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deeper tech newsletter southeast asia

A warm welcome to the Deeper newsletter, dear reader!

You’re reading this because, just like us, you’re tired of the non-stop tech and startup news cycle, where there seems to be something new and trendy to keep up with in Southeast Asia.

What you want to know about is the important stuff that matters—period.

And that’s what we’re bringing to you. We’ll dive deep into a trending topic in Southeast Asian tech, and their impact on society (i.e. me and you).

Sound compelling? Subscribe now, and we’ll send it straight to your inbox:

deeper tech newsletter southeast asia
Your deep dive into Southeast Asian tech

Without further ado, let’s dive in.



Hi readers! Ebi here.

I’m passionate about education. Always have been. When I was a kid in elementary school, one of my goals was to become the Minister of Education, LOL. I guess that tells you a lot about me.

I’ve been following edtech developments in Southeast Asia with a lot of eagerness, and it’s with a lot of joy (and trepidation) that I’m delivering this edition to you today. As an active Twitter user I’ve seen plenty of tweets and articles about how difficult this change to the virtual classroom is for parents, teachers, and students, and my heart hurts.

Just as businesses are adopting customer-centric approaches, I believe governments need to do so as well—to focus on their people’s needs. They also need to pay attention to the intersection between a person’s right to education, and the demand that other priorities (earning a living wage) exert.

(If students don’t feel like they’re getting the skills and knowledge they need, then why should they go to school at all?)

Let’s dive in.

The future of education in Southeast Asia, and how edtech fits into all that

It’s back to school season for many countries around the world, and lots of companies are banking on edtech being the Next Big Thing. Earlier this month, Tech in Asia reported that of all industries across Southeast Asia, edtech nabbed the most funding in the first week of September.

Edtech, aka education technology, has been a long time coming. In 2013, seven years ago, I read a Wired magazine article about how edtech could revolutionize the classroom. As a high school student in the USA around the same time, free online video platform Khan Academy was my go-to for concise explanations on math assignments I was having difficulty with.

The future of education in Southeast Asia, and how edtech fits into all that

It’s heartening to see that edtech has begun to reach scale in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia has a population of nearly 700 million people; a quarter of that figure is of school age (5 to 18). For businesses, that’s a huge market—for governments, those are millions of underserved students. The pandemic has done a great job of pushing edtech into the spotlight as students, families, and educators struggle to navigate social distancing guidelines.

The issue of edtech is a nuanced one. Edtech comes in so many forms, and there are many ways to run an education business. A few challenging questions need to be addressed by edtech founders, including:

  • Who is the company targeting?
  • Who is paying the bill for the educational products and services?
  • What is the company offering?

TL;DR: We predict that in the future, edtech companies in Southeast Asia will need to tighten their focus and identify the problems they want to solve in order to determine their business model and future. It is not enough to simply shift offline education online; education needs to be reformed to suit a digital, distanced world.

  • Forms of edtech
  • Challenges of edtech
    • No access to compatible mobile devices
    • No internet connection
    • Lack of teacher and system preparedness
    • Isolation and loneliness thanks to poor implementation
    • Blurred roles of tech companies and governments in education
  • Solutions implemented and the way forward for SEA


Forms of edtech

The future of education in Southeast Asia, and how edtech fits into all that

Edtech is taking on many different forms in this new decade. Some have simply brought offline processes (one-on-one tutoring, explanations of certain concepts) online. Others are using brand new tech—like artificial intelligence and machine learning—to deliver brand new innovation we’ve never seen before.

Let’s recap some of the most popular forms of edtech today and how they’re manifesting across Southeast Asia.


Online video learning and tutoring

We’re seeing the continued development of online video learning platforms such as KhanAcademy, but with local twists.

The future of education in Southeast Asia, and how edtech fits into all that

India’s BYJU’S and Indonesia’s RuangGuru both started as online tutoring platforms where students could find private onlineteachers for subjects they needed help in. After a 2011 pivot from offline tutoring to online video courses, BYJU’S boasted a valuation of US$5.4 billion in 2019—making it the highest-valued edtech company in the world.

The future of education in Southeast Asia, and how edtech fits into all that

In 2018, RuangGuru followed Byju’s footsteps with a pivot to focus on video content. A year later, they raised a massive US$150 million round. The startup confidently claims to have over 15 million registered students on its platform—incredible considering there are 45 million K-12 students in the country.


Gamified learning

The future of education in Southeast Asia, and how edtech fits into all that

Gamified learning is one of our favorite implementations of edtech. It unites children’s love for play with the power of tech. Thailand’s Taamkru offers gamified lesson plans for preschoolers across Singapore, Vietnam, and Thailand. These English, math, and science games are served through an app-based learning platform, and reportedly, students who used the app over a 15-day period saw an average 26.8% improvement in their in-app test scores.


AI-powered apps

AI-based language learning app ELSA raised a US$7 million round in 2019—it’s an AI-powered app that teaches users English and offers real-time feedback to correct mistakes.

Singapore’s Geniebook, founded in 2016, tailors worksheets based on each student’s performance. It uses AI technology to identify where each student has room to improve, then delivers customized assignments based on which areas need more practice.

If you open your App Store or Play Store, chances are you’ll see a lot of similar AI-powered apps. A lot of learning platforms are already mobile or are moving mobile, and they’re very interesting because if they work, we could actually gain visibility into each classroom and offer help where it’s most needed.

Sure—human teachers could track their students’ progress and design assignments to offer similar insights, but that’s a lot to be asking from underpaid, overworked teachers. AI-powered learning apps and programs offer personalization at a scale no human teacher could replicate.


Classroom management portal/learning management system

Classroom management portals have been around for several years. One of the most notable examples is Canvas, used often in universities around the world—including Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. Another is Google Classroom.

The future of education in Southeast Asia, and how edtech fits into all that

These portals, platforms, and systems consolidate teacher-student communications, and often include features such as forums, assignment submission portals, and group chats. Collaboration apps are a supplement to this category, with some developing new real-time features—apps like Explain Everything Whiteboard and Scribble Together Whiteboard rank at the top of the Education charts.


Educational immersive software

Expect this to trend more in the future. Simulation tools are able to demonstrate abstract concepts and teach students about simulated equipment and objects, and studies indicate that students would learn faster from immersive software because they can receive feedback in real time. They’re cost-effective, and so long as the internet connection is strong enough, they are a valuable supplemental tool that can easily be scaled to hundreds or thousands of students.

The future of education in Southeast Asia, and how edtech fits into all that

Rather than simply serving long videos to students, immersive software would provide an engaging, “hands-on” experience to students. Imagine a student’s curiosity being awakened after exploring a virtual model of the solar system—or a soon-to-be doctor practicing surgeries with a VR headset.


Challenges of edtech

These sorts of platforms and software bring myriad possibilities to students, both inside and outside of the classroom. But we’d be lying if we said we weren’t wary. We need to overcome a number of different challenges in order to be successful with edtech.


No access to compatible mobile devices

The sudden widespread adoption of edtech across Southeast Asia has left many low-income families with no chance to get access to the tools they need. Parents around Southeast Asia have been arrested for stealing mobile devices so that their child can access online learning material: the following headline from July 2020 reads, “Unemployed former office worker steals laptop for his child to attend virtual school”.

The future of education in Southeast Asia, and how edtech fits into all that

Smartphones are the bare minimum required to keep in touch with teachers and fellow classmates in a virtual setting. But a 2018 Pew Research Center study on smartphone penetration reported that just 42% of the Southeast Asian population had smartphones.

(Though it’s true that a 2020 GSMA report says that across APAC, mobile penetration is at 64%, we have to consider that APAC includes more developed nations such as Japan and South Korea). The relatively low smartphone penetration in SEA is a significant barrier when it comes to delivering virtual learning solutions to students.

Computer ownership in Southeast Asia is likely much lower than mobile penetration. What happens when students are asked to submit assignments, complete readings, or join video calls and take notes? This kind of situation is what results in headlines like the one shown above.


No internet connection

Even in cases where families do have working mobile phones or laptops, the lack of 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 child’s success.

We shared this tweet in the very first edition of Deeper, and we’re sharing it again:

Translation [Indonesian]: college students’ struggle to complete online university. Seeking a decent signal is a major struggle. Many must go to hilly areas or certain spots in order to get a signal so they can attend online class.

An International Energy Agency (IEA) report shares that approximately 65 million people in Southeast Asia live without electricity—as of 2016, only 57% of people in Myanmar and 50% in Cambodia even have access to the utility. For many of the region’s population, school is already a luxury, online school even moreso.


Lack of teacher and system preparedness

global survey of 82 private international schools around the world (run by Independent Schools Council Research) found that even these “best in class” schools are unprepared for edtech during Covid-19. Graeme Lazell, head of tech at Nexus International School Malaysia, explains, “Like the rest of the world, we went from being classroom practitioners to online lecturers and deliverers overnight.”

According to the survey, 41.5% of schools reported experiencing significant challenges delivering edtech-powered distance learning.

Vietnam’s Green Shoots International School encountered issues with a lack of student access to learning devices, as well as a lack of teacher skills in using the technology used to deliver learning material. If teachers at international schools are that unprepared and baffled about delivery methods for online learning, how much more difficult will it be for teachers at local community schools, who rarely have support or proper funding?


Isolation and loneliness thanks to poor implementation

We wonder about the as-of-yet unresearched impacts of tech and virtual classrooms on children’s emotional and mental wellbeing. Asking children to sit down in front of a screen for the entire day is actually kind of hellish if you think about it; we are social creatures who grow from playing and interacting with others.

Peter Gray, former psychology professor emeritus at Boston College, noted as early as 2011 that play times had steadily been shrinking in the United States. He mentioned a possible link between reduced play times and recess to increasing rates of depression, anxiety, and even suicide. And a 2019 article from the SCMP to Hong Kong parents emphatically stresses, “an hour a day of playtime is your child’s right and a critical part of well-being.”

The future of education in Southeast Asia, and how edtech fits into all that

Experts around the world worry that childhood is disappearing, and plopping a child down in front of a screen for the entire day is a recipe for disaster. Leonie Haimson, Executive Director of Class Size Matters (an education union in the USA), argues that many of these “solutions” are actually taking away from human contact in education.

Salman Khan, famed founder of free education portal Khan Academy, echoes these sentiments in an op-ed for the NY Times. He warns against an “education catastrophe,” writing, “I have been working with teachers over the last several months and together we have realized that lesson plans designed for in-person classes don’t work in this coronavirus world.” He also points out that lessons are not delivering the social-emotional experience children need.

We are all struggling from the increased distance during the pandemic. It’s become even more of a priority now for schools and teachers to emphasize the human connection. Teachers also need more time and support in re-developing syllabuses for such a new style of teaching.


Blurred roles of tech companies and governments in education

The many articles I’ve read over the past few years about edtech have all promised a more open, democratic education for students. But when you make parents pay for edtech, you inevitably run into a problem: not everyone can pay.

Though some governments are offering discounted edtech and some businesses are making their services free for the short term, what will happen afterwards? Will they begin charging again? Will parents have to pay out-of-pocket each year or risk leaving their children without access to the learning materials used in class?

An education system controlled by for-profit tech companies will only cause education gaps to widen even further. Some parents already have enough trouble paying for school uniforms; in countries where the minimum wages are only around SG$400 to SG$500paying $35 a month for access to an edtech platform is unfeasible for many families.

Education International hosted a webinar in July to report on the extreme “extent of private actors’ influence in education” since the beginning of this pandemic. They call for more research into the role of tech companies in the education system, and the development of more-clearly-delineated collaborations between governments and edtech companies.

  • Will edtech become a permanent fixture of future education systems in SEA?
  • Which body is responsible for the implementation of edtech?

Ideally, the quality of education being delivered by public and private schools in various geographic areas should be of a similar standard. We’ve seen charter and for-profit schools all around the world, but no child should have to struggle to receive a good education because governments have shifted the responsibility of education to parents and businesses.

We agree with EI’s stance that quality education to all citizens is mainly the responsibility of governments.

Moving forward, we must:

  • Examine the efficacy of edtech in schools
  • Track its adoption across various geographical areas
  • More clearly define the role of edtech vs governments in providing and/or supplementing education.
  • Ask who is being asked to pay


Solutions implemented and the way forward for SEA

When it comes to education in the time of COVID-19, businesses and governments have a choice to focus on primary vs. secondary problems. Primary problems would include the lack of Internet connection, the lack of a mobile device, Internet lag that prevents students from connecting—all the barriers that prevent students from being an active participant in the physical or virtual classroom.

The future of education in Southeast Asia, and how edtech fits into all that

Secondary problems, on the other hand, are more about improving a student’s performance after they are already in the classroom.


Reduce reliance on real-time when possible

Examples of solutions to primary problems include improving Internet connection and developing classroom software that can operate on even the cheapest mobile phones. Another could be developing hardware in addition to software—both Indonesia’s Zenius (a RuangGuru competitor) and BYJU’S sell offline products that can be accessed at home without an Internet connection.

According to Entrackr, 90% of BYJU’S 2019 revenue came from the sale of SD-card-embedded tablets full of the company’s content. These tablets are easily distributable and purchasable by schools. They’ve also already been adjusted so that they can’t be used for internet browsing or calling.

Unfortunately, prices and plans for these tablets are unclear—on the website, one sells for around SG$1,500; another, however, sells for SG$550. It seems the prices vary based on the content that is loaded onto the tablet.


Collaborative apps can be great, but for areas where internet connections are unstable, teachers and students would benefit more from asynchronous methods of working. This is echoed in the ISC report we shared earlier, which found that 90% of teachers surveyed believe asynchronous methods are the best way to manage the classroom.


Simplify education and software as much as possible

In cases where students must have access to a phone/computer and Internet, we could theoretically ask students to go to their nearest internet cafe. But we’re living in the midst of a pandemic, and for the public’s safety, crowding into an internet cafe is not a good idea.

Rather than expecting parents to meet their expectations (and forcing some to take drastic measures), organizations need to identify the lowest common denominators and Occam’s Razor their proposed solutions and instructions until they’re so simple, even elementary students could understand and access them.


More focus on and support for teachers

Solutions like gamified learning and AI-powered personalized learning programs are also valuable in the industry, but for schools where attendance itself is an issue, these forms of edtech may not be immediately valuable. You also have to deal with the added challenge of initiative: few young kids are intrinsically self-motivated and engaged in school.

We can’t ignore educators’ irreplaceable roles as guides for students to develop a love of learning. In Southeast Asia, where teacher compensation and preparedness is markedly low, education systems would benefit from more support and training for educators.

The future of education in Southeast Asia, and how edtech fits into all that

In the Philippines, Far Eastern University (FEU) has partnered with the Commission on Higher Education to offer free training to teachers of higher education. The HiEd Bayanihan Training covers eight topics, including “technology use, design and implementation of an online program on flexible learning options, and integration of the course content into a learning management system.”

Ideally, other initiatives for teachers would be started around Southeast Asia—not just for those in higher education, but for K-12 teachers in other areas. Governments, edtech companies, and schools should share their findings and best practices regarding what has and has not worked for teachers; hopefully, this can accelerate the development of reliable hybrid/virtual teaching methods.


Adapt and revamp education to suit digital methods of delivery

Education itself massively needs a reform—more serious thought needs to be placed on who, why, and what we are teaching. It’s not enough to simply move old processes online: governments and schools must deliver education in a way that is suitable for a more distanced world.

Students and teachers need to have an outsized voice in this discussion about education, because ultimately, this journey is about them. It’s about meeting their needs. This also involves taking another look at the standards we’re setting to determine competency—education for the sake of education isn’t enough. Education should always improve and better students’ daily lives in real, impactful ways rather than imposing arbitrary standards such as “three years of a foreign language” or “four years of mathematics” or “all A’s.”

We’re standing at a crossroads, and we could come out the other side with a much-more improved education system for Southeast Asian students—provided we take the time to seriously think about what the simplest solutions are to the problems we (as a region) are facing.

Without taking the time to listen to teachers’ and students’ needs during what you could call a “beta” test of hybrid/virtual learning, though, it’s likely we’ll be raising a generation of students with significant education gaps.



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Theodora Sarah Abigail

Ebi’s entire life revolves around words and stories. Over the past five years, she’s written business/science/tech content for major companies, one book, and countless essays and poems.