Education Bytes

Thailand's edtech pioneers offer digitized classrooms

As the pandemic continues to disrupt traditional scholastic models, so e-learning continues its meteoric rise. Today students of all age and stripe are able to tap into a digitized universe of knowledge and instruction channeled through countless online platforms, and there are edtech ecosystem pioneers right here in Thailand providing digitized classrooms that will be turning us into home-schooled heroes long into the future         

Fern Amita Singh, owner of online language learning platform A Cup of English

At a loose end between jobs and fed up with the rigmarole of attending interviews and then waiting for (usually negative) responses, Amita “Fern” Singh had a eureka! moment. “I was bored one day and was itching for something useful to do. I hated being idle and I was thinking about how I could do better in job interviews. I realised that what I needed was a page that shared potential answers to English interview questions… somewhere I could ask about answers and share my own. I looked online but didn’t find anything I liked, so I started posting my own Q&A on practical English for interviews.”  To her surprise, Fern’s forum quickly gained a following and soon she was putting together a basic online English course.  Today that has become a full-time online venture. Now, in addition to content on Facebook, Instagram and Tik Tok, A Cup of English offers two types of courses: video courses where students learn from pre-recorded videos uploaded to members-only Facebook groups; and live courses in which students study and participate live on Zoom.

“We try to upload practical language content that people from diverse backgrounds and career paths can relate to. We want to be a resource that not only provides personal paid tutoring services but also free English learning opportunities for people drawn from the full demographic spectrum,” Fern discloses.

It is a common perception that Thai students are generally shy about speaking English because of a fear of making mistakes, and indeed across all age groups many avoid actively participating in class for this reason. To keep students engaged, the courses designed by Fern not only encompass grammar lessons and vocabulary tutorials but also discussion sessions, role play exercises, small dialog coaching, and skills ranging from basic listening and repeating to sophisticated conversation based on specific topics. “In order to track their progress I give individual students speaking homework each week, vocab and pronunciation exercises they can do on their own. Later we communicate one-to-one to critique their work. It is an intimate and fun way to learn,” explains Fern.

She also fervently believes that digitized education has a bright future. “We’ve already seen fast changes to teaching and learning methods as educators and students adapted to online instruction because of the pandemic. Issues remain with it but e-learning will only grow. You only have to consider the reach. I recently posted a video of me and my husband translating and explaining the lyrics to Bruno Mars’ hit Leave The Door Open and the video went viral with over a million views. English isn’t just about grammar. It’s also about keeping up with new expressions, idioms and slang and the context in which they are used – good examples of which can be found in song lyrics. You can see by the many comments people leave that they find it an interesting and enjoyable learning experience.”   

An application Fern recommends to her students is Cake. “It’s completely free and basically offers short conversation videos from movies and TV shows with explanations of a bunch of idioms and expressions that can’t be translated. You can also practice speaking and let the app grade you.” That said, the young edutech entrepreneur sounds a cautionary note about putting too much emphasis on exams results generally. “Test scores on core subjects don’t really guarantee your job performance in the future, whereas a true education, the kind that pushes individuals to apply practical knowledge in daily situations and motivates them to make ever smarter choices, that’s the sort of grounding needed for the real world.”

Jantanarak Tuekaew, CEO of edtech accelerator Disrupt and Stormbreaker

“Edtech in Thailand didn’t really exist five years ago and Disrupt and Stormbreaker remains the first and only edtech social venture accelerator in the country,” Jantanarak, or Yui, says with authority. She should know. The organization she runs has invested in 17 edtech start-ups that have provided intensive mentorship, boot-camps, business development instruction and funding to the benefit of more than 100,000 teachers and 500,000 students in Thailand since 2018. 

 As a co-founder of the organization Yui creates its long term vision and annual strategic planning and has experience in driving execution. “We are a hands-on investor that acts as the entrepreneur behind the edtech entrepreneur if you like.” In 2018 they launched the Education Disruption Conference and Hackathon and brought global leaders in education — such as Michael Staton, a Top 100 Education Innovator and partner at Silicon Valley VC firm Learn Capital — and many other leaders in Thailand together to kick off the ecosystem. The conference attracted over 1,200 participants and 15 corporations and institutional partners. The hackathon that followed involved 150+ professionals and the launch of the EdTech social venture. The conference was so successful that it paved the way for a second edition in 2020.

 Yui believes the challenge for driving change in education in Thailand is a triathlon, an infinite exercise. “Covid-19 has initiated dynamic changes in the edtech spending landscape. In addition to a primary role supporting the formal education sector, B2C edtech models are also on the rise as students, parents and workers increasingly seek learning support and up-skilling for supplemental learning to achieve academic and career outcomes,” she says. 

 She also admits that there are pros and cons to online learning. “It certainly increases flexibility because you can study when you want, how you want and wherever you want. It also suits a variety of learning styles because every student has a different learning journey and approach. Some students are visual learners while others prefer to learn through audio tools. Similarly, some students thrive in the classroom environment but others are solo learners who get distracted by large groups. One definite con is that online learning lacks the physical social experience – that out-of-classroom dynamic you can only get through in-person social interaction on campus.”

One of the ventures Disrupt and Stormbreaker has invested in is a company called Vonder. As Yui explains, “It provides personalized micro-learning in which students are presented with bite-sized pieces of content via interaction with chatbots. It’s like chatting with friends and learning through interactive tools such as pop-quizzes. The bots help personalize the student’s learning path and so far over 250,000 have used Vonder, which has been selected by HolonIQ as a top 50 Edtech company in Southeast Asia.” 

Micro-learning models such as Vonder’s is the way forward for Yui, rather than traditional, long hours in the classroom teaching. “Vonder’s statistics have confirmed that student attention spans have become much shorter, so it isn’t surprising that targeted learning through edtech has become one of the fastest growing industries. With millions of students shifting to online learning, the adoption of edtech and the funding behind it will just escalate.” She adds, “Indonesia already has edtech unicorns like Ruanguru and there will be others in the region that will transform several areas of education – from professional reskilling for the future with new ways of teaching coding and data science to digital tools for art and cultural studies. It’s all coming our way.” 

Shin Wangkaewhiran, CEO of edtech start-up Vonder

“The first time I experienced an education system completely different to that of Thailand was on an exchange programme to Japan in 2XXX,” Shin says. “I was shocked to see the instructors using smart technology and applications as a tool for teaching. In Thailand edtech was basically unknown at the time.

When Shin came home he worked at Teach for Thailand, an American non-profit organization. “I had the chance to teach in the classrooms and one thing I noticed straight away was that every student had a smartphone loaded with a bunch of applications, but none of them were for learning. That was the spur to get into edtech, which was only reinforced after a trip to Spain to attend a conference called Teach For All. It just showed how unfamiliar Thailand was with edtech. I had no coding skills but I had design experience so I decided to create a chatbot. We touted the idea about and eventually the government gave us 2 million baht in seed money. That was the beginning of Vonder.”

With the help of further investment from Disrupt and Stormbreaker and a clear business model, the service had 140,000 users within three months. However, Shin realized that the main target, children, wouldn’t have the money to subscribe. It was their parents that company needed to engage. “So we started directed attention to corporate employees via chatbot instead, creating a system in which customers could build chatbots on their own.” 

It worked and led to another successful innovation in micro-learning, Vonder Flash, a platform similar to Instagram where the content is fairly concise and short-lived and interaction can take place in a variety of formats.  “Engagement numbers soon proved its popularity,” Shin smiles. “We also wanted learning to be fun and addictive so we created Vonder Jump, which has a highly interactive, user-friendly interface. It features animated characters in a game quest in which players must get to the top of a castle as quickly as possible.” 

Speaking of educational multiplayer games, the company has also developed Vonder Gold through which teachers can design the game as much as possible. This includes its rules, duration and character backgrounds. The entrepreneur adds, “We developed a free version limited to 50 users per teacher and this became hugely successful. It eventually went viral with 450,000 users.” 

Vonder’s ultimate goal is to go global and Shin is convinced that success will come with a personalised experience. “I’m not from a wealthy family and we couldn’t afford to travel abroad, so I felt I had to do well in my studies because education can change a person’s life. The most important aspect of education is that you invest in it – not only money but also time and hard work. Online learning might not replace traditional education but it can support it and allow individuals to aspire.”.