This article takes a closer look at some examples of EdTech entrepreneurs and startups in Hong Kong and Asia-Pacific which have accelerated their business because of Covid-19, as well as academics who have been studying the digitization of education and its impacts. The appearing entrepreneurs and academics were part of a series of interviews focusing on “Digital Life under Covid-19 and beyond” produced by Heinrich-Boell-Stiftung’s Hong Kong office for the ‘Tech & Covid-19’ project that analyses global digital trends during the pandemic.
One year into the pandemic most parents and teachers let alone students could have ever imagined being homeschooled for such a long time. In some countries, schools were dealing better with the given situation with learning and teaching from home whereas in other countries and schools the subject of the matter was more complex. Not only because of the missing digital infrastructure but also because of the lack of flexibility in school curricula, not enough trained personnel as well as parental supervision. After the summer break, it seemed that schools and education providers regrouped and found better solutions to online teaching methods. However, the sad reality is that this situation is not true for all students around the world as many countries have simply shut down schools without alternatives. Others would like to facilitate homeschooling but clearly don’t have the necessary digital infrastructure or the budgets to establish one. Moreover, many students around the world don’t own any electronic devices and in most cases, their families are not in a position to afford one. The crucial question for many school administrators and education providers until today is - where to start and how to choose the best solution for the school and students' needs?
Be creative and courageous
Kyle Wagner, Founder, and CEO at Transform School Hong Kong believes in world learning experiences in schools. A teacher himself, Wagner helps to empower forward-thinking schools through project-based learning (PBL). According to Wagner, the biggest issue students in Asia face is pressure deriving from different sources such as their parent's expectations as well as peer and performance related pressure. Wagner puts his focus on the school administration and teachers by creating capacity for leadership to empower teachers implementing PBL. By doing so, Wagner’s work enables schools to create flexible scheduling for classes and spaces which helps to redirect the children into the focus of the curriculum. How does PBL work? Instead of working on isolated activities, PBL enables students to work on projects based real-world matters in a classroom type experience that requires deep research and investigation. Students work alongside experts and present their results often by publishing articles or even books and carrying out community projects. Wagner believes that future learning has to be built on solid pedagogy, assisted by technology, but that technology can’t be the sole focus.
What will the classroom of the future look like?
“Realising that school isn’t absolutely critical as an institution was a total gamer changer” for Hillary Yip, 15 years old Founder and CEO at MinorMynas. Having left school in the middle of a year some years ago, Yip’s parents experimented initially with homeschooling and PBL. With the start of the next school year, Yip and her brother both joined a homeschool coop - a hybrid model based on a community of homeschoolers learning online, and frequently attending classes in an education centre. Having experienced a difficult transition from being monitored by teachers at school to absolutely no control while homeschooling, Yip noticed rather quickly how easy it was to lose motivation. Not having social interaction with other kids drove her to create MynorMynas, a platform for children under the age of 18 to teach and learn languages and other subjects, and a safe space for kids with every child's account linked to their parents. According to Yip, future classrooms will be a combination of online and offline schooling. She believes that schools must turn to online solutions to prepare children better for the future including teaching skill sets such as critical thinking, time and project management, as well as collaboration.
Explore all alternatives online
“The pandemic introduced a new world to students, in particular to Hong Kong students. They realised that there are a lot of things they can do much more efficiently if they do them online”. Before Covid-19 students didn’t have any incentives to explore alternatives online, so Timothy Yu, Founder, and CEO at Snapask, an on-demand tutoring app. Established in 2015, Yu created a platform with a very strong matching algorithm based on the type of question, day and time, and other preferences the student is asking to be matched with a tutor. The largest group of users on the platform are high school and uni students working on exam preparations. However, since the outbreak of the pandemic much younger users have joined Snapask as young as primary school students due to the closure of schools and tutoring centres. Snapask took the features of the platform further and designed a real studio in which they produce short and bite-size videos. According to Yu self-studying has become already a norm. He believes that students only need to source for the right piece of content and find the right teacher or mentor to coach them along the way.
Tackling online fatigue
The India based immersive experience company Practically uses AI (artificial intelligence) and visual effects incorporating AR (augmented reality) as well as VR (visual reality) for K-12 stem subjects education. Charu Noheria, Co-Founder and COO has been working towards blending offline and virtual education which Practically offers free to schools. The teachers and students engage in a virtual classroom conducting experiments, taking quizzes, and with the help of an AI teacher assistant occasionally checking on the attention of the students in a class. To help teachers embrace technology and online teaching the experimental platform provides training programmes for teachers. “Teachers are quickly realising that as long as they have tools and technology to bring out efficiencies and operationally help them navigate this, online teaching is not as bad as they thought it’d be''. Besides, teachers enjoy the flexibility to use all content available on the platform as part of their class material. On future trends, Noheria is forecasting that the newly formed habits and many behavioural changes in both teaching and learning will stay and even make their way back into the physical classroom.
Social Impact of Covid-19
Sun Sun Lim, Professor of Communication & Technology at the Singapore University for Technology and Design has been researching the social impact of technology in families and their implications on relationships, as well as digital literacy for the past 17 years. Lim’s research shows that with the arrival of Covid-19 in families' lives, on the one hand, children were able to continue learning online, on the other hand however, not all children were equally adapted to use the provided platforms. Our homes are generally not designed for working and learning which results often in great pressure and even tensions as parents become co-teachers. Also, not every family is equipped with multiple devices to facilitate working and learning for all members, and some parents don’t have the technological skills to guide their child/-ren while homeschooling. Lim further points out that even in highly connected cities around Asia e.g. Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul, or Taipei, digital exclusion is present. Her recommendation as a former Parliamentarian is: “Making digital inclusion as encompassing as possible”. If this problem is left unattended, the digital divide will replicate the socio-economic divide in Asia.
Erwin Huang, another advocate, entrepreneur and leader in the e-learning field for more than 30 years, Associate Professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology has worked with the Hong Kong government to equip low-income families for online learning. Huang is calling upon governments in Asia to close the digital gap, so that education and online learning can serve as equalisers, rather than pronouncing existing social and economic gaps even stronger.