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Zenius Education wants to get Indonesians hooked on learning: Q&A with founder Sabda PS

The platform has provided online study materials to more than 11 million users yearly.

Education technology, or edtech, has been stealing the attention of investors and the public in the past five years in Indonesia, and Zenius Education, a company that was founded in 2007, is one of the country’s pioneers in the sector.

The firm, founded by serial entrepreneur and teacher Sabda PS, started as an offline tutoring center in 2004 and became one of the first companies to bet on video-based learning in 2010, when it launched the platform zenius.net.

Although internet adoption was very minor back then in Indonesia, Sabda had a vision in mind. He wanted to provide all students in the country with “exciting and inspiring education” through a multimedia learning platform, he said in an interview with KrASIA.

The company now has over 80,000 online videos covering a vast range of topics, and provides self e-learning material for K-12 students, from elementary to high school level, also including Indonesias’ National Exam and university entrance tests.

According to other media outlets, Zenius raised a fresh investment of USD 20 million by North Star Group in October, although Sabda declined to comment on this matter.

KrASIA recently talked to Sabda about Indonesian education and how technology could help students reach their maximum potential.

KrASIA (Kr): What made you think of online learning in 2004 when the internet was not commonplace in Indonesia?

Sabda PS (SP): Zenius is the seventh company I founded. With my background in computer science, I’ve been always close to technology. I used to learn using multimedia platforms as my parents provided me with software from abroad. In high school, I went to a tutoring class and met its creator and teacher, Medy Suharta. He’s truly a visionary guy, we discussed online learning and how it will be the future of education. He then became a co-founder of Zenius. We started as an offline tutoring center but we also distributed lessons and tutoring videos in the form of CDs and DVDs.

Kr: What is the mission and vision behind Zenius?

Our mission is to spark the love of learning for everyone, everywhere, and to question everything. When we talk about education, most people might think of how to create excellent human resources that match industry needs, but for us, it is only one of the outcomes of a much bigger vision and mission.

We believe that with proper education, students can have critical thinking and problem-solving skills to become resilient, civilized, and agile human beings. We want students to be enthusiastic about receiving new lessons, be always curious, and even become addicted to studying. In order to reach these goals, we create each online class with attractive content and storytelling close to the students’ realities.

Kr: How do you analyze the role of edtech in education in Indonesia in the past few years?

SP: Edtech should not be considered a disruptor that can replace the teacher’s role. The learning process requires live experience and teachers are at the forefront of education. Indonesia has around three million teachers and one teacher can reach 50 to 100 students. So we have enormous leverage if we can help teachers carry out their roles much more effectively.

By utilizing routine learning material available on our platform, teachers can focus on mentoring and engaging students in productive discussions, while also motivating them. I believe that the integration of these two learning methods creates a much better education system.

Sabda PS, the founder and CEO of Zenius Education

Kr: Please tell us more details about your recent initiative “We the Teachers”.

SP: “We the Teachers” is an organization that aims to support teachers, particularly in underdeveloped areas. Based on my own experience, I know that many teachers, especially those who teach at public schools, spend up to 70% of their time doing administrative work, time that could be better employed on facilitating inspirational learning activities.

Therefore, this collaboration focuses on two main applications: empowering teachers with digital innovation, not only as a learning platform but also as an assistant for administrative tasks, and implementing a better infrastructure for schools.

We provide servers for schools so that students can connect to our online materials even though their towns don’t have reliable access to the internet. The program currently targets teachers and schools in a number of areas in Kalimantan and East Nusa Tenggara, and we’ll continue to widen our coverage.

Kr: How has Zenius developed so far? What kind of learning materials do you provide on the platform?

SP: Zenius has 80,000 learning videos on its website, created by more than 50 in-house teachers and many contributors. About 11.8 million students have accessed our services during the scholar year, from June 2018-2019. Users can access a number of videos for free but to unlock all the content, they need to pay a subscription fee from USD 22.36 per month to USD 131.92 for 24 months.

We provide learning materials from elementary school to high school, as well as practice tests to enter the university. In June 2019, Zenius launched its app and it has been downloaded by more than 500,000 users so far.

Zenius has long been profitable with 50 to 100% year-on-year growth, and this year we want to scale up the business more aggressively. We are quite selective in choosing partners because education is different from other sectors. We can’t only think about revenues. More importantly, we need to maintain our responsibility, ethics, and outcomes, because it’s all about educating the public.

Going forward, Zenius will continue to improve its features and services on the website and app. We also want to add more learning categories so we can reach a wider audience.

Kr: What kind of opportunities do you see for the edtech sector in Indonesia today?

SP: It has a huge potential due to its breadth and depth of impact. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, there were over 45 million students during the 2017-2018 school year, therefore edtech players have a lot of work to do in order to support these students to maximize their potential.

The government has been supportive and I’m confident that the new education minister, former Gojek’s CEO Nadiem Makarim, will bring fresh improvements and changes to Indonesian education. Problems affecting education are very complex, especially those related to bureaucracy. Therefore, we need a minister who is “crazy enough” to take this challenge and create a breakthrough for this sector.

Kr: Zenius has been around for 15 years, what was your lowest moment and what is now your biggest challenge?

SP: Our lowest moment happened between 2010 and 2011, when we went through massive piracy to the point that we had to cut employee salaries and even let a few people go. It was truly the hardest decision I’ve made.

We then wrote an open letter on a blog and Facebook page, saying that we wouldn’t able to produce more learning videos due to piracy. Turns out, we got a crazy response from the students, who helped us to find, report, and eventually eliminate the piracy because they truly cared about us and enjoyed our lessons. It was the hardest and yet the proudest moment for us.

In the beginning, our challenge was to convince people that online or multimedia learning is the future of education. Today, our biggest challenge is to keep up with the market demand as we get many requests from students to create more content on more topics. We’re all touched to see this enthusiasm as it aligns with our mission. We feel that our success is beyond expectations, and we want every student in Indonesia to share this spirit.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.