Education is at the forefront of parents’ minds in Southeast Asia. It is widely acknowledged as a tool for social mobility and economic progress. However, access to and quality of education across the region is highly varied, with gaps in some countries’ infrastructure being significantly larger than others. Several players have since stepped up to plug these gaps in recent years, with occasional success.
A quick Google search introduces many of the rising stars in the industry – Ruangguru and HarukaEdu, both from Indonesia, as well as Singaporean start-up XSeed, and Vietnamese ventures Topica and Yola. These platforms serve different niches in the Education Technology (EdTech) ecosystem, providing users of all ages the opportunity to learn a variety of subjects and skills. Examples of these include English, the Singapore math curriculum and even coding. As a result, these companies have been lauded as reinventors of education, “a great equaliser”, and solutions for bridging the education gaps in Southeast Asia. A few have even received millions from backers including Google, ranging from HarukaEdu’s $2.2m to $50m for Topica, and $150m in Ruangguru’s latest round of financing.
The education industry has always been ripe for disruption, and there is undeniable potential in technological applications to ameliorate education in the 21st century. However, it is worth considering the drawbacks of EdTech, as well as the challenges that still need to be overcome before technology can truly find its place in education systems.
Education serves many purposes – beyond passing on knowledge to the next generation, it also functions to develop social skills and cognitive functions, and more. However, technology is inherently impersonal; competent enough to teach rules and test understanding, but incapable by itself of imparting social skills. Social development theorists, such as Vygotsky, have pointed out that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition, as children learn first by observing the speech and actions of those around them. Aside from cognitive development, personal knowledge, which is knowledge specific to an individual – about their skills and understanding of the world – has to be gained through first-hand experiences. Technology cannot be relied on to provide opportunities for the acquisition of such knowledge in its entirety (for now, at least).
Furthermore, in Southeast Asia, a primary roadblock in the integration of technology in education is the varied levels of Internet access across the region. In 2018, 171 million people in Indonesia were already connected to the Internet, but this only amounted to 64.8% of the total population. In Cambodia, 4G was available to only 12.7% of the country. While Southeast Asia as a whole has made great strides in connecting its population to the Internet, these numbers are a reminder that there is still significant room for improvement. The rural communities, which account for the majority of the as yet unconnected population, are also the ones which have struggled for years with insufficient material and human resources for teaching. Prioritising the provision of Internet accessibility is hence an important first step to enabling technology as a tool for bridging gaps in lagging education systems.
Another potential challenge the EdTech industry may face, in light of the increasing number of entrants to the market, is the consistency and quality of content delivered through technology. With a large number of players offering to teach various subjects, there is a need to differentiate from competitors by offering a ‘better’ product – which may be more comprehensive, or more affordable, or more user-friendly, and so on. However, regulation and possibly even some form of standardisation, voluntary or otherwise, may need to be established at some point in order to ensure that EdTech in its different forms is truly able to aid learning.
Cover illustrated by @Chuttersnap; unsplash.com