for primary school students—that’s 4.2 million students, accounting for 38.5% of Myanmar’s total school-age population, according to Hla Hla Win.

So far, the firm has sold over 200,000 packages, and it has also brought its products to Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, with plans to expand into Malaysia, Japan, as well as African nations.

Other online edtech platforms have also sprung up to fill the gap, including tutor matching platforms MyanLearn and MMTutors, and learning platforms Laelar and Aung Myin. 

Laelar, which launched in 2017, is an online education platform that offers free or subscription-based online video lessons in Myanmar’s local language. The platform, offering 35 courses spanning topics from language learning to technology concepts, has so far amassed 10,000 users, according to a local media report.

Aung Myin is another online learning platform that operates under a similar business model, offering career-oriented courses that cover, for example, startups and entrepreneurship. 

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Education outside the classroom

Nearly a quarter of Myanmar’s population are young people aged between 15 to 29 years old.

This demographic has been hard hit by rising unemployment, which has risen to 8% for young people. A large proportion of them work in the informal economy and in low-skilled jobs, according to a report conducted by UNFPA in 2014.

Another edtech startup MYEO, which began in 2014 as a class project at the University of Hong Kong, is looking to use technology to prepare young people for better careers in the workforce.

“Since arriving in Myanmar in 2017. I’ve seen so many young people that lack basic professional skills, from having an email address and writing a proper email, to working in teams. We think that the formal educational system in Myanmar does not prepare graduates for working life,” João Dutra, strategic director of MYEO, told KrASIA. 

Although COVID-19 has helped push the entire education sector online, he noticed that it has also introduced a number of students to online learning for the very first time. “One student, after completing our online program, told us that he overcame his fear of online learning. The student was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to learn online,” Dutra said.

MYEO monetizes its platform by providing training that covers digital skills for the students, providing guidance on using tools like Google Apps, search engines, and online learning platforms, as well as soft skills like leadership, CV writing, and navigating job interviews.

With classes priced at MMK 3,000–15,000 (USD 2–11) based on length, the course has trained over 21,000 students across Myanmar. The firm also offers membership programs to students who want to receive curated content on internships and study opportunities at international universities.

Students struggle with online class

In a country where a large number of the population still lacks a foundation in digital literacy, platforms like Zoom and Google Classroom are not yet the panacea of learning—46% of university students opposed online classes due to lack of reliable access to the internet or computers, according to a survey conducted by the All Burma Federation of Student Unions in May.

Many students have found it hard to adapt to online learning. Wallace Khant, a fresh graduate from the University of Medicine 1 in Yangon, is among those that miss face-to-face classes.

Despite his prior experience with online learning platforms such as Coursera and Udemy, Khant still finds it hard to adjust to online classes. “There was a time when I was attending a Zoom session on healthcare, and there were a lot of technical difficulties, the audio was breaking up with a lot of disturbances. I didn’t catch a lot of things during the session,” the 24-year-old student said.

Read more: A data-led agritech revolution is transforming the lives of Myanmar’s farmers

“Personally, I prefer a real classroom to a virtual one, but it is not possible until the situation is under control.” Courtesy of Wallace Khant.

Lackluster funding scene

Myanmar’s edtech sector remains underfunded. Only one startup in the space received funding from investors in 2019.

eSchool, an edtech platform that helps teachers handle academic records, attendance, and reports, secured USD 700,000 from a local tech-focused venture firm, Blue Tech Venture, in April 2019. The platform also acts as a portal for students and parents to login and read relevant information. The platform currently serves school teachers and parents but it is set to expand to the university level, according to Phone Pye Oo, eSchool’s CEO.

MYEO’s Dutra said that the lack of disposable income could be one of the reasons behind the lackluster funding landscape. “One of the key macroeconomic factors is that Myanmar does not have a strong middle-class population, which means that the overall purchasing power is low. There are many edtech startups that leverage digital solutions to serve high-end customers. But from an investor’s perspective, it also means that the startups are narrowing the market size.”

“There is a common mistake for many investors that they are comparing the growth of Myanmar with countries like Thailand and Brazil. One common issue is that investors prefer to fund English-speaking founders. It is a deal-breaker if they don’t speak English,” Dutra said.

Despite the underwhelming funding landscape, Dutra remains sanguine about the potential of Myanmar’s edtech sector. “There’ll be more segmentation of offerings. Right now, we see a lot of solutions being offered to people in urban areas with a certain purchasing power. But it is going to change in the next two to three years. There will be more offerings for adults, elderly people, children, or university students that need to upskill and re-skill themselves. The country’s edtech sector will figure out what is the optimal module to teach people online,” said Dutra.

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