As we move past the 18-month mark of the pandemic, we can take a step back to look at how it has impacted our lives. From a staggering death toll to a complete economic disruption, the effects have been felt all over the region.

One industry that has seen a lot of changes – both good and bad – has been education, especially in how edtech has continued to grow during these times. One of the organisations that has been at the forefront of innovation in the edtech industry in Southeast Asia has been EduSpaze, through their accelerator programme. Based out of Singapore, they recently announced their third cohort. Now a three-month virtual programme, this latest iteration has learned from the previous cohorts to offer a comprehensive virtual course during times of restricted travel.

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We discuss the role of edtech in language learning

In an effort to understand the evolving industry, we spoke to three of the founders from the most recent EduSpaze cohort to find out their experiences running an edtech startup during the pandemic. Co-Founder and CEO of Akadasia, Neelesh Bhatia, has over 30 years of international experience in the field of entrepreneurship education, business innovation, media & technology. He just launched FREEJOO, an educator network to help teachers upskill and improve and already has been used 150,000 educators across 36 countries.

The other two entrepreneurs who shared their stories are Radyum Ikono, co-founder and CEO of Schoters. He brings a background in nano-technology and over 6 years of experience running another startup company that commercialises nanotechnology products in Indonesia. Schoters is his second startup, as he aims to bring high-quality education to Indonesia. And last, but not least is G-Jay Yong co-founder of myFirst, a consumer hardware startup focused on products for children. G-Jay is an experienced technology entrepreneur and has been building technology products since 2010.

How has the edtech industry evolved since the start of the pandemic till now?

Neelesh (N): The COVID-19 crisis has been a major catalyst in enhancing the learning process not just for students but for educators as well. It has forced major changes in education at every level and has accelerated the adoption of digital technology in education. This in turn has changed the way the lessons are being delivered – teachers are beginning to realize that the traditional approach of “chalk and talk” or “powerpoint and talk” may not always be the most effective way of engaging with the Gen-Z learners in the classroom. Unlike the teachers, the learners these days are “digital natives” and this has meant that teachers too have realized that it’s important for them to upskill and transform the ways in which teaching and learning take place.

Freejo - Akadasia
The Freejo platform. Image courtesy of Akadasia

G-Jay (G): The Edtech industry has evolved a lot to cater to the overnight demand boom in online home based learning as kids are forced to stay at home instead of going to school. Lesson plans and curriculum were forced to go digital and transmitted through screens. Teachers had to teach through cameras and students sit in place for hours on end, staring at screens.

This with much increased screen time for basic school instruction, coupled with recreational screen time as parents needed outlets for kids whilst working from home, total screen time shot through the roof. At the same time, outdoor activities and programs and interactions with friends and peers dropped off a cliff.

That’s where myFirst came in to reverse that widening gap. Parents looked to our ecosystem for alternatives to screen based learning and entertainment for their kids stuck at home.

Radyum (R): In our market in Indonesia, the massive evolution is at how customers behavior change dramatically. Before pandemic, most Indonesians have little conviction in online learning (especially live/synchronous one). Since March 2020 (start of pandemic), customers were forced to accept that online learning is the only resource available. To their surprise, a lot of them felt “Oh online not so bad…”. Some confessed that they feel online learning is superior compared to the offline one due to several aspects, e.g. reducing travel time (in Jakarta you may spend 2-3 hours get to learning site due to jam), more flexible time, can be repeated anytime, etc

In your opinion, what will be the long-lasting impact of the pandemic on edtech?

G: Now that so much content has gone digital, that will form an available base for online learning to broaden horizons for certain groups which previously would not have had access to such experiences. e.g. not every school could afford to go to the museum previously but now that the museum has created online access curriculum, anyone in the world can now browse the exhibits online. It’s still not as rich a learning experience as going physically, but it’s still better than not experiencing the exhibits at all.

The other side of that coin is that parents have come to an acceptance that digital teaching can be an effective means of learning when push comes to shove, or if the economics make enough sense e.g. online enrichment class at $10 per hour, vs in person enrichment classes at $100 per hour.

R: Behavioral change needs time. And March 2020 to possibly early 2022 (1.5 year) is a very good timeframe to enforce that new behavior to stick. I am one of the persons who believe that the future online learning ecosystem that we used to predict to happen as early as 2030 is already here today.

We speak to the next generation of edtech leaders in Southeast Asia

N: On the negative side – Prior to the pandemic, we were already experiencing a learning crisis that is likely to be made more severe by prolonged school closures. Learning loss, however, will not impact all students in the same way and students from a lower socioeconomic status unfortunately are likely to face the brunt of this loss. Despite high hopes that edtech would be the answer to learning continuity during the crisis, there is not yet any evidence that tech can replace teachers or reduce inequality.   This is because Edtech relies on technologies that many families around the world do not have access to. In low- and lower-middle-income countries, only 1 in 5 households have access to the internet and 1 in 2 have access to radio or television. Even in the US, stark digital divides along lines of income, race, and geography characterized distance learning experiences, particularly for low-income and rural families.

On the positive side – Online education will eventually become an integral component of school education – if not for regular classes, then at least for the remedial and tutorial classes. Also, lifelong learning will be the norm and teachers who are trained and certified will find many different avenues to learn, teach and earn.

Schoters - Team eduspaze
The Schoters team. Image courtesy of Schoters

What are you looking to gain from the EduSpaze programme?

N: Our mission at Akadasia is to Empower Educators Everywhere. As such, being a part of the EduSpaze programme will allow us to see how our pedagogical approach to building FREEJOO, The global community of educators, can be streamlined so that we are able to localize the value that we offer to teachers, especially in countries like Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, etc.

R: We’re looking for:

  • Exposure to SEA region market expansion
  • network to investor
  • mentorship to strengthen our company in terms of business model, product, impact assessment, etc

G: We’re at the forefront of this digital evolution as parents look to us to build their kids TechIQ. Our greatest gain would be aligning our ecosystem to the pedagogical elements of educational technology which would quantifiably verify what we already know: that our products are the digital catalyst to a child’s natural cognitive processes, so learning naturally occurs through having fun.

What’s next for the company?

N:Teaching is arguably the most important profession in the world, and we at Akadasia, are committed to empowering educators everywhere and in every way – from learning to earning. In a year, we have empowered more than 100,000 teachers from over 35 countries. And this is just the beginning. We are now looking to expand our product value and provide more localized support to teachers all over Asia.

G: We’re building up our social community platform where kids, families, teachers and friends can stay connected, share experiences and get everything a kid could need.

Also, we’re incorporating real time feedback so parents can track how their children are feeling, how much they communicate with their peers and other measurables of overall wellbeing.

We’re also looking to further our regional expansion to cover the whole of Southeast Asia.

myFirst eduspaze
myFirst product line. Image courtesy of myFirst

R: We aim to be the largest in Indonesia and SEA region to offer live tutoring. Since our inception in 2019, we have been focusing to offer live tutoring courses to help Indonesians to study abroad for bachelor’s and master’s degree: SAT, TOEFL, CV/essay review, mock interview, GRE, etc. From 2021 onwards we will start to offer varied courses that cover 5+ foreign languages and upskilling/portfolio building specifically to K12.