Though we celebrate the diversity of Southeast Asia – thousands of languages, various cultures and more, make the region a beautiful place to explore. However, the harsh reality business means that it is a challenging area to scale businesses and create local relevance.

This has led to English being the primary business language for the region, followed by Mandarin. This presents many issues for talent in the region, as the need for a second language is essential for global and even some regional businesses. While there are numerous courses and language schools in every single country, there is seemingly a lack of learning pedagogy needs to be grounded in the students cultural contexts to facilitate learning.

The issue can potentially be resolved by introducing a second language to children during their formative years. This is where startups are filling in some of the gaps that exist within legacy education systems. Learning languages can be challenging, especially getting kids to be engaged and learn languages. This has led to the rise of “edutainment” or a sub-industry where tech, entertainment and education combine to create an engaging and entertaining way to learn.

We explore the future of edtech for 2021 based on expert opinion

To find out more, we spoke to Nhu Tran Le Thanh, COO and co-founder of Schola as well as Dr Woo Yen Yen, co-founder of Yumcha Studios, about scaling a language-centric edtech startup in Southeast Asia. With the pandemic still raging on, the need for innovative digital solutions in education continues to grow. We spoke to both founders to find out how they use technology to scale their business and actually create an impact with language learning in Southeast Asia.

Could you highlight the role that technology plays in your business?

Schola co-founders Aditya Gupta (CEO) and Nhu Tran Le Thanh (COO)

Nhu Tran (NT): Our belief for the role of technology in businesses is that it plays an essential part in reducing space, time, increasing social interaction, and improving accuracy. 

From the very beginning,  we believed that access to quality teachers and content should not be a function of the geographic location and proximity to resources. Hundreds of qualified teachers on our platform, who are homemakers, caregivers, who would otherwise not have the opportunity to continue teaching, have now taught over 100,000 classes to students from cities, 2nd tier towns and mountain villages in Vietnam, Thailand and more. Even during the pandemic, while families and friends of our teachers were losing jobs, we were able to provide more teachers with the opportunity to help students at the other side of the world. Such is the impact and value of the platform we have created to education and driving employment opportunities.

Besides this, we have used technology to improve the efficacy and accuracy of learning outcomes. Teaching kids online is not easy – it requires a great deal of effort in gamification of the content and every touch point of learning. Our platform is gamified end to end, which ensures that students love coming back for more, because learning is not drab and boring but fun and rewarding. 

Further, using student learning data and results, our system is able to adjust the learning path of the students to ensure personalised and maximised results. Our intelligent report card and notifications are also able to keep parents in the loop whenever a student is falling behind.

Yen Yen (YY): At Yumcha Studios, we combine great stories with leading-edge pedagogy in service of students’ learning and growth. Our flagship project is ‘Dim Sum Warriors’, a bilingual book-and-app series that uses stories about adorable dumplings to teach Chinese and English. We already know that kids have fallen in love with our characters and stories through the Dim Sum Warriors books. 

Dr Woo Yen Yen (CEO of Yum Cha Studios, the company behind Dim Sum Warriors) and daughter

What technology has allowed us to do is implement at scale the curricular strategies that we know from education research are good for learning—in particular, for advancing Global Competence and other 21st Century skills. Our app and digital learning systems make it convenient for teachers and families to adopt our methodology and content in their homes or schools—which has become especially important during pandemic times.

Technology enables us to expand the experiences we create based on learning principles. We know that multimodal learning is much more engaging than a single mode, for example, and we use the Dim Sum Warriors app to seamlessly integrate images, text, sound and games. 

We also know that the ability to see language as a process external from its content—metalinguistic awareness—is of great help in learning additional languages. Our Dim Sum Warriors App facilitates metalinguistic awareness by allowing kids to toggle easily between languages so that they can compare their structures. Further, we know that regular practice without the fear of failure speeds up learning significantly. We thus incorporated reading evaluation tech in the App, where kids can record their own reading and receive immediate feedback on fluency and pronunciation.

As a Professor of Education, I have spent many years researching and teaching about how kids learn best. Technology has allowed us, at Yumcha Studios, to scale leading-edge pedagogy and curriculum by packaging best practices into a solution that is accessible anytime and anywhere.

How do you see bilingualism helping the Southeast Asian talent pool?

NT: Effective English communication is always perceived with higher order of capability, leadership skills and intelligence, especially in Asia. This language skill will help them gain a competitive edge to get opportunities in work and study. However, it is not addressed well in school; students only learn grammar and vocab in schools. Therefore, 90% of students who graduated from school in Vietnam cannot communicate in English, which affects their future career greatly. More than that, after they have spent thousands of dollars in an after-school program, the results are still the same.

Take for example, the shortage of Software Engineers. About 700,000 Software Engineering roles remain unfilled. Vietnam, for example, has a large talent pool of Engineers, however one of the major challenges facing the software engineering industry in Vietnam is poor communication and soft skills.

Schola has recently launched programs specifically designed to upskill the software engineering workforce, with better communication and soft skills, and provide for the rising trends in remote work and the booming software services sector. 

YY: The world is getting much more global. For this reason, in 2018, the Organisation for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) included “global competence” as a metric in its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the global yardstick for education success.

An important element of the test is whether kids are engaged and competent in more than one language. This is a just reality in our world—everyone has to be bilingual or multilingual, not just Southeast Asians alone. I don’t think it’s about language ability per se, but knowing more than one language provides us a window to understand the perspectives of others, to communicate across cultures effectively, to be more empathetic towards those different from ourselves—all experiences that are essential not just for pragmatic goals such as jobs and business in a globalizing world, but also for a more peaceful world.

The area of languages and Global Competence is where I feel Southeast Asia actually has an advantage, thanks to our diversity of languages and cultures, and long history of intermingling and trade. The Dim Sum Warriors solution works to scale this multicultural identity and brand, while also making language learning more enjoyable.

What are the challenges you’re facing scaling your solution in the region?

YY: We care a lot about communicating effectively and respectfully with our audiences in different markets. And the first challenge is of course making sure that we are communicating in ways that connect with local audiences’ needs and concerns. The second challenge is broadband access. We have started in places where broadband access is easily available, and we are working to see how we can reach audiences beyond those areas.

A child playing with the Dim Sum Warriors app

NT: The demand is large, and now there is even a larger acceptance of learning online. For any solution to scale to its potential, it needs a strong infrastructure of distribution (for customer acquisitions) and a strong payments infrastructure. As more companies mature, hopefully there will be cross collaboration between various platforms, instead of reliance on Facebook for distribution, and also with growing willingness amongst users to use online payment solutions will open up broader areas of opportunities.

Why did you focus on your respective languages?

YY: Dim Sum Warriors is a bilingual system. Our target languages are Mandarin and English, simply because these two are the most sought after global languages at this moment in time. 142 countries have included English as a mandatory element of their curriculum. Meanwhile, the global online language learning market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 18.7% between 2020 and 2027, with Chinese learning expected to grow with the fastest CAGR.

This tremendous market potential, combined with my expertise in language learning, and our access to the best content creators in Mandarin and English across Taiwan, China and Singapore, makes the move into bilingual language learning (Mandarin and English) quite natural.

What’s truly unique about the Dim Sum Warriors solution, though, is the focus on using the “home” language to learn the “target” languages throughout the markets that we work in. For example, in Indonesia, we provide for learners to use Indonesian to learn English and/or Mandarin. This is an exciting pedagogical trend in the field of applied linguistics, and as a language learner, I know it works very efficiently. What’s more important, the method preserves the learner’s connection to the home language.

NT: English is the de facto global language of business. However, most Southeast Asian countries lack the local environment and teacher resources to capitalize on their young population demographics. There are clear directives in the past 2-3 years by the governments (for example, in Vietnam & Thailand) to start teaching English from primary school, instead of the secondary school, and we will aid in speeding up this transformation in SEA. Moreover, English as a course can be broadly applied to each of the countries in SEA, without having to localise the content to a great extent, making the solution broadly applicable and scalable.

How do you think ‘edutainment’ will change education in Southeast Asia?

NT: No one likes to sit in a boring class or spend hours going through a textbook. Gamification and shorter content formats are here to stay. This will take out the stress from learning, make it fun, and make it personalised for every student to learn in a way that suits them the best.

Take for example Schola’s lessons – by making the lessons shorter in duration (30 mins) and higher in frequency (2-3 times a week), students come back excited and energised for the next class. It also gives them an opportunity to supplement their learning at home with practice games, smartbooks and projects. As a result of this approach, Schola’s online courses see a completion rate of 70% vs typical online classes seeing completion rates in the single digits.

YY: Teachers and parents are now competing with not just TV and video games for kids’ attention, but also TikTok and whatever comes after it. 98% of children in Southeast Asia use mobile devices, with 41% spending more than 1 hour per sitting. In one study, Southeast Asian kids were even found to spend 20% more time on their mobile devices than their American counterparts.

Add to that the omnipresence of social media (despite platforms’ half-hearted attempts to impose age restrictions) and you have a highly distracted youth population chasing ephemeral goals such as ‘likes’, leading to maladies such as depression and suicide.

The impact on the inner lives of children is a serious issue that edtech has to incorporate into its considerations. We can’t just be repackaging old content in superficially glitzy game shells and delivering them faster. 

The curricular content itself has to change to care more for the well-being of kids, and to be much more culturally relevant to students’ lives. This requires collaboration with content creators, teachers and schools to produce good solutions that kids themselves will seek out. I don’t particularly like the term “edutainment”, but we do need good educational content and solutions that kids actually enjoy and are entertained by, not just the bland “education” content that’s been foisted upon them.  

At Yumcha Studios we want to be the tech that kids engage with because they can more fully enjoy learning, and not serve merely as substitutes for tutors or babysitters.

What’s next for you guys?

YY: These are both difficult and exciting times for Yumcha Studios. We have not been able to run the live theatre and puppet shows we had planned, because of the pandemic. 

But at the same time, we have been able to work with more and more schools to provide a unique language learning experience in their live and virtual classrooms—our Dim Sum Warriors ‘Doodle Dates’ where kids learn both cartooning tips and Chinese vocabulary. They’re really fun, giggly experiences! 

Also, within the first two days of the new Covid-19 restrictions being announced in Singapore, interest in our solution was so tremendous that it crashed our deal page. 

Our content and engineering teams are also working hard on integrating a new “home” language into our app—Bahasa Indonesia, for Indonesian learners of English. That will be available very very soon! 

Last but not least, we have brand new stories and features in our pipeline that we can’t wait to share with our audiences! We are very much looking forward to being in the classrooms and homes of all kids across Southeast Asia and beyond. You dim sum, you win some!

NT: We are currently part of Eduspaze’s 2nd cohort and the learnings from Eduspaze have been invaluable to us. We gained absolute clarity on what is working well for us, what we should double down on and strategize the fund usage we got from the program to achieve bigger goals. 

Eduspaze’s accelerator program also helped us realize our unique position in conducting effective online classes. 

We have spent the past 3 years perfecting the art of delivering fun online lessons. In our next phase, more students from SEA will benefit from our lessons. Our recent program has seen tremendous interest – by “upskilling” working professionals for better jobs – i.e. by plugging the critical communications skills gap, we will be unlocking the massive potential of the vast talent pool in SEA and we are excited for the next phase to play out.