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How Southeast Asia’s EdTech Startups Could Reinvent Education

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The cliché is true: education is highly valued in fast-growing Asian countries. The issue is how to provide quality education for the millions who now demand it, in settings from big cities like Bangkok and Hanoi to remote rural areas. While various nations push to improve their school systems, new waves of education technology (EdTech) firms are entering the scene as well—and they’re starting to offer solutions that could transform how learning is done.

EdTech is an emergent growth sector throughout this region. Many companies have products and services that seem, at first glance, to be fairly standard stuff. There are mobile apps children can use to learn basic skills via digital games and quizzes; there are platforms to link students of all ages with online tutors.

But a closer look often reveals new twists which have broader potential. How about a mobile app with videos and practice tests in a variety of subjects—plus a chat function for access to a standby tutor, in case you get stuck, and referrals to longer-term help (either online or in person) if needed? That’s Ruangguru, a “one-stop learning” company founded by two young Indonesians who last year made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in the Asia/Consumer Tech category.

Startups in other EdTech niches are doing notable work, too. Let’s meet some, after a quick overview of the social and market forces that are bringing them forth.

The shift from catch-up to leapfrog 

Multiple factors are driving demand for better education of all kinds, at all levels, across Southeast Asia. Growing economies need skilled workers. Parents want bright futures for their children. Post-secondary education, ideally at a university, has become the goal of many. And nearly everybody wants or needs to learn English, which makes English instruction a booming field in itself.

Now for the challenges. Public budgets in most ASEAN countries aren’t lavish. Most have made great strides in providing universal access to schooling, but still wrestle with raising the quality. Bringing the whole picture up to world-class standards the traditional way is a tough proposition, as it would require training vastly more top-notch teachers and sending them everywhere, accompanied by massive upgrades to curricula and resources.

This opens the door to non-traditional approaches. The growth of mobile and internet penetration opens it wider. Information technology can’t solve every education problem, nor can it substitute for person-to-person learning. It can, however, facilitate interaction and multiply the impact of each person.

Stanley Han is the founder and CEO of KooBits, a company with an app for helping teach the Singapore math curriculum. In an email to me, he wrote:

“Engaging students to learn has always been the job of a teacher. However, the latest EdTech development in Asia has seen platforms that are able to successfully engage learners at scale. As a result, these students’ learning is becoming self-directed and collaborative in nature. Teachers benefit from such platforms because their time is freed up to do more important coaching and mentoring.”

Han is clear on his long-term vision for Asean countries. “I believe a learner-centric platform, facilitated by technology, will help democratize access to quality content and teaching, and will scale easily across the region.”

Such a vision is a paradigm shift in two senses. It shifts the frame of reference from teachers (who are scarce) to learners (who are many), and it aims to leapfrog existing best practices, not catch up to them. Here are more paradigm-shifting examples.

One-stop shopping and ‘blended’ platforms

XSeed, based in Singapore and branching to other countries, is a B2B firm, selling the educational equivalent of enterprise software to schools. But XSeed offers more than Western firms like U.S.-based Blackboard. The Blackboard software is essentially a digital infrastructure that teachers can use for posting assignments, fielding questions from students, and so forth. XSeed includes content, embodied in digital materials such as learning apps for students and lesson plans for teachers. This is a “one-stop solution” of a different kind than Ruangguru’s, allowing schools to buy infrastructure plus state-of-the-art curricula in a unified, relatively cost-effective package.

For parents and older students in Southeast Asia, online guides to educational resources are popular. One of the most informative is the Malaysian website EduAdvisor. The site has thoughtfully written intros to careers in a wide range of fields, from computer science to culinary arts. Then come comparison tables listing universities and schools that teach the subjects, from Malaysia to Australia. Like similar sites, EduAdvisor is free for users, getting revenue from referral fees and ads. Unlike some, it appears to be genuinely useful and includes a growing menu of related services.

Finally, there are multitudes of companies teaching English. They’ve taken off as rising incomes combined with rising aspirations have led more people to pay for lessons. A big fish in this pond is China-based online tutoring firm ABC360, which rode a $15 million round of series B financing, while expanding into the Philippines and Thailand. Another interesting one is a company in Vietnam called Yola.

Yola uses an O2O (online-to-offline) model. Some basic English skills are taught or reinforced through an app, but the key element is bringing students to in-person programs at Yola’s training centers in the Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City areas.

Tu Ngo, cofounder and VP of Yola, says a “blended” approach of this type may be the template for future education in all subjects.

Ngo thinks a time is close when “startups will design a full high-quality blended online and offline learning journey.” This, she says, will “ultimately transform the way students learn for the 21st century. Instead of EdTech serving as supplementary tools to existing schools or teachers, or supplementing for lower quality public education, I can see many experimental, innovative schools working with technology to redefine the ‘school experience’ altogether.”

“If they can crack this model not only for the premium/elite market, but also for the mass affordability market, that would have huge impacts,” says Ngo. She sees a number of ways it could be possible, both in Southeast Asia and worldwide.

The biggest opportunity for EdTech in Southeast Asia, is that it is less tied to legacy institutions and systems than most places are—which opens up the possibilities for major EdTech advances to happen here first.

I’m an entrepreneur turned venture capitalist. In 2011, I founded Golden Gate Ventures, an early-stage VC firm in Asia, managing over US$60M and over 30 investments to date. I am a Kauffman Fellow, and a guest lecturer at the National University of Singapore.

Original article appeared on Forbes.