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What will happen to education tech when the pandemic fades? | Q&A with Niko Lindholm of EduSpaze

The director of Singapore’s first edtech accelerator says that schools have been caught by surprise, but they will plan better in the future.

Niko Lindholm - Programme Director of EduSpaze Niko Lindholm - Programme Director of EduSpaze at the launch of EduSpaze last year. Photo courtesy of EduSpaze.

The launch of EduSpaze could not have come at a more opportune time. In just a couple of months, we have witnessed how a global pandemic has disrupted the education landscape. Approximately 1.58 billion students have been impacted by school closures. Teachers had to swiftly adopt online tutoring solutions—a learning experience in itself.

KrASIA discussed the situation with Niko Lindholm, program director of EduSpaze, Singapore’s first edtech accelerator. EduSpaze supports startups that serve the education sector in Southeast Asia. The inaugural cohort commenced a 100-day program in February 2020.

Lindholm thinks that—not least due to COVID-19—educators have shown a strong interest in edtech, that they don’t want to get caught unprepared again, and hence will plan “new structures” to be in place in the future. He calls for a culture shift within the ecosystem, to get the different stakeholders to work together, in order to achieve a real breakthrough for the industry.

KrASIA (Kr): What is the state of edtech in Southeast Asia? How mature is it?

Niko Lindholm (NL): The state of edtech in Southeast Asia is not something that can be described in general terms. This is due to the different development stages of the countries in the region. It means that edtech looks different in each of the countries. Even so, one common challenge that edtech products face in Southeast Asia, is the need to answer to the problem of access to education. That is a regional challenge and edtech entrepreneurs are trying to solve it.

Southeast Asia is still behind China, the EU, and the US when it comes to the maturity of products. For example, in the EU, edtech companies are dealing with very developed education systems. Even those systems have some gaps, where edtech could be of support. In North Europe, edtech entrepreneurs are trying to support the educators in new learning areas that are set in the curriculum. One of those new learning areas, for example, is social-emotional learning. So, instead of large challenges, they focus on niche areas.

Therefore, we can state that edtech in Southeast Asia is answering to current needs that stem from the education systems. These are very different compared to, for example, Europe.

Kr: There is an ongoing discussion that this is an opportune time for edtech as there has been surging demand. Yet, HolonIQ’s latest COVID-19 special outlook report survey results show that more than 50% of edtech firms are saying that, in the short term, they will be worse off. What are your thoughts on this with regards to the situation in Southeast Asia?

NL: In the short term, it might be true. For example, the K–12 segment schools are in a really tough situation. Most schools and education systems in the region were not prepared to jump from traditional school-based learning to digital learning. The COVID-19 situation really disrupted the way of delivering education. So it might be that they are not interested in buying new solutions right now, as they are just trying to cope with the situation. The process of starting to use a new edtech tool takes time, as the educators need to understand the solution well and evaluate if it actually supports or augments the learning process. Therefore it might be tricky to really sell products right now.

ACKTEC Technologies
ACKTEC Technologies is part of the EduSpaze 2020 cohort. The specialist for immersive learning provides learning materials that use interactive animations, virtual and augmented reality, as well as 3D animations to schools and companies in 12 countries. The company has seen a more than 30% increase in demand over the past month. Photo courtesy of ACKTEC.

That said, I believe that the situation will be very different when the COVID-19 situation calms down. I think that none of the systems, schools, and educators wish to be in this situation again. Therefore, I can see that they will start to plan new structures to be in place in the future. They have already seen that there is potential in edtech to augment the existing learning processes. I want to believe that there will be a stronger interest towards edtech in the future and a better edtech innovation ecosystem in the region will start to evolve.

The COVID-19 situation has nudged them to see the potential and possibilities of edtech, and hopefully we will see a major development in this area in the future. Good solutions and results can only be achieved through a deep cooperation between the system level (education strategy and policy), educators (implementation), and edtech entrepreneurs (solution development). Parents, too, will play an important role as they need to see that learning can be effectively delivered via technology and that it is not just content dissemination.

This is why EduSpaze focuses on robust methodologies to measure the effectiveness of new edtech products when it comes to improved learning outcomes and other positive impact metrics. In week three of our 100-day program, Education Alliance Finland was invited to conduct evaluations on our cohort’s products and pedagogy. They are an expert organisation, specializing in educational quality verification and offer a science-based quality standard and certification for educational solutions. Each startup received an endorsed report with their own customized roadmap.

Edtech plays an increasingly important role in teaching and learning from K–12 through to higher education. In the end, we will need to see the development as a shift in culture. When that happens, edtech will make a breakthrough.

Kr: What do you think is necessary for edtech to be regarded as a transformational tool for education as opposed to a crisis response?

NL: The current problem of edtech is that it is more tech and less ed. There needs to be a better balance between these two—more ed. This is not a problem only for Southeast Asia. It is a global problem. As soon as we can get the different stakeholders to work together we will see new better edtech in the markets. We need to be able to match the needs of the users, namely education systems, educators, and learners, better with the solutions that are going to be created. We need to create better opportunities for the users to communicate their needs to the developers. The developers on the other hand need to be better at listening to the users.

KooBits, creator of digital math learning tools
KooBits, the creator of digital math learning tools, recorded a big jump in daily active users and time spent on their platforms. The company recently launched two new products: “Home-based learning,” an online math learning platform, and “Live tutoring,” an AI-enabled online tutoring service—both with accompanying apps for parents to track their children’s progress. Stanley Han, CEO and co-founder, told KrASIA that he believes COVID-19 has created a vacuum for new edtech players to fill.

At EduSpaze, we do not theorize about different markets in Southeast Asia. We send the startups there, so that our cohort can better understand the market, its context, and nuances. Not many accelerators do it as part of their program and this is one of the hallmarks of EduSpaze. It also reflects our commitment to use technology to transform the education system in the region.

Kr: How can the edtech companies and their stakeholders in the education ecosystem turn the current health crisis into a positive outcome?

NL: The idea of education will not change. What will change, however, is its delivery. Technology will be seen as a positive tool by future educators but, once again, I emphasize the need for stakeholders to work together to achieve that. There really needs to be a new kind of structure put in place for the future: How will the education professionals be more involved in the creation of solutions? How do we close the cultural gap between educators and edtech developers in order to create new needs-based solutions, so that schools will really see added value in them?

The best way of support in this situation is to listen. Not to push. That will only create resentment among the future users of the solutions. Entrepreneurs should really use this time to understand the pain points that have come up and start addressing them. The best way to do that is to ask the educators.

Certainly, we will see more technology in the education sector in the future but how much we do not know. Technology will never replace the teacher, but it can certainly augment their work. We also need to ask: How do we involve teachers more so that they have a say in what kind of edtech is on offer? If the economy really demands that education develops faster, then we also need to have a look at teacher training, so they are more tech-savvy when they enter the profession. We need to be focusing on creating this edtech innovation ecosystem.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.