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2020 is a year of transformation for education. The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent ‘lock-downs’ in many parts of Southeast Asia have pushed many sectors, including retail and education, to turn digital and accelerated the adoption of Edtech by parents, schools, and tuition centers. However, this sudden widespread adoption of technology in the education industry across Southeast Asia has not only shown us hope but also exposed some challenges for students and parents.
The first challenge is the digital divide. Many low-income families in Southeast Asia have no access to the tools they need to get connected to online classes. Smartphones are the bare minimum required to keep in touch with teachers and fellow classmates in a virtual setting. However, we have seen reports of parents in developing companies being arrested for stealing mobile devices so that their children can access online learning material.
The underdevelopment of fixed broadband networks in some Southeast Asian countries further adds to this digital divide. Even in cases where families do have working mobile phones or laptops, the lack of stable Internet connection can also serve as an issue. In the case of scheduled live streams or timed online exams, a poor Internet connection—or lack thereof—becomes an insurmountable barrier to a student’s success. In Southeast Asia, only 3 countries, i.e., Singapore, Malaysia, and Brunei, have over 80% internet penetration. Affordability remains a key issue in access to quality internet in some developing countries. The cost of Internet access can be prohibitive for low-income families. The infrastructure and services necessary for everyone to get Internet access are unevenly distributed across urban, rural, and remote areas. Not to mention Southeast Asia, problems like this even exist in rural China today. There have been reports of Chinese students who couldn’t return to school in March this year had to climb up to the top of the hills near their home village in search of better mobile coverage in order to get connected to online classes.
Edtech sector as a whole benefited from this paradigm this shift this year. We have seen Southeast Asia based education/ training SaaS companies such as Acktec, KooBits, Gnowbe, and Erudifi accelerated the expansion out from their home markets
The second challenge is there is a lack of teachers with skills in using the technology to deliver learning material. Many teachers were unprepared and baffled about the delivery method for online learning in the face of the pandemic as they had to go from being classroom practitioners to online lecturers on Zoom or Google Meet overnight.
To address the first challenge, schools or learning centers in Southeast Asia and India attempted to reduce reliance on ‘real time’ content delivery by turning to an asynchronous mode of working. Zenius from Indonesia and BYJU’s from India both sell offline hardware products pre-loaded with content that can be accessed at home without an Internet connection. To address the second challenge, more support and training to teachers will be needed.
There is no doubt that Covid-19 disrupted the study pattern for a lot of students in this region, even for those from Singapore. During the ‘circuit breaker’ period in which the whole city was locked down, while a lot of classes moved to Zoom, Google Meet, and Edmodo, a lot of pre-scheduled exams were skipped, and those students who are less self-disciplined effectively lost some opportunities to check how well they learned. Regular exams are still critical elements of traditional K12 systems. Moving to online learning can have its pitfall too.
Edtech sector as a whole benefited from this paradigm this shift this year. We have seen Southeast Asia based education/ training SaaS companies such as Acktec, KooBits, Gnowbe, and Erudifi accelerated the expansion out from their home markets.
At the other end of the spectrum, in highly developed countries such as Singapore, the use of AR and VR in education has gained good traction before the pandemic and will continue to grow in the next phase. One example is Labster, a European company specialized in developing fully interactive advanced lab simulation with VR and gamification. Labster’s solution has been adopted by SUTD (Singapore University of Technology and Design) and Singapore Polytechnic. Labster’s interactive learning solution allows teachers to better identify the learning gap and gives students opportunities to learn from failure and repeatability. The experiment class at SUTD has 15 students using VR headset and 30 students using the desktop version of the simulation. The course showed an increase in student engagement and motivation. The majority of the students perceived that the simulation (from Labster) improved their learning of DNA-based technologies. The use of VR in science education seems to be a very obvious choice for higher learning institutions in Singapore. I believe such type of content eventually can benefit the tertiary educational institutes in other Southeast Asian countries even more as a lot of them may not necessarily have the budget to set up traditional teaching labs. The annual budget for a top university in Singapore or Japan is in the range of around $2 Billion dollars while the annual budget for a local University in the Philippines may be in the range of 10+ Million dollars. In order to quickly build a competitive, skilled workforce, developing countries have more reasons to leverage technology to do more with less. VR is the next opportunity. One of iGlobe Partner’s portfolio company, Unity Software Inc. (NYSE: U), is a key driver in bringing AR and VR to the education sector globally. I believe the growth in remote learning and online learning is a catalyst for VR adoption in education too.
In summary, the above observation on recent changes in the education sector in Southeast Asia is not surprising considering the heterogeneous nature of this region and the drastically different stages of development of various economies. This is exactly why Southeast Asia is exciting as it provides a test ground for many startups to validate a wide spectrum of solutions for different needs.